Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Man of fewer words

Worthy fiction challenges the reader's heart as well as the mind. In novels like Libra and Underworld, Don DeLillo always pushed the former harder than the latter, but never to the extremes of his latest work.

His characters crave anonymity and isolation, the arc of their lives decelerating like the artwork that inspired DeLillo, 24 Hour Psycho, Douglas Gordon's installation that stretched the Hitchcock movie over a day by projecting it almost frame by frame. The writer saw it at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006.

He bookends the novel with descriptions of the experience of seeing this pop culture favorite stripped of the dramatic tension that the director so fastidiously created. The effect is "film stills on the border of benumbed life."

We are familiar with Psycho, but are we required to know the philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French priest and scientist who died in 1955? (OK, he apparently inspired a character in The Exorcist.) It's Teilhard's concept of the "omega point" that's the intellectual spark of DeLillo's meditation on our "benumbed life."

The term is Teilhard's theory that humanity is evolving toward a unified society linked through technology, among other things.

Point Omega would be a worn-out house in the desert "somewhere south of nowhere" inhabited by Richard Elster, a 73-year-old scholar in self-exile after an undefined period "advising" the Pentagon on the Iraq occupation. His job was to "conceptualize" this most tenuous excuse for a war.

Jim Finley, an unsuccessful filmmaker in his mid-30s, is Elster's guest. He tries to convince his host to make a documentary about his Pentagon role that sounds a lot like the Robert McNamara film, The Fog of War by Errol Morris. (It's no coincidence that McNamara knew Teilhard's work.)

Then Elster's daughter, Jessie, a bland woman in her 20s, joins them to hide out from a "dangerous" man she met in New York City. The trio talks, mostly, and the men put away Scotch as days drag on until Jessie vanishes, ending the desert idyll.

There's a fourth character, an anonymous man who's an obsessive watcher of 24 Hour Psycho. There are vague clues, some sinister, tying him to the other three, but this novel is built largely of vague clues.

As DeLillo continues to distill his fiction into smaller and smaller pieces - this book is only 117 pages long - his writing seems to be devolving into a kind of shorthand, mostly dialogue and characters reduced to ideas.

"The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever," DeLillo says. An attenuated novel, Point Omega would seem to bear this claim out, leaving us to wonder: How will the "true life" be told, if novelists lose faith in their words?

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bob Hoover is a writer at the Post-Gazette.

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