The Paranoid Elite

Michael Wood

  • Point Omega by Don DeLillo
    Picador, 117 pp, £14.99, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 330 51238 1

Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) was in many ways a farewell to paranoia. Not the paranoid style in American politics, to quote the title of a famous essay by Richard Hofstadter (how could anyone say farewell to a mode so lavishly on the rise?), but to the paranoid fictions that animated DeLillo’s own novels The Names (1982) and Libra (1988), and went all the way back to Pynchon’s V (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). Those were the days when we knew the score: it was whatever the authorities were not telling us. Conspiracy theory wasn’t even a theory, it was a basic interpretative procedure, a way of getting through the week. There was ‘a world inside the world’, as Lee Harvey Oswald kept saying in Libra. And then one day there wasn’t. The world was just the world, a vast clutter of causes and coincidences. The underworld emptied itself onto the streets, and mere suspicion began to seem naive, a form of reverse faith. Things were what they were, and quite bad enough at that.

This is not quite where DeLillo himself went. He became as post-paranoid as the rest of us – when in Underworld he wrote of ‘the paranoid elite’ he was joking – but he also maintained a strong fidelity to what was most persuasive about paranoia as a mode of inquiry (as distinct from a clinical condition). Paranoia could be, and is, wrong about all kinds of things, but it can’t be wrong about the riddling nature of the world as we experience it much of the time. The fact that there is probably no answer to the riddle, or if you prefer that the riddle isn’t really a riddle at all, doesn’t mean our puzzlement is a poorly advised response. It may be all we have, and it is certainly all we have if we can’t resist tuning our minds to what puzzles us.

All four of the novels DeLillo has published since UnderworldThe Body Artist (2001), Cosmopolis (2003), Falling Man (2007) and now Point Omega – are relatively short. None of them is longer than 250 pages, and the most recent, at 117 pages, is the shortest. He seems to be drawn to the short story too, as evidenced by his brilliant ‘Midnight in Dostoevsky’, published in the New Yorker late last year. The brevity is interesting but perhaps on its own can’t be made to mean much. Or maybe it is a way of saying how difficult it has become to say things, what it’s like to be left with a feeling of conspiracy when you know the conspiracy has died. Certainly all of this recent work insists on questions of how to think and talk about the world we imagine we know. Is it true, as we read in The Body Artist, that ‘only the bedtime language of childhood can save us from awe and shame’? Do we want to be saved? The opening words of Falling Man are, ‘It was not a street anymore but a world,’ a fine phrase but also a wave of words rather than an acquired truth. It is more likely that the New York of the terrorist attacks of 2001, the scene of this novel, was a world before it was a street, that the street turned to rubble in part because it wasn’t listening to the imperial boast in the name of the World Trade Center.

Point Omega too is full of fine phrases, but most of them are attributed to a character we come to trust less and less. Richard Elster is described as a ‘defence intellectual’: he has been employed by the Bush government to find words and arguments for war strategy, and he has had a thoroughly good time doing it. He got himself hired by writing, among other things, a controversial article about the meaning of the word ‘rendition’, the first sentence of which is: ‘A government is a criminal enterprise.’ ‘I wanted a haiku war,’ he now says, having left his exalted position. ‘I wanted a war in three lines.’ ‘A great power has to act. We were struck hard. We need to retake the future.’ Once it was his job to say things like that. The trouble is he’s still saying them, and apparently still believing them. He is never more eloquent than when he is talking about the powerlessness of words. ‘The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.’ That’s clear enough, and verbal enough. The narrator comments, more in a tone of mild wonderment than irony: ‘He said this more than once, Elster did, in more than one way.’

Did he mean it when he said it again? Did he still enjoy saying it? One of the enemies of conspiracy in Point Omega is distraction: there just aren’t enough connections or continuities to keep a conspiracy going. A woman is described as vanishing periodically from her own life. ‘Her look had an abridged quality, it wasn’t reaching the wall or window … 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.’ A man making a movie – or trying to get started on making a movie – manages to forget the film that was his obsession only a few days earlier. ‘I tried to think about the future … and I realised what it was that had passed out of mind until this moment. It was the film. I remembered the film.’ And Elster, the war consultant, now thinks of nothing but the heat death of the universe, a bleak and unlikely version of Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the omega point. ‘Do we have to be human for ever? Consciousness is exhausted … This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.’ What has happened to these people? Or what has happened to the idea of things happening?

A more familiar style of narrative would allow us to answer these questions. The man dreaming of stones was rattled by his relation to the war; the man making a movie ran into some kind of trouble; the missing woman carries a trauma with her. These readings are all possible, nothing in the novel denies them; but nothing supports them either. They are stories from another world, where cause and effect are still faithful to each other, and where no one has conversations like this:

I said: ‘Footsteps in movies.’

‘Footsteps.’

‘Footsteps in movies never sound real.’

‘They’re footsteps in movies.’

‘You’re saying why should they sound real.’

‘They’re footsteps in movies,’ she said.

There are two narratives in Point Omega, subtly but distinctly linked, although the frame looks at first as if it is only a frame. The longer story, placed in the middle of this seeming frame, concerns Elster, who has taken to thinking about the meaning of life in his isolated house in the Southern California desert; Elster’s daughter, Jessie, who comes to stay with him for a while; and Jim Finley, who wants to make a movie with Elster, ‘about his time in government, in the blat and stammer of Iraq’. Elster talks and stalls, doesn’t agree to the making of the film; Finley realises it will never be made; Jessie, whom we have already seen missing in metaphor, vanishes literally and is not seen again. Elster and Finley report her absence, and search the house and desert, without success. Elster, in his narcissistic way devoted to Jessie, or at least to his idea of her (‘She was her father’s dream thing’), is a broken man and Finley effectively becomes his nurse: from moviemaker to minder. They return to the East Coast and the story ends.

Before and after these events, on the page but not in narrative time – in narrative time things are more complicated – the novel offers us a section called ‘Anonymity’, dated 3 September, and a section called ‘Anonymity 2’, dated 4 September. The year, another page tells us, is 2006, and the whole sequence of the novel, frames included, takes place in ‘late summer/early fall’. These frame sections show us, as their title suggests, an unnamed man, and trace in close, slow detail the account he gives to himself, in indirect speech, of watching a movie – no, not a movie, an installation, Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, a version of the famous film slowed down to two frames a second, which was in fact, a note in Point Omega tells us, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2006.

The man’s preferred spot for watching the installation is the north wall of the room where the work is shown. Sometimes he walks to the other side of the screen to look at things in reverse. Other visitors to the gallery come and go, mainly go. The man has been there for more than three hours when we meet him; this is the fifth day in a row he’s visited the show. It closes tomorrow, the man knows he’ll be back then – and in the last section of the book, he is.

Here’s how he watches. ‘The slightest camera movement was a profound shift in space and time but the camera was not moving now. Anthony Perkins is turning his head. It was like whole numbers. The man could count the gradations in the movement of Anthony Perkins’s head.’ The film continues to run, or crawl, and two men enter the room – Elster and Finley, although we don’t know this yet and the man never will. By this time Janet Leigh is getting ready to be killed in the shower and the man by the wall thinks: ‘Everybody was watching something. He was watching the two men, they were watching the screen, Anthony Perkins at his peephole was watching Janet Leigh undress. Nobody was watching him. This was the ideal world as he might have drawn it in his mind.’ The last sentence tells us a little more than we want to know about this man: which bit of this world is ideal, the watching of watchers or the not being watched while you watch? When the man starts thinking about his dead mother we wonder if the rest of Psycho can be far away.

However, the man maintains this tone of mildly obsessive connoisseurship in both his sections. He gets ready to count the rings on the shower curtain as Janet Leigh falls, having already seen in them, last time, ‘a stray poem above the hellish death’. There are six rings. ‘It takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you,’ he thinks. ‘It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at.’ This is not the sort of work Elster and Finley are interested in doing (‘We stood in the dark and watched. I sensed nearly at once that Elster was resisting. Something was being subverted here, his traditional language of response. Stillborn images, collapsing time, an idea so open to theory and argument that it left him no clear context to dominate’), and they have left the gallery before Janet Leigh is killed. Would they have had a better understanding of what happens to them later if they had stayed? Would Finley, for instance, have made a connection when he ‘threw back the shower curtain’, looking for Jessie in the empty house? The man in the gallery meanwhile has decided that the pace of the Gordon installation is ‘paradoxically real … things barely happening, cause and effect so drastically drawn apart that it seemed real to him, the way all the things in the physical world that we don’t understand are said to be real.’ This is a definition of reality that separates it irrevocably from realism. Realism is things looking as if they are real, movie footsteps that sound like real footsteps, or rather like the footsteps we hear in our head when we think of ‘real footsteps’. In this man’s perspective reality doesn’t show up until things cease to look like themselves.

The man wonders whether a movie shown at this pace can have anything resembling scenes. ‘Could they be called scenes, becalmed as they were, the raw makings of a gesture, the long arc of hand to face?’ DeLillo concentrates rather suddenly on analytic descriptions of the watcher, ‘a man of attenuated viewpoint’, and the guard, ‘staring into the daylong narrows of his detachment’. And finally there is the wonderful confession, which must in part belong to the man himself: ‘He had a good vocabulary except when he was talking to someone.’ DeLillo is never simply ironic, but he is often very funny, and the vague, schoolmasterly rigidity of the phrase ‘a good vocabulary’ conjures up someone who doesn’t even know how to talk about his inability to talk – as if Eliot’s Sweeney (‘I gotta use words when I talk to you’) were to be proud of his results in an English exam.

On the last day in the gallery the man meets the missing Jessie, although she is not missing yet: the scenes in her father’s house are still to come. He doesn’t know who she is, of course, and we know only because she tells him something we have already learned about her: that she used to read people’s lips when she was a child. She also sounds like the Jessie we have met. ‘We need time to lose interest in things,’ she says, and when the man asks her if she can imagine herself living another life, she says: ‘That’s too easy. Ask me something else.’ The man persuades Jessie to give him her phone number, but when we last see him he is back in the room with the installation, watching Norman Bates, ‘scary bland’, put down the phone. The man suddenly imagines the museum guard shooting himself in the head, feels closer than ever to Norman Bates, and thinks again about his mother, dying or perhaps dead: ‘Sometimes he sits by her bed and says something and then looks at her and waits for an answer. Sometimes he just looks at her.’ The novel ends with a weird, lyric sentence, almost an announcement of another Hitchcock movie: ‘Sometimes a wind comes before the rain and sends birds sailing past the window, spirit birds that ride the night, stranger than dreams.’

We need to register a few more plot elements, even if they are there only for us to let them go. Jessie’s mother, separated from Elster, has sent her to California to get her away from a boyfriend in New York. We don’t learn anything about him except that he may be called Dennis, and that he rings the mother up repeatedly, never leaving a message. Is he a stalker, a killer? A knife is found in the desert after Jessie has disappeared, but nothing else, no body. When Finley gets a phone call from someone who doesn’t talk, is that Dennis? Or just someone returning one of Finley’s many calls? The phone says ‘blocked caller’. Are we meant to think of the end of Nabokov’s story ‘Signs and Symbols’ here, with its repeating wrong (or perhaps right) number, or is that a distraction? Has Jessie left the house because she felt Finley’s attentions were becoming increasingly predatory, as they certainly were? This thought does not cross Finley’s mind. Is Jessie dead, or has she merely taken up the other life she thought it was so easy to shift into? And what do Hitchcock and Douglas Gordon have to do with this?

Some of these questions can be answered, or at least invite good guesses. The echo of Nabokov is a homage not an accident. Hitchcock in this novel is doing what he does in his movies: introducing the possibility of extreme violence into apparently (or indeed actually) innocent stories and locations. The point is not the probability of violence but the chance of it; it’s the chance we can’t get out of our minds. And Douglas Gordon helps DeLillo to undo both fictional and material realities by slowing them down, so that we see both Norman Bates and Anthony Perkins as no one could see them without the aid of this dilatory machine, a world where cause has strayed too far from effect for reason to compose any sort of chain. If Hitchcock suggests violence could always happen, this reading of Gordon suggests first that anything could happen, and second that the very notion of happening, as I have suggested, may be too crude and composite a concept.

We can’t know whether Jessie is dead or not, whether her life has ended in some sort of Psycho-related horror: perhaps the man in the gallery killed her, inspired by the disjunction of cause and effect to murder the person he might instead have had dinner with. But we can’t just leave her floating between possibilities, and her disappearance, and her father’s sense of loss, are the same either way. DeLillo is not inviting us to think of inscrutable mysteries, he is asking us to weigh the interpretative options, like a detective or an art historian. And weighing the options, of course, whichever side we come down on, we have already realised both of them to some degree. Can we really believe that Jessie just took off, that none of the suggestions of violence in the novel has any relevance, that they are all just phantoms of anxiety, or as DeLillo eloquently puts it, ‘small dull smears of meditative panic’? Yes, but it’s hard work. Conversely, do we have to believe that every form of strangeness leads straight into a horror movie, with no return? This is to bring cause and effect back with a vengeance, and to slot these wandering people back into an unequivocal story, almost certainly the wrong one.

Finley asks a remarkable question about Jessie: ‘Had she strayed past the edge of conjecture?’ He means had she gone further than he and Elster were willing to imagine. But of course the phrase conjures up some country not just beyond the known but beyond the thinkable. That is where Jessie is living or lying crumpled in death, and if we were wise we would leave her there. But we have only to hear the word ‘unthinkable’ to start thinking – that’s what the word is for – and all kinds of novelists and philosophers will remind us that Wittgenstein’s excellent advice (‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’) more often than not just can’t be taken.

This suggestion sends us back to Elster and his unremitting faith in his own verbal skills, his ‘long decades of thinking and speaking about transcendent matters’. It’s not clear whether the movie Finley wanted to make would been kind to Elster, and it is no doubt because he has some suspicion that it wouldn’t that he is not consenting to the making of it. Words and film here leave us on the edge of emptiness. Finley’s only previous film is composed of edited footage of Jerry Lewis doing his telethons, ‘a disease artist’, as Finley calls him.

The film was all Jerry, pure performance, Jerry talking, singing, weeping, Jerry with his ruffled shirt open at the collar, bow tie undone, a raccoon flung over his shoulders, Jerry inviting the nation’s love and wonder at four in the morning, in close-up, a crew-cut sweating man in semidelirium, a disease artist, begging us to send money to cure his afflicted children.

This is where Finley meets up, or could have met up, with the man in the gallery. The frantic, synthetic, edited Jerry Lewis and the sluggish Norman Bates at two frames a second both remove us from what used to be the world, and make us wonder where it went.