An aging scholar living in the desert is visited by a New York filmmaker who wants to chronicle his life.
In the same way people miss cars with tailfins, there's a Don DeLillo many readers wish still existed. It's the one who wrote pop-culture-soaked novels like "Great Jones Street" and "White Noise," historical reconsiderations like "Libra," or culture-encompassing bricks like "Underworld." What they don't pine for are the novels he's written in the past decade: interior books like "The Body Artist" or the discomfiting 9/11 novel "Falling Man."
These readers will likely be frustrated by his new novel, "Point Omega," a novella that's among his most abstracted works. Yet those who have given up on late-period DeLillo should give it a shot. The haunting quality he's recently strained for is comfortably in his grasp, and while his characters are as chilly as ever, the prose itself has a newly poetic grace.
The plot is bare-bones. Richard Elster is an aging scholar who's spent two years consulting with the U.S. military about Middle East counterinsurgency strategy. Now living in the California desert, he's visited by Jim Finley, a New York filmmaker eager to chronicle Elster's experience. (One imagines something like Errol Morris' film on Robert McNamara, "The Fog of War.") Elster doesn't rebuff Finley, but he prefers to go slow. Speaking of desert life, he says, "I never know if a minute has passed or an hour. I don't get old here."
Time is an obsession for Elster and DeLillo alike. The novel is bookended by scenes set in a museum showing "24 Hour Psycho," a work of video art that slows Hitchcock's classic to near-motionlessness. Similarly, Elster wants to slow time, if not stop it, keeping Finley around well past his intended stay and ruminating on the divide between desert time and city time. To be in the desert is to do battle against what the Jesuit philos-opher Father Teilhard de Chardin called the "omega point," a sort of apocalypse of information overload we're rapidly approaching.
The sole complication involves Elster's daughter Jessica, who arrives in the desert and soon after mysteriously disappears. That event recalibrates the men's considerations of Iraq and the omega point, returning them to questions of human connection and what pace we can live with. "All [Elster's] grand themes funneled down to a local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not," DeLillo writes.
Like much of DeLillo's work, "Point Omega" is concerned with how much we're doing to do ourselves in. But unlike the jagged existentialism of "Falling Man," there's an elegance to De-Lillo's considerations here, an artfulness to the prose that softens the mood of despair without sugar-coating it. Nobody would call this bleached-out landscape a happy place to visit. But this slim, strong novel evokes the kind of patient, haiku-like quietude we ache for in the post-9/11 world.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction. wordpress.com.