Ktismatics

25 January 2012

Point Omega by DeLillo, 2010

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 11:00 am

There was a man standing against the north wall, barely visible.

*   *   *

This first sentence captures the essence of the book. There is a wall between visible and invisible, between real and unreal, between human and transhuman, but the wall is itself a permeable membrane, a translucent movie screen. The wall is visible and real only when you look at it from the side where visible reality holds sway. From the other side it might look like something else.

I’ve discussed Point Omega at some length with Patrick on his blog. The story pivots around the disappearance of a young woman named Jessie. While there is no direct evidence of foul play, circumstances suggest that Jessie was kidnapped and likely killed by her stalker boyfriend. This is a guy who has become so obsessed with the movie Psycho that he seems to have merged with the film, and especially with Norman Bates.

That interpretation of what happened to Jessie might well be the right one. But in rereading the book (only 115 pages) I found myself looking at it from the other side of the movie screen. Most of the book is abstract, theoretical, aesthetic, almost inert, but when Jessie disappears the narrative shifts to more concrete considerations — the search for the missing girl, the investigation of clues. And yet even in the whodunit portion DeLillo alternates between concrete description and mystical reverie. In brief, I’m suggesting that DeLillo is inviting the reader to watch these concrete, visible, human events, possibly including a murder, from the other side of the screen.

The title of the book derives from an idea championed by the mystical Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. According to Wikipedia,

“Teilhard postulates the Omega Point as this supreme point of complexity and consciousness, which in his view is the actual cause for the universe to grow in complexity and consciousness. In other words, the Omega Point exists as supremely complex and conscious, transcendent and independent of the evolving universe. Teilhard argued that the Omega Point resembles the Christian Logos namely Christ, who draws all things into himself.”

For Teilhard the Omega Point already exists; it is personal; it is transcendent, both preceding and succeeding human evolution; it is unconstrained by space and time; and it is inevitable.

The Omega Point might be the glorious singularity by which we are moved and toward which we are moving. But what does the passage into supreme posthuman transcendence look like from this side of the divide, bound by time and space, by material bodies and material objects, by calendars and telephones and trips to the grocery store? It might look like a barely-visible shadow on the wall, a hole in the air. It might look like death.

Yesterday I copied down a number of sentences from the middle portion of the book, when Jessie first appears and then later disappears. I focused specifically on passages in which DeLillo emphasizes the immateriality of things and places, of people, and especially of Jessie. In human terms she is hardly there at all, but on the other side she might also be a forerunner, a transhuman demiurge, an avatar of the Omega Point. I’m posting these sentences here without further commentary.

*   *   *

She was sylphlike, her element was air. She gave the impression that nothing about this place was different from any other, this south and west, this latitude and longitude. She moved through places in a soft glide, feeling the same things everywhere, this is what there was, the space within.

She was her father’s dream thing.

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. I found it disturbing to watch her, knowing that she didn’t feel watched. Where was she? She wasn’t lost in thought or memory, wasn’t gauging the course of the next hour or minute. She was missing, fixed tightly within.

It was part of her asymmetry, the limp hand, blank face… She was sitting next to anyone, talking through me to the woman in a sari on the crosstown bus, to the receptionist in the doctor’s office.

She had to touch her arm or face to know who she was… Her body was not there until she touched it… She wasn’t a child who needed imaginary friends. She was imaginary to herself.

One day soon all our talk, his and mine, will be like hers, just talk, self-contained, unreferring. We’ll be here the way flies and mice are here, localized, seeing and knowing nothing but whatever our scanted nature allows.

I thought of Jessie sleeping. She would close her eyes and disappear, this was one of her gifts, I thought… She sleeps on her side, curled up, embryonic, barely breathing.

“Think of it. We pass completely out of being. Stones. Unless stones have being. Unless there’s some profoundly mystical shift that places being in a stone.”

Then I adjusted the reclining chair to full length and lay flat on my back, eyes shut, hands on chest, and tried to feel like nobody nowhere, a shadow that’s part of the night.

But I just closed my eyes and sat there, nowhere, listening. When we got back to the house she was gone.

It was hard to think clearly. The enormity of it, all that empty country. She kept appearing in some inner field of vision, indistinct, like something I’d forgotten to say or do.

I finished putting away the groceries. I tried to concentrate on this, where things go, but objects seemed transparent, I could see through them, think through them.

Passing into air, it seemed this is what she was meant to do, what she was made for, two full days, no word, no sign. Had she strayed past the edge of conjecture or were we willing to imagine what had happened?

First thing [the sheriff] wanted to know was whether there had been any recent deviation in Jessie’s normal pattern of behavior. The only deviation, I told him, was the fact that she was missing.

I could think around the fact of her disappearance. But at the heart, in the moment itself, the physical crux of it, only a hole in the air.

Nothing happened that was not marked by her absence.

He began to see things out of the corner of his eye, the right eye. He’d walk into a room and catch a glimpse of something, a color, a movement. When he turned his head, nothing. It happened once or twice a day. I told him it was physiological, same eye every time, routine sort of dysfunction, minor, happens to people of a certain age. He turned and looked. Someone there but then she wasn’t.

“I think I know his name.” “You think you know.” “I was sleeping. Then I wake up with his name. It is Dennis.” “You think it is Dennis.” “It is Dennis, for sure.” “First name Dennis.” “This is all I heard, first name. I wake up, just now, it is Dennis,” she said.

The sky was stretched taut between cliff edges, it was narrowed and lowered, that was the strange thing, the sky right there, scale the rocks and you can touch it. I started walking again and came to the end of the tight passage and into an open space choked at ground level with brush and stony debris and I half crawled to the top of a high rubble mound and there was the whole scorched world. I looked out into blinding tides of light and sky and down toward the folded copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment. Could someone be dead in there? I could not imagine this. It was too vast, it was not real, the symmetry of furrows and ruts, it crushed me, the heartbreaking beauty of it, and the longer I stood and looked the more certain I was that we would never have an answer.

I walked back into the wash under the shallow line of sky and then stopped and put my hand to the cliff wall and felt the tiered rock, horizontal cracks or shifts that made me think of huge upheavals. I closed my eyes and listened. The silence was complete. I’d never felt a stillness such as this, never such enveloping nothing. But such nothing that was, that spun around me, or she did, Jessie, warm to the touch. I don’t now how long I stood there, every muscle in my body listening. Could I forget my name in this silence? Then something made me turn my head and I had to tell myself in my astonishment what it was, a fly, buzzing near. I had to say the word to myself, fly.

That night I could not sleep. I fell into reveries one after another. The woman in the other room, on the other side of the wall, sometimes Jessie, other times not clearly and simply her, and then Jessie and I in her room, in her bed, weaving through each other, turning and arching sort of sealike, wavelike, some impossible nightlong moment of transparent sex. Her eyes are closed, face unfrozen, she is Jessie at the same time that she is too expressive to be her. She seems to be drifting outside herself even when I bring her to me. I’m there and aroused but barely see myself as I stand at the open door watching us both.

We drove in silence behind a motorboat being towed by a black pickup. 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 years 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.

There we were, coming out of an empty sky. One man past knowing. The other knowing only that he would carry something with him from this day on, a stillness, a distance, and he saw himself in somebody’s crowded loft, where he puts his hand to the rough surface of an old brick wall and then closes his eyes and listens.

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10 Comments »

  1. “toward the folded copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment. Could someone be dead in there? I could not imagine this. It was too vast, it was not real, the symmetry of furrows and ruts, it crushed me, the heartbreaking beauty of it,”

    I was struck by these on my return trip a few weeks ago. I’ve seen a great deal of Sierra Nevada and been directly over the Grand Canyon twice, also much of Wyoming. The badlands were wonderful, but not more so than the Rockies or the rest–the whole West is spectacular.

    “Someone there but then she wasn’t.” and “Jessie’s normal pattern of behavior. The only deviation, I told him, was the fact that she was missing” are both strong Didion echoes..and this “He began to see things out of the corner of his eye, the right eye” reminded me of Pynchon passage I read last night: “Wasn’t Mexico’s fact tonight, as he took the envelope, averted? eyes boxing the corners of the room a top speed, a pornography customer’s reflex…”

    And this: “a wall between visible and invisible, between real and unreal, between human and transhuman, but the wall is itself a permeable membrane, a translucent movie screen” is like the way each section my post DREAM this morning is divided–there is no modulation, transition, or ‘transport’, although it’s always searched for. Failure to find these in all cases culminates not in being thwarted, but just getting to the next scene as in a play, not in real life–so, bow to the material necessity of transportation and route, but then just start the next ‘act’ without describing how you got there.

    ‘Sylphlike’ for Jesse makes more sense now that it’s been re-emphasized. Sylphs are all over ballet, but not elsewhere so much, so I kept being reminded of the Bournonville sylphs and the Fokine sylphs and the Petipa sylphs. She’s not like those, too European fairy tale.

    “Her look had an abridged quality,”

    Inspired phrase, knocked me out when I read it.

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    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 25 January 2012 @ 1:06 pm

  2. Point Omega is excellent and gripping; I’m surprised by some of the negative to lukewarm reviews. I’ll try The Body Artist next; maybe one day I’ll give Underworld another try.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 25 January 2012 @ 2:44 pm

  3. The Body Artist is very strange and remote, reminds me in some ways of the earlier and longer ‘Mao II’ of the 90s. Many don’t like it, and it’s not quite one of my favourites either, but it’s still good. I definitely think ‘Point Omega’ is much better, though, and I, too, do not understand the negative and lukewarm reviews. It’s as though DeLillo is expected to please them, and that they hold him to higher standards than almost anybody else. Didion seems to get good rave reviews for her worst books (both of the ‘mourn-memoirs’), including from Kakutani, but kakutani panned ‘The Last thing He Wanted’, as being a caricature of all Didion’s other books. Big deal, though, if anything we learn something about critics, who are almost always lesser if they don’t do something else. I do remember Didion’s review of Mailer’s ‘The Executioner’s Song’, which she pronounced ‘an astonishing book’, and I have still to read it if I have time. I’ve REALLY gotten into Gravity’s Rainbow, now that I don’t have to worry about ‘figuring it out’. I’ve marked many passages of stunning writing already, which I’ll post. Once you’ve gotten past the satire, which may be necessary but also seems ‘bad’ in a way, you can overlook it, and his laundry lists of wartime debris are quite magnificent, among other things he does describe so well. I imagine Pynchon is fairly crazy, from what I’ve read of him in recent years, so I also got ‘Inherent Vice’ to read after I finish this, and that’s just 2 years ago. Will be interesting to see if I can pick up anything of any importance in the decades between.

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    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 26 January 2012 @ 9:20 am

  4. The Body Artist bears remarkable similarities to Point Omega, so now I can see why some feel that DeLillo is replowing the same ground. I agree that Point Omega is the better piece, but I also don’t find it redundant for him to revisit some of these themes, especially with two such concise books.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 26 January 2012 @ 6:02 pm

  5. I was looking at A Reader’s Manifesto, the 2001 essay in which BR Myers infamously excoriates some of American fiction’s leading lights for being pretentious poseurs who write shitty prose. Taking aim at DeLillo’s “edgy” prose, Myers wonders not what DeLillo is saying but why he bothers saying it. Myers cites two paragraphs from White Noise, one in which station wagons bring college students and their piles of stuff to the campus at the beginning of the school year, the other a trip to the mall. Both paragraphs are lists: the contents of the cars, the wares on display in the aisles. Myers says:

    “I wouldn’t put it past DeLillo’s apologists to claim that this repetition is meant to underscore the superfluity of goods in the supermarket. The fact remains that here… the novel tries to convey the magical appeal of consumerism in prose that is simply flat and tiresome.”

    There are no lists in either Body Artist or Point Omega, both of those novels being hermetically ascetic, starkly separated from the marketplace. The language is abstract, introspective, even mystical, befitting the subject matter. But listing the contents of cars and stores does actually serve to demonstrate the flat tiresomeness of marketplace superfluity, the explosive variation merging and converging into the white noise — which is one of DeLillo’s main points, no? Why shouldn’t the style exemplify the content? It’s the way I would describe a trip to Costco in conversation: they’ve got this, and that, and more of that, big piles of big containers on big shelves, and…

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    Comment by ktismatics — 28 January 2012 @ 8:54 am

  6. “But listing the contents of cars and stores does actually serve to demonstrate the flat tiresomeness of marketplace superfluity, the explosive variation merging and converging into the white noise — which is one of DeLillo’s main points, no? Why shouldn’t the style exemplify the content?”

    I agree, they’re just jealous. And I was thinking about lists yesterday, I love them, and Pynchon does TONS of them, especially of war debris in the London blitz in Gravity’s Rainbow. They’re gorgeous writing, and Henry Miller used to do great ones too, really knew how to capture the very sensation of old Times Square and the Garment District area with those very lists. I find lists very sensuous, and wish that Jack and I could rent chairs at Bed, Bath and Beyond and he paint a whole section of shelves photorealistically, getting every single item clearly captured on canvas. I’d like a huge one, in fact, but I don’t see that happening, even though he could do it. I’ve never seen anything like that in the galleries though, and it sounds like the best use of photorealism. Some fiction-writing sections don’t have to have a ‘point’ anyway, there’s some reporting in fiction, too, just as in journalism, it’s just that it’s more beautiful in the fiction form. also, continuing from talk of the critics yesterday, I think the top critics want to make sure they’re not too fulsome about anybody, so they make sure to pan some things of great writers, or they’re thought to be undiscriminating. But they definitely have lavished the over-praise on Didion’s public mournings. I fully believe she herself would demolish anyone who has done what she’s done with these last two volumes, and people only pretend to care about Dunne and Quintana for the most part–as well they shouldn’t either, since she couldn’t give a shit about them. I do think, to be fair, that Kakutani really doesn’t like Delillo’s 00’s fiction, and people who got used to his more lush styles of the 80s and 90s seem to think these more minimal things really are ‘just less’. I just don’t see that myself, and agree that ‘The Body Artist’ reads almost like something from Hawthorne’s ‘Twice-Told Tales’.

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    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 28 January 2012 @ 11:19 am

  7. Hawthorne insisted on his little Puritan moral at the end of the story, but you can tell he loved those all those freaks and sinners he wrote about. There was one tale based on a news story Hawthorne had read, about a man who left his wife and home only to move two blocks away. At the end H remarks about how this man has forfeited his right to a tasty meal, a cozy spot at the hearth and so on, but the story is mostly H’s fantasies about what how this guy would keep his wife and house under surveillance, how his wife might even pass him on the street without recognizing him. Very good stories.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 28 January 2012 @ 12:40 pm

  8. Last night I watched Dressed to Kill by De Palma. The movie begins with Angie Dickinson’s sexual fantasy in which she is attacked in the shower. Shortly afterward Angie goes to an art gallery. She meets a man there who takes her back to his apartment where they have anonymous and consensual sex. Leaving the man’s apartment she is slashed to death in the elevator. Point Omega begins in an art gallery with a man watching 24 Hour Psycho, a drastically slowed-down presentation of the Hitchcock movie. He meets a woman there; later in the story the woman goes missing, presumably killed by the man from the gallery. If Dressed to Kill is an homage to Psycho, is Point Omega giving a tip of the hat to Dressed to Kill?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 16 November 2012 @ 9:48 am

  9. I have heard many mixed reviews about this book. my partner has read it and said that it was great. I will read it on holiday this year on holiday, but I am surprised to see thats its reception has not been that hot.

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    Comment by Crushed Concrete — 4 February 2013 @ 1:09 am

  10. I found it elegant and enigmatic, an abstract homage to Psycho that twists back on itself structurally like an Ouroboros or a Mobius. Most of what happens occurs “off-screen” or perhaps it never happens at all, the characters and situations hovering somewhere between reality, the ghost world, and madness.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 4 February 2013 @ 5:50 am


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