Stop the merry-go-round

In the last two decades of the 20th century, Don DeLillo has emerged as America’s great metaphysical novelist, whose themes of illusion and mystification (“White Noise”), conspiracy and historical confusion (“Libra”) and the Cold War (“Underworld”) chronicled this country’s spiritual and moral collapse.

“Point Omega,” like DeLillo’s last few novels, reverses this universalizing mission, instead undertaking to condense America’s Iraq experience into haiku. DeLillo writes, “Haiku means nothing beyond what it is. A pond in summer, a leaf in the wind. It’s human consciousness located in nature. It’s the answer to everything in a set number of lines, a prescribed syllable count.”

In “Point Omega,” DeLillo’s immobile protagonist, a retired “defense intellectual” named Richard Elster, like so many of Samuel Beckett’s similarly discomfited anti-heroes, has been reduced to near-silence, having retired from the Department of Defense where he planned not war itself, but its rhetorical premises.

DeLillo’s Elster, like so many Bush war-planners (Dick Cheney comes to mind), says, “I still want a war. A great power has to act. We were struck hard. We need to retake the future. We can’t let others shape our world, our minds. All they have are old dead despotic traditions. We have a living history and I thought I would be in the middle of it. But in those rooms, with those men, it was all priorities, statistics, evaluations, and rationalizations.”

“Point Omega” brings Elster together with a filmmaker named Jim Finley who visits Elster at his ramshackle Anza-Borrego adobe, where the two watch sunsets and ruminate on art, war, human relationships and the desert itself, which seems a kind of counterpoint metaphor to the haiku of DeLillo’s own self-conscious novelistic style. The two had met entirely by coincidence at an exhibit in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where a 24-hour, slowed-down version of Hitchcock’s film “Psycho” held them both in thrall. Finley, who has no artistic reputation to speak of, wants to make a film of Elster simply talking — talking and talking, Elster’s head against a blank gray wall.

For a time, the two are joined by Elster’s daughter Jennie, an unemployed young woman in her 20s whose mother, estranged from Elster, has sent her to the desert to avoid the attentions of a strange and unsuitable suitor.

Finley, alone and making little headway persuading Elster to make the film, entertains sexual fantasies about Jennie that go nowhere. The three of them talk about exploring the area for bighorn sheep, but they never go. In time Jennie disappears and is counted as a missing person by the police, who eventually mount a search that takes place off the pages of the book.

“Point Omega” is not an immediately accessible novel. In the first place, it gives no prominence to plot. In the second place, it levers DeLillo’s naturally opaque, metaphysical style containing reflexive musing, philosophical dialogue, and mystical mytho-historical argot, into an extended poetic meditation reminiscent of Proust, though instead of Proust’s examination of Parisian society, DeLillo takes on America’s war-weary, media-saturated inertia.

Many Americans in their 60s, baby boomers who went to college during the Vietnam War, who tasted the heady transformations of the civil rights era, who saw music and art explode into kaleidoscopic brilliance, like the fictional Elster, began as youngsters with ardent minds full of longing, desire and even hope, seeing their country as a beacon of freedom, peace and creativity.

As Elster says, “I was a hungry mind, a pure mind. When I was a student I looked for radical ideas.”

And now, half a century later, “We’re all played out. Matter wants to lose self-consciousness . . . Time to close it down. This is what drives us now.” How many of us feel that way, feel as Elster does that the culture is looking for a way out, for animal diseases spreading, transmitted cancers, famine, climate collapse, something, anything to stop the merry-go-round?

“Point Omega” is a difficult but rewarding book, not for every taste. And some might argue that it is time for DeLillo to quit writing novels altogether and devote himself to essays on history, art, or film. He might lead a wave of journalism that surfs a new shore altogether. But like the rest of us, DeLillo is stuck with a disintegrating society and a shallow, superficial culture, the point omega of his title.

What is left to us save mindfulness and near-silence?

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"Point Omega" by Don DeLillo (Scribner, 117 pages, $24)