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DeLillo and the Three Ps

By (March 1, 2010) One Comment

Some of Don DeLillo’s reviewers expect their handy stencil of the words prescient, prophetic and panoramic – his famous three Ps – to align exactly with whatever work of his they hold it over; they’re aggrieved if their well-worn reviewers’ cutouts don’t fit. Having established a reputation as the novelist with an undisputed claim to certain subjects – terrorism, dread, anxiety, paranoia and the intersection of art and violence – his readers have certain expectations, or so reviewers routinely claim, and he either satisfies or disappoints them by staying in the territory he’s staked out or by straying from it. In other words, the writer can’t win.

With Point Omega, DeLillo again wrestles with his usual preoccupations. The writer, born in 1936, also continues to write in what could be called his late style, which is characterized by economy and suggestiveness rather than elaboration and detail. The predictable responses, from those who want the old DeLillo and from those who wonder if DeLillo has gotten old, ensued again. If anything like a critical consensus emerged, it was that DeLillo ain’t what he used to be, but reviewers couldn’t quite agree on just what his problem was or when symptoms first appeared.

“No writer has been as prescient and eerily prophetic about 21st-century America as Don DeLillo,” Michiko Kakutani declares in a New York Times Review of 2007’s Falling Man. “His novels, from Players and White Noise through Libra and Mao II and the remarkable Underworld, not only limned the surreal weirdness of the waning years of the 20th century,” continues the critic (who in her own fashion has committed her share of weirdness to type), “but somehow also managed to anticipate the shock and horror of 9/11 and its darkly unspooling aftermath.” The sort of readers who say a work of fiction is “about” something necessarily specific would say Falling Man is about 9/11. Point Omega, involving as it does the war in Iraq, thus is “about” its aftermath, just as other novels Kakutani lists are “about” terrorism and political violence. Yet both Point Omega and Falling Man failed to meet the anticipation generated by previous achievement, in Kakutani’s assessment. In her review of Point Omega, she ranks it with other supposedly post-peak works like 2001’s The Body Artist and the 1987 play The Day Room. Novelist Geoff Dyer traces the turning point in DeLillo’s career ever further back to 1991’s Mao II. While Kakutani finds that novel fitting the period of DeLillo’s three-P prime, Dyer says in his Times review of Point Omega, that Mao II “was so self-derivative that one wondered how much he had left in the tank.” Though “self-derivative” seems to damn DeLillo for mining the same familiar vein but with diminished returns, Dyer takes Underworld as “an epic rejoinder” to his dissatisfied readers. Like his colleague Kakutani, however, he ranks Point Omega among DeLillo’s lesser efforts.

Reasons given in the New York Times and elsewhere for Point Omega’s perceived inferiority include its aim, its execution and even its size. Second Pass reviewer Alexander Nazaryan takes the shortness of DeLillo’s late-period work as indicative of an overall diminishment, resulting in “small, ornate miniatures that do not easily give up their secrets.” Where Nazaryan sees adornment, others spy its opposite. Kakutani says DeLillo uses “spare, etiolated, almost Beckettian prose,” and Charles McGrath, also writing for the Times, both quotes her line and recasts it by calling Point Omega “brief, spare and concentrated.” Dyer finds an uneasy mixture of “stripped down” and “padded-out” prose, occasionally forceful but unable to match the powerful earlier, more masterful stuff. “The good bits in Point Omega keep reminding you of older good bits that turn out also to be better bits,” he burbles. Nazaryan proclaims that the novel “barely has a structure,” while Kakutani, despite her almost total disapproval, allows that it does have “an ingenious architecture.”

DeLillo’s characters concern several critics. Judith Shulevitz writes in Slate that “it’s questionable that much happens here other than a transportation of characters and themes we’ve encountered before in DeLillo novels, the characters signaled rather than fleshed out.” Both she and Kakutani refer to them as holograms. For Kakutani, this means the three principal figures – Richard Elster, the “defense intellectual” who assisted in the conceptualization of the Iraq campaign; Jim Finley, the would-be documentarian wants to make a film of Elster; and Jessie, Elster’s daughter – are not believable human beings. Yet for Shulevitz, this means DeLillo is on to something. “[W]e can’t accuse his attenuated figures of being entirely unlifelike,” she says. “They are like more and more people we know. In our lifetime we are witnessing the dematerialization of the human personality” as people choose to dwell in cyberspace. Kakutani and Shulevitz also both liken the movie Finley hopes to make – Elster alone (“Just a man and a wall”) saying whatever he think in a single take – to Errol Morris’s Robert S. McNamara documentary Fog of War.

The focus on and fascination with film in Point Omega illustrates its close ties to DeLillo’s previous work. His first novel, 1971’s Americana, has television executive David Bell talking about an “anti-movie” involving a monologue, a single camera position and the “shot extended to its ultimate limit in time,” which, as Dyer notices, “sounds like a prophetic summing of the novel Point Omega.” He also points out similarities between comments on film, history and time in The Names and Point Omega. The latter opens and closes with an anonymous man reacting to 24 Hour Psycho, Douglas Gordon’s conceptual artwork consisting of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho slowed down so that screening it takes a full day. He contemplates the slow turn of Anthony Perkin’s head: “It was like bricks in a wall, clearly countable, not like the flight of an arrow or a bird. Then again it was not like or unlike anything.” In between prologue and epilogue, Finley flies to California to visit Elster and try to persuade him to participate in his project. He also discusses movies with Elster’s daughter, who, like the other two main characters, saw a portion of 24 Hour Psycho (and was seen doing so by the book’s obsessive, unnamed commentator). She prefers “old movies on television where a man lights a woman’s cigarette. That’s all they seemed to do in those old movies, the men and women.” Dyer concedes that this is “pretty good,” but insists that remarks about movies in other DeLillo novels are funnier. Benjamin Alsup in Esquire similarly finds Point Omega less humorous than DeLillo’s earlier work. (Alsup doesn’t mention Finley’s first film, a video collage of footage from Jerry Lewis’s telethons, which Finley also doesn’t speak of when staying with his prospective next subject.)

Adam Begley, writing in The New York Observer, says that DeLillo already “owned the Twin Towers” and terrorism as subjects because of Underworld, Players, The Names and Mao II and that with the “extraordinary” Falling Man, “he has exercised his right of ownership and stamped his name on 9/11: He has written a powerful and direct account of the atrocity and its aftermath.” Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Mathew Sharpe notices that critics of The Body Artist, Cosmopolis and Falling Man “seem to want DeLillo to be the Babe Ruth of novelist, to keep writing Underworld and Libra, those long, magisterial books about big events.” He correctly anticipated that such readers would not see Point Omega as “a literary home run.” Even though Sharpe is one of those people who reads novels as being only and ever “about” things, he discerns that Point Omega, even without Libra’s political assassination, White Noise’s airborne toxic event or Underworld’s cold war-era atomic anxiety, could still be “a splendid, fierce novel by a deep practitioner of the form.”

Readers who look to DeLillo as “a kind of secular prophet” (as Esquire’s Alsup describes him) seem to expect answers from him, but he prefers to ask questions. What causes people to surrender their individuality, to lose themselves in crowds or causes – or works of art? What convinces terrorists and dictators to disregard and destroy individuals in pursuit of their aims? How do artists retain and develop their individual identities, explore other people’s identities and persuade people that doing such things matters? Practitioners of both creative activity and political violence aim to make people looks at things in a certain way; what are the implications of this? In Mao II, Bill Gray, a novelist, says:

There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence. Do you ask writers how they feel about this? Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.

Gray’s commentary on the link between writers and killers occurs in a conversation with a photographer, Brita, who travels the world to take pictures of writers. “Yes, I travel,” she remarks. “Which means there is no moment on certain days when I’m not thinking about terror.” Later the reclusive Gray meets with a friend from the publishing industry who serves as the “chairman of a high-minded committee on free expression” that hopes to help free a poet being held hostage in Beirut. Charlie Everson tells Gray that “with this one success we can open up everybody’s thinking. How do you create a shift in rooted attitudes and hard-line positions if not through public events that show us how to imagine other possibilities?” It would have been possible to have, for instance, the organizer of the mass wedding that opens Mao II speak the those lines. Alternatively, DeLillo could have put them in the mouth of a terrorist. Or they could also have come from Point Omega’s Elster.

Eventually, George, an intermediary working with the hostage-takers in Mao II, persuades Gray to travel to Greece and then Lebanon. During one of their talks, Gray discusses the “zero-sum game” that novelists and terrorists play: “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought.” Later, alone in Cypress, Gray realizes what he should have said about fiction and terrorism:


When you inflict punishment on someone who is not guilty, when you fill rooms with innocent victims, you begin to empty the world of meaning and erect a separate mental state, the mind consuming what’s outside itself, replacing real things with plots and fictions…. [A] writer creates a character as a way to reveal consciousness, increase the flow of meaning. That is how we reply to power and beat back our fear.

But that response to power and fear has no guarantee of success. Gray struggled for decades on a book to follow the two that had given him fame. He observes that when a writer “loses his talent” everyone can see “the shitpile of hopeless prose.” When Dyer unscatologically writes that “DeLillo has imprinted his syntax on reality and – such is the blow-back reward of the Omega Point Scheme for Stylistic Distinction – become a hostage to the habit of ‘gyrate exaggerations’ [the phrase is in The Body Artist] and the signature patterns of ‘demolished logic,’” he touches on a disorder DeLillo had long before identified in much more elegant prose.

Elster in Point Omega echoes Gray’s musing about fiction and meaning, and DeLillo undercuts the pomposity implicit in their positions. “[W]hat’s the meaning of doing dishes if you’re not driven by something beyond sheer necessity,” he wonders after Jessie rearranges the dishes in the kitchen cabinet. The words “doing dishes” could be replaced with “making art” or “making war,” calling into question whether increasing the flow of meaning through not absolutely necessary actions is an unqualified good. Elster frequently considers the power, and the impotence, of words. He tells Finley that he’d wanted a “haiku war,” one that “means nothing beyond what it is” and links ideas to transient things. He describes the desire to manufacture actuality out of words: “Human perception is a saga of created realities.… We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resembled advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability. These were words that would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional. The reality stands, it walks, it squats. Except when it doesn’t.” He’d written an essay about the word rendition that Finley took as “an implied challenge to figure out what the point was.” In it, Elster had said “that words were not necessary to one’s experience of the true life.” He says Jessie “heard words from inside them,” which leads Finley to conclude, “It was his job to say such things.” Elster explains his role in war preparation in almost identical terms: “That’s what I was there for, to give them words and meanings. Words they hadn’t used, new ways of thinking and seeing.” To ask why government officials would want to hear such words (as Kakutani does) might be reasonable, but only if asking why anyone should consider similar ones coming from a novelist like Gray (or DeLillo) is too.

Appropriately, DeLillo offers no clear resolution or answers to the questions he raises. Mao II concludes in the devastated streets of Beirut with the wedding of two people (in pointed contrast to the hundreds of couples of strangers getting married at the start). Flashes indicate a photographer making images. So it ends with a celebration of individuals rather than impersonal crowds and with artistic representation. But the poet-hostage was never freed, having been “sold” by one terrorist group to another. And Gray apparently dies, leaving behind a lousy book. We see him lying near death on the ferry from Cyprus to Lebanon. A cleaning crew member finds him, feels his faint pulse and steals his passport “and other forms of identification” in order to sell them to terrorists, who in Mao II, unlike Falling Man, are motivated by political causes rather than fundamentalist religious ones, though these groups too have members efface their identities for the sake of their leader.

In Falling Man, DeLillo doesn’t attempt to recreate precisely what happened on September 11. Characters don’t explicitly mention the date. Instead, they refer to “the planes” and measure subsequent time in how many days it’s been since “the planes.” They also only allude to the Twin Towers, as when Lianne Glenn (Keith’s wife) and her mother’s lover Martin look at a painting that predates the events involving the planes and both see the towers. They don’t use the formal name, though it does appear late in the novel, when Lianne see the obituary of the performance artist who outfitted himself with a harness and dangled from various structures around New York in a manner evocative of a man photographed plummeting from the north tower. Though DeLillo conveys impressions through fragments and vignettes rather than straightforward, sustained narrative, it’s clear from the start where Keith had worked for a decade. Falling Man begins (and ends) with what he did, saw and heard after he made it out of the disintegrating office building.

Just as the relationships between meaning, art and violence connect Point Omega with a novel published nearly two decades earlier, meditation on time links it with its immediate predecessor. If in Falling Man people in a particular city mark time since a specific catastrophe, in Point Omega cities in general “were built to measure time, to remove time from nature,” at least according to Elster, who seeks refuge in the slower, geologic time of the desert. 24 Hour Psycho, of course, experiments with perception of time, a recurring theme in DeLillo’s later works. “The last two or three novels are more philosophical, for better or worse, and more interested in the subject of time,” he told McGrath. (Much of 2003’s Cosmopolis centers on a man stuck in cross-town traffic.) Here, too, art functions as a response to pain – as a way to beat back unbeatable fear. Elster returns to the poetry he’d read as a youth, believing that literature intends to “cure” the terror of time’s relentless passage.

Unlike Mao II, Falling Man does not see characters pondering terrorists’ displacement of novelists as agents affecting human consciousness. Indeed, Hammad, one of the hijackers in on the plot with Mohamed Atta (called Amir), desires the end of consciousness, thought and awareness. He awaits the day “when there is nothing left to think about.” After the planes, people Lianne knew “were trying earnestly to learn something, find something that might help them to think more deeply into the question of Islam.” They read the Koran, which begins: “This Book is not to be doubted.” But Lianne? “She doubted things, she had her doubts.” Her mother, Nina, and Martin argue about terrorism, and their differences end their relationship. Nina tells Lianne that Martin thinks “these jihadists … have something in common with the radicals of the sixties and seventies,” of which he’d been one. Beyond these few brief interludes, little attempt is made to explain terrorism, its motives or impact. DeLillo offers episodes, short segments of activities on the day of and after the planes: Keith’s unthinking impulse to go to the apartment where Lianne, from whom he’d been separated for a year and half, lives with their son, Justin; his short relationship with a woman who’d also escaped the burning towers and whose briefcase he’d inadvertently carried out; his later existence as a full-time poker player; Justin and his friends watching for more planes sent by “Bill Lawton”; freelance editor Lianne’s volunteer work with Alzheimer disease sufferers; the shirt – the man? – Keith saw falling from the sky after the planes.

In Point Omega Elster mulls the “burden of consciousness” and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the omega point in a manner suggesting that a post-consciousness state is not a desire limited to suicide murderers like Hammad. “We want to be the dead matter we used to be,” he tells Finley. “We’re the last billionth of a second in the evolution of matter.” He says brute matter moved toward collective, analytical human thought, which then wants to go back: “now comes the introversion. Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.” He calls this wished for event a paroxysm, and Finley comments: “He liked the word. We let it hang out there.” Regardless of whether terrorists or war strategists (or novelists) accelerated the thrust toward self-destruction, Elster sees this thought-annihilating thinking (something Delillo diagnosed in Falling Man) as having metastasized.

In her review of Falling Man, Kakutani strangely calls the novel flawed because Keith is both insufficiently representative of those affected by the events of September 11 and too self-absorbed (as if that’s atypical of New Yorkers then or afterward). She complains that other individuals suffered more – as if DeLillo is supposed to make his protagonist both typical and an extreme case. Finally, Keith and his wife simply aren’t “interesting,” especially him with his “stupid card games.” In perhaps her most egregious misreading of the novel, she bleats: “Whereas Underworld gave the reader a big panoramic window on history by tracing the intersecting, crisscrossing lives of dozens of people, Falling Man – like the author’s 1997 novel, Players, which also grappled with terrorism and also featured a character who worked in the World Trade Center – focuses on the lives of one man and one woman.”

Without dwelling on the odd suggestion that literary substance turns on the number of characters (which Kakutani gets wrong in any case), we can find in Point Omega a forceful refutation of the idea that concentrating on individuals and their connections with each other is somehow less important than themes intentionally engineered to achieve full three-P grandeur. Various critics apply different P-words to Elster, the “pompous intellectual” (Kakutani) given to “professorial pontification” (Shulevitz) that “smacks of pretension” (Nazaryan). If his commentary on pedestrian matters like doing dishes undermined lofty discourse on the flow of meaning, Point Omega’s central plot pivot lets the air out of Elster’s abstractions. He and Finley return from a grocery run to find Jessie has vanished. Elster becomes “inconsolably human” and his oracular pronouncements are reduced to meaninglessness in the light of real human loss and suffering. Finley says:

I thought of his remarks about matter and being, those long nights on the deck, half smashed, he and I, transcendence, paroxysm, the end of human consciousness. It seemed so much dead echo now. Point omega. A million miles away. The omega point has narrowed, here and now, to the point of a knife as it enters a body. All the man’s grand themes funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not.

Though unimpressed by his philosophizing, Shulevitz finds that “Elster’s anguish in the face of his daughter’s unsolved disappearance feels unusually real, at least for DeLillo.” Kakutani, however, doesn’t believe Elster’s eventual firsthand knowledge of “the meaning of death and loss” can compensate for portions of Point Omega consisting of his “dreary and highly portentous musing about mortality and time.” According to her, it differs from DeLillo’s “most memorable novels” because “the three characters here do not live in a recognizable America or a recognizable reality.”

Of course, prescience and prophecy become evident only in retrospect, and for some critics a novelist’s view can’t be called panoramic if it doesn’t include the Manhattan skyline. The desert of the America Southwest, where much of Point Omega occurs, just doesn’t qualify. The novel undeniably resembles DeLillo’s others in certain respects but has its own unique qualities. How could anyone expect otherwise?

John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s Fighters & Writers, a collection of essays, is forthcoming from Mongrel Empire Press in 2010. He lives in Portland, Oregon.