I’ve been ‘doing’ a few American writers of late. Loved my first encounter with Michael Chabon, in A Model World – he’s a master of beginnings and endings in those short gems – and will follow-up someday with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Wonder Boys (as I love the film). But I’m not here to talk about him today.
Don DeLillo is one of those writers you’ve ‘heard of’, and I’ve always liked the sound of his books, though I hadn’t read any until this latest, slim little intellectual ride Point Omega. The opening was my favourite part – an anonymous man in a dark screening room at an art gallery, watching Psycho slowed-down and stretched over 24 hours. He watches the screen intensely, the same movements over and over, the curtain rings pulling. He watches the people moving through the room, pausing at the door, he watches how long they stay. He watches. ‘Nobody was watching him.’
The narrative part, through the centre of the book, is about a filmmaker who wants to film an interview with Richard Elster – ‘about his time in government, in the blat and stammer of Iraq.’ Elster doesn’t really want to make the film, but the filmmaker gets involved in his life anyhow – staying with him in the desert, fascinated by his surroundings: ‘The desert was outside my range, it was an alien being, it was science fiction, both saturating and remote, and I had to force myself to believe I was here.’
Elster’s daughter also comes to stay, and there is an odd little dynamic between the three – one of watching, again, and perception. Perception on events, on moments, on motivations, all tying in with Elster’s past. Elster says to the filmmaker: ‘Human perception is a saga of created reality’. The filmmaker is trying to convince him that the film will purely be Elster standing against a wall, talking. But Elster knows that each viewer will perceive it differently.
Besides perception, there are ruminations – by the narrator and by Elster – on power, emptiness, right and wrong, invasion, isolation, time and transience, fear, violence, secrecy, marriage, transformation, and grief packed into this slim book. I didn’t like the characters so much, but I loved the ideas that challenged, and of course (as why do we read?) the ones that confirmed. For example:
‘It’s all embedded, the hours and minutes, words and numbers everywhere, he said, train stations, bus routes, taxi meters, surveillance cameras. It’s all about time, dimwit time, inferior time, people checking watches and other devices, other reminders. This is time draining out of our lives. Cities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature. There’s an endless counting down, he said. When you strip away all the surfaces, when you see into it, what’s left is terror. This is the thing that literature was meant to cure.’
And there’s a wonderful section on observation in a marriage – ‘…the whole long spectacle… one head turning, the other head oblivious.’ Though the end – the end I perceived as too constructed, for the philosophical meandering expansiveness of the rest of the book. It certainly didn’t live up to the beginning.
But then the filmmaker fails at capturing a true representation. The novelist, too, offers little bits and pieces, details about people – not their whole lives, never their whole lives. And it can never be a true representation – maybe the ending would be perceived differently, for someone else. I’d rather go back and slowly drag out those sections, those challenging bits, than have come to that ending, where there is a closing off; where time is measured.