Twenty-six years ago, in White Noise, Don DeLillo wrote about the Most Photographed Barn in America, a tourist attraction that was an attraction simply because it was an attraction, and thus bestowed with a significance entirely unjustified by its architectural or historical standing. Read now, the vignette feels like an uncanny prophecy of celeb reality. "No one sees the barn," says Murray, an academic on a day trip. "What was the barn like before it was photographed? What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can't answer these questions because we've read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can't get outside the aura. We're part of the aura."
Now, in Point Omega, a book quite different to White Noise but no less unmistakably by Don DeLillo, we are presented with a sort of human counterpoint to that phenomenon – a flimsy girl called Jessie who is "sylphlike", whose "element was air", barely there because she is barely seen, and barely sees others. "Her look had an abridged quality, it wasn't reaching the wall or window," we are told. "I found it disturbing to watch her, knowing that she didn't feel watched. Where was she?"
Jessie is the locus of Point Omega's unsettling sense that reality is more a question of where attention is arbitrarily placed than it is a tangible fact. Her father is Richard Elster, a neo-conservative intellectual who worked on the planning of the Iraq war and whose professional disdain for fictive landscapes – "They think they're sending an army into a place on the map," he complains of the war's prosecutors – is somewhat undercut by his personal retreat to a secluded shack somewhere deep in the California desert. He is followed there by the book's narrator, Jim Finley, a filmmaker who hopes to record Elster reflecting on his part in the run-up to invasion.
None of the three is exactly flesh and blood, but in Jessie, DeLillo has presented perhaps his most hologrammatic figure yet: flat, and yet like us, because her disorienting difficulty with connection is all too familiar. Elster and Finley, too, can only scramble for concrete proof of their own existence, of what Elster calls "the true life", something not spoken or written but found in the "submicroscopic moments". "The unsorted thoughts we have looking out the train window," elaborates Finley. "Small dull smears of meditative panic."
Elster is in the desert in the hope of focusing on "the true life", and, more cryptically, because of his sense that time passes differently there – that "day turns to night eventually but it's a matter of light and darkness, it's not time passing, mortal time... it's different here, time is enormous". In his own way, DeLillo is trying something similar. The book begins and ends with visits to an art installation: Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho, which consists of Hitchcock's film slowed down to be played over a 24-hour cycle with the effect that each submicroscopic moment – whether it's a turn of the head or a fist clasping round a knife – takes on equal attention, and hence equal significance.
In between those bookends, Point Omega's narrative unfolds in a similarly glacial, attentive way; a forlorn counterattack against plot, cause and effect, and the near-universal sense that tiny moments matter less than grand narratives. Elster compares the perfect conflict to a haiku, "a war in three lines", and expresses a military determination to "retake the future" through "the force of will"; it isn't hard to see how Point Omega's interest in the minutiae, its resistance to the usual narrative shapes, might work as a counterattack to that kind of approach as a matter of geo-politics. But DeLillo has a far broader purpose, as he always does: to present a world in which perception and reality are one, and to suggest ways to navigate it. He is almost alone in the mainstream of American literature in ploughing this furrow, and his continued determination to do so borders on the heroic. This strange, slight, brittle fiction is a worthy addition to an extraordinary body of work.
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