Justin Cartwright

A canker on the rose

This is a very short book with large type.

A canker on the rose
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Point Omega

Don DeLillo

Picador, pp. 127, £

This is a very short book with large type. DeLillo has said that he no longer feels a compulsion to write long, compendious books. In his later years Saul Bellow said something similar. DeLillo, of course, has written very long in the past, notably with the 850-page Underworld (1997), and his story has been America. America is the big subject of the second half of the 20th century, tackled in one form or another by all the great American male writers. You could make a case for saying that it was the only game in town — from Bellow to Roth to Updike to Richard Ford — America was more or less explicitly the leitmotif.

But now a canker has fallen on the rose. America is looking more closely at itself, and the most disturbing things it sees are the abuses of the Iraq war and the subsequent treatment of suspects, all in the name of a notion of freedom. Extraordinary rendition and enhanced techniques of interrogation have been enough to make many good people uneasy; the language alone makes them queasy.

The subject, insofar as there is anything as specific as a subject in Point Omega, is the unease and disjunction of the American psyche in the face of this severe assault on the national self. If there is a national self; often, I think, American novelists assume too much about the essential character of America, and one of the assumptions they make is that America is a generally better-intentioned place than other countries. And so they try to squeeze their novels into this framework.

In these scant pages DeLillo has attempted a kind of meditation on the values and the consciouness of America today. His novels often start with an arresting freeze-frame in which individuals and history collide. In Falling Man, for example, it’s a businessman carrying a briefcase out of the World Trade Center. Point Omega starts in an art gallery, where an unnamed man is watching, day after day, a 24-hour version of Psycho, an installation that was created by the Scottish artist, Douglas Gordon. In it the events and the minutiae of Hitchcock’s film are painfully slowly reproduced; the watcher is obsessed with the detail revealed. DeLillo seems to suggest that he is trying to get a wholly new take on the nature of reality and the meaning of consciousness. I am not sure that professional philosophers will be quaking in their boots.

The story switches to the Californian desert, where a retired government adviser, Richard Elster, whose task was to think out of the box on the nature of war for his employers — generally pretty keen on it — is purifying himself in the extreme remoteness. There are some striking similarities to Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions as a young man arrives to try to inveigle Elster into giving him a long, free-form film interview on what he really knows about Iraq. An insurmountable problem with the novel now becomes apparent: Elster, for all his advance billing as a great mind, seems to talk absolutely incoherent rubbish. Here is a sample:

I’m telling you . . . Something’s coming. But isn’t this what we want? Isn’t this the burden of consciousness? We’re the mind and heart that matter has become. This is what drives us now.

There’s lots more of the same.

The book ends back in the art gallery with some minimal human contact between the still unknown spectator and another visitor.

You get the overwhelming feeling that something was indeed coming, but that it never arrived.