By David Ignatius
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; C06
By Don DeLillo
Scribner. 117 pp. $24
The "omega point" that gives this book its title is drawn from the philosophy of the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He used the term to describe a supreme level of consciousness and complexity, a spiritual singularity, free from the limits of space and time. But for Don DeLillo, the omega point seems to be something closer to a dead end. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, he explained Teilhard's vision of human consciousness "reaching a point of exhaustion." What comes next, DeLillo said, might be a "paroxysm or something enormously sublime," but in this small novel it seems closer to stony silence.
His three characters all reach omega points where time collapses and "the mind transcends all direction inward." The narrator of the tale is Jim Finley, a filmmaker. He is pursuing Richard Elster, a "defense intellectual" involved in the Iraq war, in the hope of getting him on film, presumably in the mea-culpa manner of Robert McNamara in "Fog of War."
Elster, the central figure of the book, is maddeningly ill defined, given to spouting things that no war strategist I've ever met would say (or probably think), such as: "I wanted a haiku war. I wanted a war in three lines. . . . Things in war are transient. See what's there and then be prepared to watch it disappear."
Elster has left the Pentagon for a house in the California desert, an exile that the book gratuitously likens to former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz's postwar sojourn at the World Bank. It's a cheap way of sketching character by reference to a real person. DeLillo told the Journal he "wanted to suggest things rather than explore them fully," and I think that's a weakness of this book.
What an achievement it would be for a writer of DeLillo's talent to truly take the measure of a Wolfowitz or Donald Rumsfeld; we have enough cartoon representations of these men already and could use the novelist's fine eye and ear. But DeLillo's brief account of the warmaker Elster is a writer's sketchbook fantasy. "Bulk and swagger," Elster says of his time on "the third floor of the E ring at the Pentagon." Stuff and nonsense.
What's intriguing about Elster is the way he resists Finley's (and the reader's) desire for explanation. "It's what no one knows about you that allows you to know yourself," he says. Over the arc of this brief narrative, he disappears from our view. Elster yearns for nonbeing, as he explains: "Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field."
The third character in the novel, Elster's daughter, Jessica, disappears quite literally. She exists in the book as a haunted and utterly passive figure: the object of Finley's sexual fantasies, her father's cold disdain, her mother's lack of interest, a mysterious phone stalker's pursuit. Her fate is never fully explained -- "passing into air, it seemed this is what she was meant to do" -- but it appears that she has been killed with a knife in a desert wilderness called, in freighted DeLillo language, the "Impact Area."
"She was imaginary to herself," he writes. One senses that poor Jessie can't wait to get off the page and into that single dimension of nonbeing. Finley and Elster try to find her, sort of, but they understand that "people come to the desert to commit suicide." DeLillo's most precise formulation of his theme comes in Finley's description of Elster's sense of loss for his extinguished daughter: "The omega point has narrowed, here and now, to the point of a knife as it enters a body. All the man's grand themes funneled down to a local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not."
This bleak story is bracketed by two meditations on time, both set at the Museum of Modern Art's 2006 performance art video "24 Hour Psycho," which was a continuous, ultra-slow showing of the famous Hitchcock movie. In these scenes, we savor DeLillo's gifts as a writer, his ability to set and sustain a disorienting but rich interior monologue.
DeLillo's art has been condensed in this book into its own dense singularity. The sprawling canvas of "White Noise" and "Underworld" is abandoned here for a small, oblique fable. The critic D.T. Max, in an essay in the New Yorker, quoted a letter from DeLillo to fellow novelist David Foster Wallace written in 1997: "I realized that precision can be a kind of poetry, and the more precise . . . then the better my chances of creating a deeper and more beautiful language."
DeLillo has achieved a precision and economy of language here that any writer would envy. But the larger ambition of storytelling -- of bringing people and events to life for the reader through the power of the author's language and imagination -- is not even attempted. Indeed, it is disdained. "The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever," says DeLillo in the opening sentence of Chapter 1. If that were true, why would a serious person read a novel, or write one?
Ignatius is a columnist for The Post and the author of seven novels, including "Body of Lies" and, most recently, "The Increment."