DeLillo’s novel in haiku
A Contrary review by Frances Badgett

Point Omega
Don DeLillo
Scribner
2010
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“I want a Haiku war,” he said. “I want a war in three lines.” 

2006. The U.S., led by Bush, is a dissatisfied slumping mess slouching toward Gomorrah—a nation rocked by news of torture and depressed by war. While New York buzzes with what Point Omega’s protagonist Richard Elster bitterly calls “News and Traffic. Sports and Weather,” Jim Finley, Elster’s documentarian, becomes absorbed by 24-Hour Psycho, an art installation of Psycho grinding silently, slowly, minute-by-minute at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Elster, an academic and former architect of the Iraq War, retires to the desert to seek out its expanses, to watch the light spread on the horizon, the occasional drift of clouds overhead. When Finley and Elster’s lives intersect, their time expands—like the minutes of 24-Hour Psycho. What was to be a few days at Elster’s desert home for Finley becomes two weeks. DeLillo complements the slow stillness of the desert landscape by efficiently and beautifully combining the elements of time, the endless desert landscape, a man on a search, and a man retiring from war.

It seems fitting that DeLillo’s response to the Iraq War is to take us to the desert on a guided meditation. And it is like him to make that meditation anxiety-ridden, emotionally removed, and culminating in crisis. Also fitting is his nod to theoretical physics in the title, the Omega Point, the moment at which the universe collapses, releases an infinite amount of computation, leading to the release of an infinite number of thoughts, thereby saving itself with what appears to be an intellectual Nirvana (Frank J. Tipler in a nutshell). The crisis in the novel, its omega point, brings Elster back to his emotional self, makes him “inconsolably human” and shakes him out of his cold desert trance. It is here, too, that the novel takes on a new emotional depth, the undeniable sadness giving poignance to the starkness of the landscape and the emotional flatness of these two men. “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.”

DeLillo is an author of grand themes, and Point Omega is no exception. With these slimmer novels—Mao II, Cosmopolis, The Body Artist—he is unparalleled in modern letters at funneling his grand themes into compact and unexpected places. What sets Point Omega apart is the way in which such a short novel expands for the reader. Point Omega unwinds with the novelistic leisure of a much larger work, as DeLillo balances the muscularity of the grand themes with the intricacy of the mystery. There is also an unexpected pleasure in its brevity—being able to return to it, to re-read, savor, and contemplate its moving and lyrical language, just as Finley returns daily to the slow, meditative 24-Hour Psycho.

The prose is breathtaking in Point Omega. In this passage, DeLillo evokes the poetic spareness of the novel as Finley watches 24-Hour Psycho:

“Curtain rings, that’s what he had recalled most clearly, the rings on the shower curtain spinning on the rod when the curtain is torn loose, a moment lost at normal speed, four rings spinning slowly over the fallen figure of Janet Leigh, a stray poem above the hellish death, and then the bloody water curling and cresting at the shower drain, minute by minute, and eventually swirling down.”

Haikus are compact, yet deep with meaning and resonance. Spare, yet lingering. In Point Omega, DeLillo has written his haiku about the Iraq War and the contemporary anxiety that fizzes through all of us. He captures these moments beautifully, as he writes in one of my favorite passages, “...the small smears of meditative panic.” Point Omega lingers, expands, and invites the reader to return for further contemplation. As he writes of Finley watching 24-Hour Psycho, “This is the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.” 




Frances Badgett is Contrary’s fiction editor.


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