In the middle of Nowhere, California, filmmaker Jim Finley is a houseguest of Richard Elster, a retired scholar recruited to market the war in Iraq. Finley is trying to enlist him for a new project: a film that would include nothing beyond a camera, a wall, and Elster in a chair telling the tale of his time in the Pentagon. There are no hidden motives on the part of either character. The setup is the given; the story lives in the waiting. Art is a prominent factor throughout. Besides Finley’s “vision,” the chapters are bookended by scenes at an NYC exhibit in which a close third person narration reveals a spectator’s stream of consciousness, and probably, the key to understanding the climax.
Elster is a fine character that DeLillo allows—mostly—to sidestep the conventions of the rapidly aging, prickly, and washed-up retiree. He is reclusive and cynical, but warm and soft of heart, and not above the awkwardness of social encounters. His only pitfalls are his lengthy diatribes that, while thought-provoking, are much too interfered with by the style and pace of Jim Finley’s narration. Elster’s dialogue is riddled with similarities to Finley’s passing thoughts: the introduction of an idea followed by four or so lines explaining it with metaphorical terminology and then an insightful, expanding wrap-up. The overlap is subtle enough in most places, but distracting.
The prose employs a mind-to-mouth style which, while only growing in popularity, does not hesitate to give up on the search for the perfect word and substitute “thing” in its place; it is concerned neither with the fine points of sentence structure nor the dulling effects of word repetition. As the plot spelled out, however, the style became more acceptable—vital in some parts, especially in dealing with barren scenery and insight unfolding at its own unhurried pace. The dryness of the sentences overall is double-edged. At times it enhances the mood—the stillness of the rooms, the plainness of the “true life,” the haunting power of images conveyed and not described—while at others, it robs DeLillo of a rightful claim: that his is a layered and colorful imagination.
The plot is slow to form and slow to play out, but not irremediably so. In fact, in the right light, the lackluster pace is part of the novella’s charm. It is slow moving, but art is slow moving. You stare at a picture or a display long enough and then eventually a light clicks on and you get it! Point Omega is not very different. The book is not about the war or the “selling” of it to the public, as was Elster’s duty. These themes are incidental. It seems instead a portrayal of time and space with postmodern art and terrorism as the backdrop.
Elster’s perspective itself is art. By some stretch, it is even an accidental homage to Latin American activist Augusto Boal who said, “When we are free in space, we are arrested in time … And when we are arrested in space, we have the free time.” Freedom in the world means living according to schedules, obligations, and appointments, and in Elster’s case, according to the philosophy, that was the end result of his career. However, when he is “arrested” by a tragedy (that Finley notes as “local grief”), he is free, perhaps for the first time, to think with his heart and to live the “true life.” The result is daunting, and forces all of us to confront that nagging voice beneath the laugh tracks and applause reels that whispers just loud enough to be heard, “For better or worse, you too will be set free.”