A Few Questions about DeLillo's Point Omega

Fri Mar 5, 2010

I just read this, and I have to admit that I resent its price. Moving past that minor objection, I have read a few of the reviews (FT, CSM, McGrath piece in NYT), and I would have liked for them to have tackled what seems to me be an important question about the book–i.e., what happens to Jessica. They chose spoiler avoidance, which is understandable, but I have no such compunction. Jessie is Richard Elster’s daughter. Elster is a former Pentagon consultant and intellectual architect of “reality-based community”-like ideas, who’s become, in his Spenglerian declining phase, a Teilhardian. Hence, “Point Omega.” Jim Finley wants to do a Fog of War on him. Jessie meets our anonymous narrator for two sections during a screening of Douglas Gordon’s 24-hour Psycho. These two sections begin and the end the book, while the rest takes place in a desert retreat where Finley tries to persuade Elster to participate in the film.

Jessie, who’s been getting calls from the shy film buff, who’s apparently too shy to say anything on the phone, which causes the mother to send her to the desert. She stays with her father and Finley for a few weeks, then disappears one day, never to be seen again. A knife is found in a ravine, but its status is ambiguous. Finley suspects the “boyfriend,” but the narrative leaves little clear evidence, at least that I noticed on a single read, about what happens.

Jessie has some type of mental disturbance, the nature of which is not precisely described. DeLillo’s intention seemed clearest to me when he describes an academic article on the subject of renditions, apparently written in a Straussian manner, that Elster had written early in the course of the Gulf War. (The paper may have lead to his invitation from the Pentagon.) Here’s what I think is an important paragraph:

Toward the end of the commentary he wrote about select current meanings of the word rendition—interpretation, translation, performance. Within those walls, somewhere, in seclusion, a drama is being enacted, old as human memory, he wrote, actors naked, chained, blindfolded, other actors with props of intimidation, the renderers, nameless and masked, dressed in black, and what ensues, he wrote, is a revenge play that reflects the mass will and interprets the shadowy need of an entire nation, ours. (34)

Elster’s ideas about emerging consciousness, thought as an organism, are closely related to his sense of guilt. Or at least this seems to be Finley’s interpretation. So the disappearance into the desert of his daughter is either a wished-for punishment or retribution brought into being by an emergent order, or an act consciously carried out by Finley, for example, who appoints himself agent of these processes. That our anonymous narrator has traveled to the desert to recreate, in his small way, a scene from the slowed film strikes me as implausible. But I would need to read this again to decide for sure.