At seventy-three, Don DeLillo hasn’t settled into comfortable old age. His fiction, never easy though sometimes hilarious, continues to work the zeitgeist, and often looks well beyond it. The awards have been there: the American Book Award for White Noise (1985), the PEN/Faulkner for Mao II (1991), and the Jerusalem Prize for Underworld (1997). The critical acclaim began almost from the beginning, and the academic commentary proliferates as we speak. None of this seems to faze the author, who maintains a level of privacy that runs counter to our tell-all culture.
DeLillo’s new book, Point Omega, is a short but challenging novel about war, film, time, space, and transcendence. Heady stuff, in other words. And not real easy to discuss, especially when the author is notoriously reluctant to explicate his own work (maybe more writers should follow his lead?) Despite his natural reticence, DeLillo agreed to answer my questions about his new novel, his fifteenth in a career that remains vibrant and engaged. [Ed. Note: Click here to read Greil Marcus’s review of Point Omega.]
If you want to learn what there is to know about his background, his writing habits, and his opinions about other writers, you can read previous profiles and interviews in Conversations with Don DeLillo (2005). Our exchange took place by fax and phone.- Thomas DePietro
The Barnes & Noble Review: The frame narrative of Point Omega describes two days at an actual video installation in the Museum of Modern Art, a showing of Douglas Gordon’s, 24 Hour Psycho. Was this the immediate inspiration for the novel? Can you describe the video?
Don DeLillo: In the summer of 2006 I walked into a gallery on the sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The room was as described in the novel, dark and chill, with a free-standing screen, no chairs or benches, and a film in progress — extremely slow-going progress. This was a video work by Douglas Gordon titled 24 Hour Psycho, the famous Hitchcock movie being run at two frames per second instead of the customary twenty-four. No soundtrack, very few visitors to the gallery, most of them remaining only minutes. The video seemed to me a kind of meditation on such subjects as time and motion, what we see, how we see, what we miss seeing under normal circumstances. I returned the next day and then again a few days later, staying a little longer each time and beginning to realize by the third or fourth visit that a piece of fiction might spring from this experience.
In the museum there were other rooms beyond the 24 Hour Psycho installation, showing other videoworks. In the novel there is only Psycho.
BNR: What was your own experience of the installation? Is it mainly about altering the viewer’s sense of time and space?
Don DeLillo: I don’t write essaylike fiction. My work tends to have a strong visual quality — the idea is to make the reader see, and it may be the case that my interest in film has helped fashion this tendency. In the case of the videowork what I experienced was not only film, it was also time; it was also mind. With motion slowed so radically, one experiences another way to see, another way to think. Things seem intensely what they are, broken down into atoms, into motes of light, as if seen for the first time. In the novel the anonymous man standing in the gallery understands that the less there is to look at, the deeper he would look.
BNR: How does the video’s shift in time and space alter the meaning of the original film?
DD: In the original Psycho, there is a recurrent theme of taxidermy: the stuffed birds that Norman Bates keeps in his room at the motel; Norman’s mother’s body, stuffed with sawdust. But the 24-hour version unstuffs the original — content and suspense are drained away. Hitchcock was a careful architect of audience response. In Psycho he wanted to achieve “mass emotion,” he has said. The videowork is situated in the individual eye and mind. No music, no dialogue, no screams — just shapes and patterns.
BNR: Are we meant to reconsider everything said by the narrator of the frame once we realize at the end that he himself may be quite strange?
DD: The anonymous man who appears in the gallery in the prologue and epilogue of the novel is simply who he is — strange at first and then a little stranger. But there is no need for the reader to reconsider anything that passes across his mind as he watches the video.
BNR: You’ve talked in the past about the stark reality of “a man in a room;” here it’s a man at the wall — both the anonymous man and in the scenario for Jim Finley’s unmade film about Richard Elster in the main narrative. Finley wants Elster to discuss his involvement in the planning for the war in Iraq against a plain wall — no edits, no questions. What is it about this image that engages you?
DD: In my work a man alone in a room may simply be a way to present a highly concentrated sense of character, an individual, in his essential isolation. In Libra the man comes out of his room armed with a weapon. Does the man in Point Omega emerge from the dark screening room simply to enter the room where he lives, or will he begin a relationship with the young woman he meets in the gallery, and toward what end?
BNR: And Elster?
DD: The anonymous man man spends most of his time in the gallery standing against the wall, watching intently. The man in the central narrative, Richard Elster, is asked to be the subject of a film — a man against a wall. The idea I had in mind was to allow the novel and video to share certain elements. The two forms tend to spill into each other at times. A man at a wall: a reference to stairways; a knife, a sheriff, a shower curtain.
BNR: To interest Elster in his film idea, Finley follows him to his home in the Southwestern desert, a landscape that’s interested you before. Is it the alteration of time and space in the vast emptiness that attracts you?
DD: It was only after I finished work on the prologue that I began to think seriously about what would follow. It occurred to me that two men — unnamed — who’d spent a few moments in the screening room would in fact be the main characters in the work ahead. The older man, Elster, and the young filmmaker, Jim Finley. And I knew that the central narrative would take place in an environment very different from that of the dark screening room at the museum. I remembered the desert area, Anza-Borrego, that I’d visited years earlier — heat, space, sky, enormous distances. Also time — but not the scrupulously refined time of the 24-hour videowork. This is the vast meditative time of the desert, geologic time, making Elster think about evolution and extinction.
BNR: Why does Elster want to get “beyond language?” Is it a way to avoid his culpability in planning the war?
DD: Elster is an intellectual seduced by power. Invited by someone in the Bush administration to join the war councils as a scholar who might bring well-rounded concepts to the practical considerations of military strategists, he becomes disillusioned by the technocratic nature of the secret discussions. He is an advocate of the Iraq war — a “defense intellectual” whose ideas are ignored.
BNR: An armchair warrior, Elster is also a powerful personality, a bit Oppenheimer-like — he quotes Rilke! Was the idea to humanize a character we might otherwise dislike out of hand?
DD: I don’t think of characters in my work as “sympathetic” or “unsympathetic.” Elster has the free-ranging mind of a man of ideas — interdisciplinary, someone tells him — but is otherwise narrowly focused, not very aware of others as individuals. Some intellectuals, left and right, favored the invasion of Iraq. Elster shows no signs of regretting his political feelings but the novel itself is not at all political.
BNR: This is your shortest novel. Is that a reflection of the desire everywhere in the book to alter time and space? Would you call this your most philosophical book since, say, Ratner’s Star or The Names?
DD: In my experience, a novel determines its own size and shape. I’ve never tried to expand a book beyond what seemed its natural borders; and invariably, book to book, I’ve sensed structure becoming apparent — sensed it rather than imposed it willfully. In its reflections on time and loss, this may be a philosophical novel and maybe, considering its themes, the book shares a place in my work with The Body Artist, another novel of abbreviated length.
BNR: Elster cites Teilhard de Chardin and his notion of a “point omega” as his inspiration. Like Teilhard, doe he seek transcendence — a physics of immortality?
DD: In his book The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard de Chardin suggests that many of his readers would finish the book wondering whether they’d been led “through facts, through metaphysics or through dreams.” Elster is attracted to Teilhard’s ideas on all three counts. But his sense that human consciousness is exhausted may be inseparable from his sour experience in life, personal and professional. “Something’s coming,” he says in the context of worldwide global conflict. “Time to close it all down. This is what drives us now.”
BNR: Finley’s previous documentary about Jerry Lewis’s telethons converts Lewis into a “disease artist.” Is his intent to turn Elster into a “war artist?”
DD: Jim Finley is interested in Elster’s experience in the war rooms but he is also interested in film itself. He is willing to let Elster talk about any subject that occurs to him. The film will have no offscreen voice, no expert commentary, no documentary war footage. Finley wants a man against a bare wall — even if, for long periods, the man remains silent. The man is Elster. On film, Finley believes, a man’s face is his soul.
BNR: When Elster and Finley go to MOMA, Elster prefers the Dada art while Finley wants him to appreciate Gordon’s video. Is this a reflection of Elster’s general desire to destroy time?
DD: At the Museum of Modern Art, during the period which those scenes appear in the novel, 24 Hour Psycho shared the sixth-floor galleries with a show on Dada. There is no thematic reason for Finley and Elster to meet there. Finley is simply wandering through the show on Dada and Elster is there most likely because he has written on the subject of baby talk. This is one instance in which elements of the novel fit together; the two nameless men visiting the gallery in the prologue are seen fifty pages later with names, faces, identities.
BNR: When Elster’s daughter, Jessie, arrives at the desert house, the novel takes a surprising turn. What happens to her completely unnerves her father. But why does he want it to be a “pure mystery?”
DD: The appearance of Elster’s daughter, Jessie, changes the direction of the narrative, and when she becomes the subject of an unforeseen event, Elster, in his shock and mounting despair, wants the mystery that attends the event to be “shapeless.” He is afraid to imagine actual details, whatever elements of physical force might have played a part.
BNR: Is Elster’s “local grief” the real omega point for him? In the sense that he can’t deal with personal tragedy after the grand abstraction of the war?
DD: Elster’s thoughts on war, evolution, extinction — his ideas on subjects of vast breadth and sweep — begin to seem “so much dead echo.” Everything has been cruelly narrowed to one deeply personal crisis — his omega point in a way, the last letter, the last number, a sense of final breath.
BNR: Is there a prevailing cinematic spirit here? And is it Hitchock? Or Antonioni, whose L’Adventura shares a similar unsolved mystery?
DD: Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho has traceable origins. First there was a crime, then a news story, then a novel, then a movie script and finally the movie itself, which was then followed, many years later, by Douglas Gordon’s videowork. Point Omega has its first glimpse of life in the videowork but there is no prevailing directorial spirit informing the novel. Just the author’s.
BNR: The epilogue takes us back in time, and introduces some peculiar twists. Is it a clue to Jessie’s fate?
DD: The epilogue occurs a day after the prologue. What occurs there may be a clue to Jessie’s fate. But only that, a clue, a glimmer, a possibility.
BNR: Teilhard is quite out of fashion these days. Is he remembered from your own Catholic school days?
DD: I read Teilhard de Chardin’s book about the time I was getting out of college [Fordham University, a Jesuit institution]. When I started work, all these years later, on this novel, it occurred to me that some of Richard Elster’s developing thoughts on certain subjects might be related to Teilhard’s visions of transcendence. I reread his book and decided to make a direct link between the Jesuit theologian and the scholar in exile.
BNR: How would you describe the language of this novel?
DD: The language of this novel, as always, began to flow from the situations, the characters, the general mood of the narrative. I’m not sure I know how to characterize it. The prologue and epilogue tend to be tighter and perhaps more compact than the central narrative, as befits the setting and the character who is situated in the dark gallery; elsewhere the language is Jim Finley’s, a little more expansive, a little more informal. Time and loss. The elements that inform the novel help shape the language.
BNR: Elster’s speech especially seems to derive from some engagement by you with a specialized literature, or is it pure invention?
DD: Elster’s speech is pure invention, rambling, introverted, sometimes shaped by clear-minded memory, other times by scotch or vodka.
BNR: The recent story in The New Yorker is your first short fiction in ages. More in the works?
DD: What’s next? I’ve made some notes for another short story, the first sentence of which awaits completion of the sentence now taking shape on this page.