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Against the North Wall

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Dominique Nabokov
Don DeLillo, New York City, 1990s

Don DeLillo is the poet of entropy. The world he sets up in his fictions is a tightly wound machine gradually running down, and in it all action is a kind of lapsing drift. Even in immense works such as Libra (1988) or Underworld (1997) or Mao II (1991), with plots as intricate and murky as the New York sewer system, stories do not so much unfold as become blurred; everything grows vague, attenuated, detached. He is an unmistakably American artist—not for nothing was his first novel called Americana (1971)—yet he seems to have taken his predominant tone straight from the nouveau roman. The great strong commanding voice of the nineteenth-century American novel, the same voice in which, for instance, Philip Roth still speaks, has in DeLillo become a wearied murmur telling us things we mostly would rather not hear. It is as if in the last third of the twentieth century and the first, amazing decade of this one, public life has been so violently loud that anyone hoping to be heard must speak in an undertone that will call attention to itself by being fascinatingly unlike all the rest of the surrounding clamor.

The danger of this strategy of calculated withholding is that it will seem like nothing more than a studied numbness. Oftentimes DeLillo’s characters take on the aspect of an unfunny Buster Keaton, staring out at us from the page in white-faced shock. What is intended to convey existential bafflement and dismay can strike us as merely mannered. In particular, his dialogue is becoming increasingly stylized, frequently reading like the subtitles from one of Antonioni’s more jadedly peudo-sophisticated movies of the early 1960s. Here, taken almost at random from DeLillo’s September 11 novel Falling Man (2007), is a passage of talk between Lianne, whose estranged husband has made an unlikely escape from the collapsing Twin Towers, and her mother, Nina Bartos, a former academic, “the So-and-So Professor of Such-and-Such,” as her son-in-law describes her:

Lianne stood by the window.

But when the towers fell.”

I know.”

When this happened.”

I know.”

I thought he was dead.”

So did I,” Nina said. “So many watching.”

Thinking he’s dead, she’s dead.”

I know.”

Watching those buildings fall.”

First one, then the other. I know,” her mother said.

One understands, of course, that the novelist here is seeking to establish a mode of speech to communicate something of the dazed horror and helplessness we all felt, more or less, on that terrible day. Yet it does not convince. Worse, looked at from a certain angle, listened to at a certain pitch, a passage such as this can seem risible. Here is another exchange, from DeLillo’s new novel, Point Omega. Two strangers, man and woman, stand together watching, or absorbing, an installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a showing of Hitchcock’s Psycho slowed down so drastically that it will take twenty-four hours to run. The woman speaks first:

Do I want to know who’s stabbing him?”

Again he had to think a moment before he decided on an answer. He decided on the answer no.

He said this, “No,” shaking his head to indicate finality, if only to himself.

He waited for some time, watching hand and knife in midframe, isolated, and again it came, the voice nowhere near a whisper.

I want to die after a long traditional illness. What about you?”

This is less like Buster Keaton, whose comedy at its best is touched ever so lightly with the tragic, than the Manhattan cool of a Woody Allen routine. Nor is the bathos lessened by the fact that by the time we get to this encounter at MoMA we know already that the woman involved will shortly afterward disappear, probably, like Marion Crane, the Janet Leigh character in Psycho, the victim of a psychopathic murderer. The movie’s Norman Bates is described in the novel, wonderfully, as “scary bland,” which could as well be applied to the overall tone of DeLillo’s work.

Yet there is another Don DeLillo, as different from the neo–nouveau romancier as a frankfurter is from a boudin blanc. For a start, this other DeLillo can be wonderfully funny, in a slyly droll, poker-faced fashion. A large part of the effectiveness of his humor is its ambiguity—we are never quite sure what to take at its seeming face value—so that for all we know that line about dying of a traditional illness may be intended as the punchline of a wan joke. Many readers will have been well into White Noise (1985) before it dawned on them that it is, among other things, a richly modulated comedy, in which a teacher of Russian literature does not speak Russian and what is mysteriously designated an airborne toxic event brings about such spectacular sunsets that entire neighborhoods go out at evening to view them. Thanks to the elusiveness and opacity of his style, DeLillo’s jokes are never presented as jokes, exactly. This makes for a pleasing impression of diffidence, a mark of the true comedian, who gets us to laugh hardest by seeming not quite sure that his material is in fact funny.

For all the sophisticated languor of his literary tone, DeLillo is a connoisseur of Americana every bit as vigorous as Philip Roth or John Updike or Richard Ford. In Cosmopolis (2003), the first novel he published after the fall of the Twin Towers but that is set a year and a half before the attack—the book is a sort of cross between William Gaddis’s JR and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho—his protagonist, the youthful billionaire Eric Packer, makes a balefully hilarious odyssey across New York in search of a haircut. At last he finds the old man, Anthony, who was his barber when he was a boy, and his father’s barber before that, and who gives him at least half the long-sought-for haircut, as well as something to eat. The scene is as neatly executed and almost as affecting as Humbert Humbert’s famous encounter with the Kasbeam barber. Anthony has a splendid line in dialogue:

Anthony stood in the doorway, a small white carton in each hand.

So you married that woman.”

That’s right.”

That her family’s got like money unbeknownst. I never thought you’d get married so young. But what do I know? I have chickpeas mashed up and I have eggplant stuffed with rice and nuts.”

There is precious little of this kind of salty vernacular in Point Omega1; here the characters, whiling away long days in the desert, tend to engage in this kind of dour whimsy:

Heat.”

That’s right,” Jessie said.

Say the word.”

Heat.”

Feel it beating in.”

Heat,” she said.

In such passages DeLillo sounds as pretentiously vacuous as his friend Paul Auster so often is—Cosmopolis, his most Austerish book, is dedicated to Auster.

Point Omega is, like The Body Artist (2001) and Cosmopolis, its two predecessors before Falling Man, a slim affair—at a hundred and something pages of large, well-spaced type it is hardly more than a long short story. If Libra and Underworld are DeLillo’s Jackson Pollocks, then these books are his Giacomettis. Or perhaps it would be simpler to say that the thick ones are his novels, the thin ones are his poetry. For indeed the reader would do well to read Point Omega at poetry’s pace, in order best to savor its mesmerically incantatory effects:

Back by the north wall the darkness was nearly complete and the man standing alone moved a hand toward his face, repeating, ever so slowly, the action of a figure on the screen.

The book opens with a bravura set piece. DeLillo the novelist has a penchant for works of conceptual and/or installation art. In Cosmopolis it was a crowd of naked bodies lying in the street; in The Body Artist it was the eponymous body artist; in Falling Man it was, well, Falling Man, a performance artist who, dressed in a business suit, would suspend himself from high places about New York in a pose mimicking the “falling man” in the famous September 11 photograph. Point Omega begins and ends in the room at MoMA where, an endnote informs us, 24 Hour Psycho, a video work by Douglas Gordon, was installed in the summer of 2006. As so often with DeLillo, the time and place are specified—“2006: LATE SUMMER / EARLY FALL”—as if to mock our old-fashioned readerly expectations of a clear narrative and directly assimilable action.

The opening sequence, “Anonymity,” is even more specific in its dating: “September 3.” A man is watching Psycho unfold at two frames per second rather than the normal twenty-four, the latter being, the man has read somewhere, “the speed at which we perceive reality, at which the brain processes images.” He has been coming here every day since the show began, spending hours in the room, mostly alone but for the security guard, watching “scary bland” Norman Bates going through the slow motions of his mania, and Marion Crane dying a hideously protracted death in that famous shower scene. This, the man is convinced, is the only way to see the movie—in fact this is the movie, the true and authentic Psycho, stripped of sound and slowed to the beat of a heart in hibernation. “This film had the same relationship to the original movie that the original movie had to lived experience.” He has the transcendent dedication of a monk at his devotions:

It takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at. He was mesmerized by this, the depths that were possible in the slowing of motion, the things to see, the depths of things so easy to miss in the shallow habit of seeing.

This, we understand, is a man stepping perilously close to the edge of psychosis, and one who, if we are to follow the broad hints dropped at the close of the book, will presently topple over into that abyss. Yet DeLillo largely avoids the temptation toward Grand Guignol and exercises an un-Hitchcockian delicacy of touch in fixing his poor, sad, murderous character: “He had a good vocabulary except when he was talking to someone.”2

On that September 3 the installation is visited briefly by two other spectators: one older, his white hair tied in a braid, “professor emeritus perhaps, film scholar perhaps,” the man surmises; the other younger, in jeans and running shoes, “the assistant professor, lean, a little nervous.” In fact the anonymous spectator is wrong, but almost right, about the men’s professions, as we soon learn when the narrative proper opens. The older one is Richard Elster, another so-and-so professor of such-and-such, a big-time intellectual who was persuaded by the military to act as an adviser on the preparations for the Iraq war and spent two years amid the “bulk and swagger” of the third floor of the E ring of the Pentagon, “living with the tight minds that made the war.”

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Everett Collection
Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960

He was the outsider, a scholar with an approval rating but no experience in government. He sat at a table in a secure conference room with strategic planners and military analysts. He was there to conceptualize, his word, in quotes, to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counterinsurgency.

The younger man is Jim Finley, a cineaste and filmmaker, sole executive and technician of Deadbeat Films, who is trying to persuade Elster to take part in a documentary that will feature him standing alone against a blank wall3 talking ad lib about his experiences in the war room. The film will be shot in one ninety-minute take—Sokurov’s Russian Ark is mentioned by way of example—using available light, and will not be edited in any way. It is not clear how or why Finley fixed on this particular project, or what he expects its effect to be. He has done only one movie so far, a fifty-seven-minute compendium of Jerry Lewis charity telethons from the 1950s with everything edited out save the comedian himself, “a disease artist, begging us to send money to cure his afflicted children.” This is a wonderful conceit—someone should make the movie; perhaps someone has—and ties in deftly to the book’s preoccupation with the ways in which we experience time, and how that experiencing drives and shapes us.

Elster is understandably wary of Finley’s proposition, and at first refuses even to consider it. However, a week after a chance encounter between the two at MoMA—the encounter observed by the anonymous spectator at the Psycho installation—Elster, now off at his house in the Anza-Borrego desert in California, writes to summon Finley to join him. In the desert the days pass, the two men sit in the sun, Elster delivers himself of various portentous observations—“The man thinks on a cosmic scale”—and poor deadbeat Finley thrashes in frustration as he waits for the old boy to give him a definite yes or no on the film project. It is a familiar scenario in the contemporary American late- existentialist mode: two men alone together in the wilderness debating mankind’s entropic fate. We just know a woman will turn up, and sure enough, one does.

Not that there is much debate between the two men, for Elster’s is the predominant, indeed, the domineering voice; as Finley observes, “He’s been talking to students all his life…. He doesn’t expect anybody to say anything.” At the very outset we find Elster stating what is a recurring trope throughout DeLillo’s work. “The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever,” the old man is reported as saying, and he goes on to echo the view of the anonymous spectator of the opening section:

The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self-aware, the submicroscopic moments.

Elster is that by now clichéd figure to be met with so often in more muscular novelists such as Mailer and Bellow: the intellectual man of action—if a movie were to be made of the book, which would be a neat piece of irony, Elster would surely be played by Brian Cox, that master portrayer of tough men in torment.

Elster’s philosophical musings are meant to sound thrillingly apocalyptic, and there are many who will be thrilled:

We’re a crowd, a swarm. We think in groups, travel in armies. Armies carry the gene for self-destruction. One bomb is never enough. The blur of technology, this is where the oracles plot their wars. Because now comes the introversion. 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.

I never know what to say when he talks like that,” Elster’s daughter confesses after one such flight of rhetoric, of which there are many in this short book, and one finds oneself having to stifle a titter.

The daughter is Jessie, who is sent out to join her father by Elster’s former wife. In New York Jessie has been seeing an unsuitable man and it was thought prudent to get her out of town for a spell. She is another of DeLillo’s stock characters, an affectless creature with the air of a survivor from a recent urban catastrophe—“She was pale and thin, mid-twenties, awkward, with a soft face, not fleshy but roundish and calm, and she seemed attentive to some interior presence”—and her arrival hardly disturbs the dust that has settled around the two men’s listless sojourn.

From another perspective, however, she is Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane arriving at the Bates Motel. There are direct echoes of Hitchcock’s nasty little masterpiece—“I threw back the shower curtain, making more noise than I’d intended”—and moments when it seems that Finley is unconsciously playing along to a prewritten script. He begins to take notice of Jessie. He observes her in the bathroom, leaning over the washbasin in T-shirt and briefs, and thinks about sex; he even enters her room one night when she is in bed, though she turns her back on him and pulls the sheet to her chin. One wonders what is going on here, not at the narrative level but deep within the nerves of the book. Why are these pointed connections being made between the movie and the “real” life of these three people isolated in the desert? And what are we to make of Elster’s constant ringing of the changes on the subject of time?

Time falling away. That’s what I feel here,” he said. “Time becoming slowly older. Enormously old. Not day by day. This is deep time, epochal time. Our lives receding into the long past. That’s what’s out there. The Pleistocene desert, the rule of extinction.”

Just as the sequences in the desert, which make up the bulk of the book, are shown to be mysteriously contingent on the opening and closing scenes in that room in MoMA, so the novel itself seems a minor adjunct to another and far more weighty, unwritten narrative, involving Jessie and the anonymous man who spends his hours watching Psycho in slow motion. One day Jessie disappears—vanishes, it seems, into thin desert air. Searches are mounted and eventually a knife turns up, although the “blade seemed free of blood,” according to the ranger who found it. Finley begins to think about Jessie’s unsuitable man in New York. Who was he, who is he? Jessie’s mother met him only once and remembers nothing of him but his name—Dennis. Has this Dennis followed her all the way to California and done to her what Norman Bates did to Janet Leigh’s runaway secretary?

We know, this being a Don DeLillo novel, that the loose ends of the story are likely to remain unraveled, and so most of them do. Yet in the closing pages some significant clues are strewn before us. We are back at MoMA, time has moved on a day to September 4, and the man watching Psycho has been joined by a woman, unnamed, but who we are invited to assume is Elster’s daughter—who else would say things like “Some movies are too visual for their own good”?—and whom the man follows into the street and whose phone number he elicits. Is he her nemesis, her Norman Bates? Certainly the book closes with a dark transfiguration, very like the one in Psycho when Norman at the end turns into his mother:

The man separates himself from the wall and waits to be assimilated, pore by pore, to dissolve into the figure of Norman Bates, who will come into the house and walk up the stairs in subliminal time, two frames per second, and then turn toward the door of Mother’s room.

Perhaps, after all, Point Omega is not quite the enigma that for most of its stretch it seemed bent on being; perhaps it is a far more familiar thing than its fey philosophizing and nouveau romanesque dandyisms would have us believe. The weighty teleological speculations that Elster indulges in, Finley comes to see, are as light as the dust of the desert, Californian or Iraqi, in comparison with the life, and the loss, of one frail, damaged human creature. All at once Elster’s themes of time and war and man’s fate

seemed so much dead echo now. Point omega. A million years away. 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 local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not.

  1. 1

    DeLillo has a nice touch for flat yet oddly resonant titles—End Zone, The Names, The Body Artist—but surely Point Omega is the quintessence, the DeLillo title par excellence.

  2. 2

    Although a few pages later DeLillo lets the tone lapse badly when he writes: “He remembered in high school when being shorter than the girl he was talking to made him want to fall on the floor and get kicked by passersby.”

  3. 3

    DeLillo might well have called his book The Wall, so frequently do these blanknesses figure in it—the opening line is “There was a man standing against the north wall, barely visible.”

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