Point Omega

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"In Point Omega, Don DeLillo looks into the mind and heart of a "defense intellectual," one of the men involved in the management of the country's war machine. Richard Elster was a scholar - an outsider - when he was called to a meeting with government war planners, asked to apply "ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counterinsurgency." "We see Elster at the end of his service. He has retreated to the desert, "somewhere south of nowhere," in search of space and geologic time. There he is joined by a filmmaker, Jim Finley, ...

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Point Omega

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Overview

"In Point Omega, Don DeLillo looks into the mind and heart of a "defense intellectual," one of the men involved in the management of the country's war machine. Richard Elster was a scholar - an outsider - when he was called to a meeting with government war planners, asked to apply "ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counterinsurgency." "We see Elster at the end of his service. He has retreated to the desert, "somewhere south of nowhere," in search of space and geologic time. There he is joined by a filmmaker, Jim Finley, intent on documenting his experience. Finley wants to persuade Elster to make a one-take film, Elster its single character - "Just a man and a wall." Weeks later, Elster's daughter Jessica visits an "otherworldly" woman from New York, who dramatically alters the dynamic of the story. The three of them talk, train their binoculars on the landscape and build an odd, tender intimacy, something like a family. Then a devastating event throws everything into question.

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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
Like many of Mr. DeLillo's earlier books, Omega is preoccupied with death and dread and paranoia, and like many of those books, it has an ingenious architecture that gains resonance in retrospect.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
[Signature]
Library Journal
Life assassinates art in the latest literary missive from DeLillo (White Noise). Precocious filmmaker Jim Finley visits Richard Elster, a scholar and government consultant, to pitch an idea for a documentary about Elster. What begins as a project spiel, however, gradually becomes a series of intellectual exchanges that only intensify when Elster's daughter arrives for a visit. The three settle into a comfortable routine, only to be catapulted out of it by a completely unexpected plot twist that will leave even careful readers scratching their heads. DeLillo's prose is simultaneously spare and lyrical, creating a minimalist dreamworld that will please readers attuned to language and sound. Structural purists, meanwhile, will appreciate the novel's film-related framing device, which wraps around the main action like a blanket and unifies the whole with a painful, poignant grace. VERDICT Though it be but brief, DeLillo's latest offering is fierce. An excellent nugget of thought-provoking fiction that pits life against art and emotion against intellect. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/09.]—Leigh Anne Vrabel, Carnegie Lib. of Pittsburgh
Kirkus Reviews
Moving a step beyond the disturbing symbolism of Falling Man (2007, etc.), DeLillo ruminates teasingly on a tendency toward obliteration perhaps locked into the DNA of all living things. His crisp, precisely understated, hauntingly elliptical narrative frames a haltingly revealed story of moral compromise between two viewings of a piece of conceptual art, fashioned from the classic Hitchcock film Psycho, displayed at a small museum in the southwestern United States. The man who watches it, enthralled, is documentary filmmaker Jim Finley, who has traveled west to interview his potential film subject: former academic Richard Elster, now retired from his employment as an advisor during the Iraq War, living in a half-finished house in the California desert. The bulk of this very short book, which in some ways resembles Albert Camus' scorching novella The Fall, describes Finley's stay with the taciturn Elster, who is only too aware he was exploited to give credence to questionable military strategic decisions. Painstakingly elicited responses to Finley's earnest questions eventually disclose Elster's conviction that, deny it as we may, humankind compulsively bends toward "the omega point" at which life declines to continue existing and embraces the comfort of nonbeing: "We want to be stones in a field." This affirmation of entropy assumes agonizing human form when Elster's frail, detached and distracted adult daughter Jessie arrives for a visit that cannot and does not resolve any of her own "failures" and disappointments. The sparse narrative climaxes with yet another retreat from engagement with reality and concludes with Elster, once again a watcher rather than a doer, transformed in amanner that crystallizes DeLillo's brilliant deployments of two series of images: those in the Hitchcock film, and the borrowed motif of stairs climbed and descended at one's peril. An icy, disturbing and masterfully composed study of guilt, loss and regret-quite possibly the author's finest yet.
From the Publisher
“A splendid, fierce novel by a deep practitioner of the form…. Enlivening, challenging, harrowing and beautiful.”—Matthew Sharpe, Los Angeles Times

"If Underworld was DeLillo’s extravagant funeral for the twentieth century, Point Omega is the farewell party for the last decade.... DeLillo has …. written the first important novel of the year."—Michael Miller, New York Observer

“A novel of ideas — about how language, film and art alter what we think of as reality. It's for readers ready to slow down and savor the words. It's for those who would watch not just Psycho, but ponder the meanings of ‘24 Hour Psycho’.”—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

“DeLillo is, without any doubt or qualification, one of the most influential, brilliant, gifted and insightful of American novelists. There are sentences in this book that are breathtaking.”—Geoff Pevere, Toronto Star

“Haunting… DeLillo slows down the whole culture, all of our repertoire of artifacts, words, and gestures.”—Greil Marcus

“DeLillo has achieved a precision and economy of language here that any writer would envy.”—David Ignatius, Washington Post Book World

The Barnes & Noble Review

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 thetrue 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. --Greil Marcus

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439169957
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 2/2/2010
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is the author of fifteen novels, including Underworld, Falling Man, White Noise, and Libra. He has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Jerusalem Prize for his complete body of work, and the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2010, he was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Prize. The Angel Esmeralda was a finalist for the 2011 Story Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. In October 2012, DeLillo receives the Carl Sandburg Literary Award for his body of work.

Biography

Growing up in his working class Bronx neighborhood in the 1940s and '50s, Don De Lillo was far more interested in sports than in books. A listless student, he did not develop an interest in reading until he was 18 and working a summer job as a parking attendant. Desperate to fill in the long, boring hours of downtime, he discovered the literature of Faulkner, Joyce, and Hemingway. He attended Fordham University and worked in advertising for several years before seriously pursuing a writing career.

When De Lillo's first novel, Americana, was published in 1971, it received modest reviews. Seven books followed over the next 14 years, steadily generating more critical praise but few sales. Then, in 1985, he hit pay dirt with White Noise, a brooding postmodern masterpiece about a Midwestern college professor and his family in the aftermath of an airborne toxic accident. It proved to be De Lillo's breakthrough, earning him both a National Book Award and an avid cult following.

Since then, De Lillo has gone on to produce a string of superb "literary" novels that fairly brim with big ideas yet also capture the essence of contemporary culture in all its infuriating banality. Cited by younger writers like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace as a major influence, De Lillo remains a reserved and private, albeit gracious and genteel man who seems a bit uncomfortable with fame.

Among the many honors De Lillo has received are the Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize for Libra (1989); the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Mao II (1991); and the Jerusalem Prize, William Dean Howells Medal, and the Riccardo Bacchelli International Award for his magnum opus Underworld (1997). In addition, three of his novels received high marks on a 2006 survey sponsored by The New York Times to name the single best work of American fiction of the last 25 years.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Cleo Birdwell
    2. Hometown:
      Westchester County, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 20, 1936
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York City
    1. Education:
      Fordham University, 1958

Read an Excerpt


1

The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever. The true life takes place when we're alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly selfaware, the submicroscopic moments. He said this more than once, Elster did, in more than one way. His life happened, he said, when he sat staring at a blank wall, thinking about dinner.

An eight-hundred-page biography is nothing more than dead conjecture, he said.

I almost believed him when he said such things. He said we do this all the time, all of us, we become ourselves beneath the running thoughts and dim images, wondering idly when we'll die. This is how we live and think whether we know it or not. These are the unsorted thoughts we have looking out the train window, small dull smears of meditative panic.

The sun was burning down. This is what he wanted, to feel the deep heat beating into his body, feel the body itself, reclaim the body from what he called the nausea of News and Traffic.

This was desert, out beyond cities and scattered towns. He was here to eat, sleep and sweat, here to do nothing, sit and think. There was the house and then nothing but distances, not vistas or sweeping sightlines but only distances. He was here, he said, to stop talking. There was no one to talk to but me. He did this sparingly at first and never at sunset. These were not glorious retirement sunsets of stocks and bonds. To Elster sunset was human invention, our perceptual arrangement of light and space into elements of wonder. We looked and wondered. There was a trembling in the air as the unnamed colors and landforms took on definition, a clarity of outline and extent. Maybe it was the age difference between us that made me think he felt something else at last light, a persistent disquiet, uninvented. This would explain the silence.

The house was a sad hybrid. There was a corrugated metal roof above a clapboard exterior with an unfinished stonework path out front and a tacked-on deck jutting from one side. This is where we sat through his hushed hour, a torchlit sky, the closeness of hills barely visible at high white noon.

News and Traffic. Sports and Weather. These were his acid terms for the life he'd left behind, more than two years of living with the tight minds that made the war. It was all background noise, he said, waving a hand. He liked to wave a hand in dismissal. There were the risk assessments and policy papers, the interagency working groups. 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 the 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. He was cleared to read classified cables and restricted transcripts, he said, and he listened to the chatter of the resident experts, the metaphysicians in the intelligence agencies, the fantasists in the Pentagon.

The third floor of the E ring at the Pentagon. Bulk and swagger, he said.

He'd exchanged all that for space and time. These were things he seemed to absorb through his pores. There were the distances that enfolded every feature of the landscape and there was the force of geologic time, out there somewhere, the string grids of excavators searching for weathered bone.

I keep seeing the words. Heat, space, stillness, distance. They've become visual states of mind. I'm not sure what that means. I keep seeing figures in isolation, I see past physical dimension into the feelings that these words engender, feelings that deepen over time. That's the other word, time.

I drove and looked. He stayed at the house, sitting on the creaky deck in a band of shade, reading. I hiked into palm washes and up unmarked trails, always water, carrying water everywhere, always a hat, wearing a broadbrimmed hat and a neckerchief, and I stood on promontories in punishing sun, stood and looked. The desert was outside my range, it was an alien being, it was science fiction, both saturating and remote, and I had to force myself to believe I was here.

He knew where he was, in his chair, alive to the protoworld, I thought, the seas and reefs of ten million years ago. He closed his eyes, silently divining the nature of later extinctions, grassy plains in picture books for children, a region swarming with happy camels and giant zebras, mastodons, sabertooth tigers.

Extinction was a current theme of his. The landscape inspired themes. Spaciousness and claustrophobia. This would become a theme.

Copyright © 2010 by Don DeLillo

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Interviews & Essays

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.

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.

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Average Rating 3.5
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 26 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 28, 2010

    MY BROW DOESNT GO THAT HIGH

    I've read DeLillo before and enjoyed his winding esoterica but this wasn't worth the trip.There wasn't enough of anything if you like 'anything'. Mystery, suspense, characters, sex, plot etc...all must be lying somewhere cause they aren't here.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2012

    Greek to locust

    whats wrong

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  • Posted June 25, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This story seemed to go no where and be about nothing. About 20

    This story seemed to go no where and be about nothing. About 20 pages toward the end didn't put me to sleep.

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    Simple Story, But Fascinating

    This is a short novel, only 117 pages and makes very quick reading, although it does give you a lot to think about in the process. The story is not much. A documentary film maker who has made only one film so far, a series of selections of Jerry Lewis during his MD telethons, just Jerry, no other people. He now has an idea to film a participant in the strategist for the Iraq war, who was brought in as an outsider to help, although he had no background in the military. The film would just be him talking against a war, whatever he wanted to say, no script. The filmmaker travels to the Southwest US to try to convince him to make the film and ends up staying there with him for much longer than he had planned. The man's daughter joins them eventually. This story in sandwiched between two descriptions of man [who is he?] who is watching an exhibition at MOMA in NYC called 24 Hour Psycho, which is a screening of the Hitchcock film at a slow speed, so that the film takes 24 hours to show completely. He returns day after day and is transfixed by it. We read his internal thoughts mostly. I found the whole thing to be fascinating.

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