Not long ago I was at a table with a man I’d just met; he asked if I’d been to the Rolling Stones’ infamous free concert at Altamont in December of 1969. “I was there, my wife wasn’t,” I said, motioning down the table. “She was nine months pregnant, and when she heard that the Hell’s Angels were going to be in charge of the crowd, that was it for her.” Our daughter — at the table, too, that night — was born three days later.
“I was there,” the man said. “I remember how scared I was when I saw there were no aisles” — only months after the Woodstock gathering, he might have been the first person to even have such a thought: how do you map, plow, or fence off aisles among two or three or five hundred thousand people sitting packed together, pushing inch by inch like some otherworldly blob toward a stage? — “and I’ve never been able to be in a crowd since. Even seeing people from across the street, milling in one place, pushing toward something — I can’t look at it.”
What’s your problem? you could say. It’s forty years later, get over it. Move on. For that matter, if the man I’d met had been able to come to grips with what was eating away at him that quickly, people would have been saying the same thing to him six weeks, six months after the day — but I had had a taste of the same bile. For a year after Altamont — on bare winter hills at a far edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, after the long day of beatings in the ugly, angry crowd and outside of it by the Hell’s Angels, and finally their murder, in front of the stage, of a young black man who had pulled a pistol after an Angel attacked him — I thought I’d seen the true face of rock ‘n’ roll behind the mask of freedom and joy. I didn’t listen to it for a year, and it took an effort of will to go back: Get over it, I said to myself. Move on. I’d seen naked people covered in blood walking blindly in the dark through throngs of people who looked away. In the moment and in memory, it was like living in the corners of a triptych by Bosch.
Why get over it, though? Why say that history exists only in the past? Events enter people’s lives unbidden; they don’t necessarily leave when you tell them to. They drop down or slither into individual or collective imaginations, colonizing memory. They may stay there, waiting, changing shape, speaking new languages, resisting translation back into the ordinary speech of business, domestic life, schedules, habit, warping ordinary traumas of love or money — the loss of a job, the breakup of a marriage, a mere argument with a spouse or a son or a daughter or a friend — until they seem too big to live out, live through, too big to think about, just something you’d do better to forget.
This is the territory that Don DeLillo has been working in since the terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001 — in Cosmopolis in 2003, Falling Man in 2007, and in the new Point Omega. What state of mind, DeLillo has been asking, might a cataclysmic, shared event — the sort of event that immediately produces its own, where-were-you language, a language that then turns into a dynamic new form of speech or is forgotten — produce? What state of mind — what thoughts and dreams, fears and desires — should it produce? In DeLillo’s hands, this isn’t reporting. It isn’t sociology. It isn’t a study of morals. It’s an imaginative act of empathy — not a matter of a writer working out his or her particular neurotic responses to a public event, but attempting to step into the lives of other people as they might live out that event, or do whatever they can to deny it.
Cosmopolis is about — in words DeLillo used at a work-in-progress reading from the book at Princeton in 2002 — a fabulously wealthy Manhattan trader who one day in April 2000 sets out in his limousine to get a haircut, and in the course of the day upends the world financial network by systematically destroying all of his wealth; electronically steals his wife’s fortune and destroys that too; has sex with three women including, finally, his wife, who then leaves him; murders a man as emptily as Meursault murders the man in The Stranger; and is finally murdered himself. It was not autobiographical. (“What do you know about being fabulously wealthy?” DeLillo was asked at his reading. “I can spell both words,” he said.) After the huge and hugely celebrated Underworld in 1997 (more than eight hundred pages, the Jerusalem Prize, the Howells medal, the American Book Award), the barely 200-page Cosmopolis miffed reviewers, as if, after the mostly ignored, 128-page novella The Body Artist in early 2001, DeLillo were indulging himself, or maybe watching too much football. Anyway, what could Cosmopolis have to do with 2001 when it was set in 2000?
There was no such confusion about Falling Man; it began the day the nation was attacked, with a man walking into his estranged wife’s apartment covered in bits of masonry and other people’s skin. But that too was seemingly too short — 245 pages — as if this were something DeLillo was less writing than getting over with. Something he had to put behind himself. And now here is Point Omega, which is less than 120 pages — perhaps 25,000 words — and it takes longer to read than either Cosmopolis or Falling Man.
It takes longer to read because the quality of sleepwalking that courses through the previous two novels has here grown into a complete miasma. Despite the franticness of Cosmopolis — the president is in town, there’s a black hole of a traffic jam, there’s a funeral parade for a rap singer who is the greatest artist of his generation and three hundred people naked in the street for a movie shoot — everything that happens, every word spoken, is infected with a sense of suspension, of disassociation, of a loss of any sense of the concrete, the predictable, the reliable, the trustworthy, the real. Yes, it’s a picaresque fantasia, you’re not exactly supposed to believe it — what can our hero actually do in the 48 rooms of his $104 million apartment? He’s not Charles Foster Kane, he’s only twenty-eight — but Falling Man concerns recognizable figures with comprehensible motives, even if the reader may be as lost as they are, trying to understand their children’s obsession, after the World Trade Center towers have vanished as if by Arthurian magic, with an all-powerful boogeyman called “Bill Lawton.” That is how they hear, or make real, the name Osama bin Laden, the name they hear on television when their parents don’t turn it off in time; along with a performance artist, a ghost version of Philippe Petit, the 1974 World Trade Center high-wire walker, who appears as if out of nowhere in Manhattan to reenact the spectre of bodies plummeting from the burning towers, the children are doing the imaginative translating, from the unreadable to the fairy tale to whatever might come next, that everyone else in the book flees for solipsism, their own translation of a shared event into neurotic, private acts that are almost aggressively meant to have no meaning for anyone else, or sooner rather than later for the actors themselves.
In these stories, everything seems to unfold in slow motion; in Point Omega, the story begins with a man determined to inhabit every hour of the MOMA installation of a twenty-four-hour version of Psycho. It’s a real work by the Glaswegian artist Douglas Gordon, first shown in Glasgow at the Tramway in 1993; you can see a bit of it on YouTube (along with all of Twenty-Four Second Psycho). But here, in the first pages of Point Omega, as in the middle of the book and at the end, it seems altogether made up.
It’s DeLillo’s quiet ability to make the reader experience this art piece as the author’s own fantasy — thus freeing the reader to fantasize seeing it himself or herself, as if there is no real here, no facts to appeal to or be restricted by — that makes Point Omega the most haunting of what might be seen, some years on, as the last book of a trilogy. The twenty-four-hour Psycho is not a metaphor here, but a kind of engine, running on entropy. Beside the man in the gallery, each of the three principal characters in the book — Richard Elster, the military intellectual involved with “the metaphysicians of the intelligence agencies, the fantasists of the Pentagon” for the 2003 invasion of Iraq; Jim Finley, the filmmaker who wants to make his version of The Fog of War about Elster, but stripped down, just a head against a wall talking, “one continuous take”, as if the real can be discovered only without imagination; and Jessie, Elster’s adult daughter, all three of them together at the intellectual’s decaying vacation house in the California desert — walk in and out of the video piece at one time or another. Elster, brought by Finley, can’t stand more than ten minutes. Jessie is there for half-an-hour. The man in the gallery spends a lot of time thinking about how while everyone knows Anthony Perkins is Norman Bates, no one remembers Janet Leigh’s character as anything but Janet Leigh, and —
There is no ironic flagging of the linking of the filmmaker’s idea for his movie with putting someone up against a wall to be shot; there’s no mention of the fact that Berry Berenson, once Anthony Perkins’s wife, died on September 11, 2001, as a passenger on American Airlines flight 11. The reader doesn’t want to leave the room where the video is showing — not claustrophobic, as the man in the gallery moves around it, not physically unbearable, as there are no seats, but open, airy, unpredictable, like any museum space maybe a good place to pick someone up. Suspension, sleepwalking, but freed from time, from having to go somewhere or even from having been somewhere: “I stayed awhile,” Jessie says to Finley. “Because even when something happens, you’re waiting for it to happen.” But she “wasn’t a child who needed imaginary friends,” Elster tells Finley in the desert. “She was imaginary to herself.”
A desert lassitude takes over the characters. Conversation meanders, then fades into the air even as people continue speaking or listening, because the speaker is in the past, remembering saying the same thing at another time, and the person listening is somewhere in the future, imagining how he will remember what, now, he is not really experiencing. The three characters themselves begin to move and speak in a kind of slow motion, to the point where the descriptions of the microscopic two-frames-a-second pace of the twenty-four-hour Psycho seem like a trailer for an action movie. “I still want a war,” Elster says early on, as he and Finley sit in the desert and try to talk their way toward a film. “A great power has to act. We were struck hard. We need to retake the future. The force of will, the sheer visceral need.” But after not many days in the desert this seems like a hundred years ago. The trudging, arduous pace of Julianne Moore in the desert retreat in Todd Haynes’s Safe, where every step carries the weight of death, or Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette’s hysterical but disembodied sex and killing in the same California desert in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, creep into DeLillo’s story, but without movie stars:
She said something funny at dinner about her eyes being closer together in New York, caused by serial congestion in the streets. Out here the eyes move apart, the eyes adapt to conditions, like wings or beaks.
Other times she seemed deadened to anything that might bring a response. Her look had an abridged quality, it wasn’t reaching the wall or window.
DeLillo slows down the whole culture, all of our repertoire of artifacts, words, and gestures; he slows down the whole country, its past, its future, its suspended present, and the notion that we might ever get out of it. The terrible thing about the twenty-four-hour Psycho is that it’s a cheat: it’s not shown in the equivalent of one continuous take, without a break, twenty-four hours straight, with restrooms open all night, water and maybe popcorn available, even after ten hours, say, chairs, but according to regular museum hours, and then, after the sequences are complete, it ends — ends, after you have learned its language, after it has replaced the world you thought you lived in, just like that. Just like the cruelty of ending a novel, cutting off its action, leaving you even more suspended in its drama of time than its characters, even after less than 120 pages.