“…common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” –Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory
Given that it carries the burden of a world grinding down, Don DeLillo’s book, Point Omega (Scribner’s, 2010), should weigh a ton. It doesn’t. It’s slight. Like a haiku, the novel has three slender parts. The structure is taut. A starkly compressed story, characterized by exacting prose, is set in the white-hot glare of the desert. This, the book’s middle section, is framed by two short, largely descriptive chapters taking place in the seeming eternity of a darkened room. These bracketing passages are ekphrastic: they verbally conjure a work of contemporary art and the acts of its reception. That video installation, Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2006.
There was a man standing against the north wall, barely visible. The book’s opening line reveals a character lurking in the shadows. Point Omega came to DeLillo upon repeated viewing of Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, screened on a shimmering, double-sided scrim suspended in the middle of a gallery at MoMA. In part an exercise in engaged viewing, DeLillo’s piece is inextricable from Gordon’s: in its structure, its themes, its ethos and aesthetic. The film’s merciless pacing had no meaning without a corresponding watchfulness, the individual whose absolute alertness did not betray what was demanded. He stood and looked. In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things. This passage sketches the book’s preoccupations. However, the dramatic shift in duration that occurs in Gordon’s video offers an experience specific to a visual, time-based medium. Imagining a novel with similar effect is almost impossible. (Nicholson Baker’s perhaps come closest with their exhaustive detailing of every day occurrences). DeLillo recognizes (here, as in many of his books) that visual art can extend the reach toward something—the sublime, perhaps–that words, left to their own (rhetorical) devices, might never grasp. They had to think in words. That was their problem. The action moved too slowly to accommodate their vocabulary of film.
In 24 Hour Psycho Gordon stretches Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) near to the point of snapping. His iteration of the film, stripped of sound, takes twenty-four hours to view in its entirety at about two frames per second. Time thickens as the flow of film is nearly stilled. The desert, too, when it appears in the middle section of DeLillo’s novel, seems still–until eyes become accustomed to the harsh, even light. The landscape appears to be monochromatic at first, then reveals countless gradations of color. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion. Both novel and artwork focus on modes of looking—attentive, obsessive, perverse. 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. That’s not quite right: we are, or should be keeping eyes on the anonymous narrator. Not to forget: Hitchcock chose a painting of Susannah and the Elders to hide Bates’ peephole. The biblical story thematizes the voyeuristic gaze.
Both author and artist recalibrate time—filmic, social, mortal, geological, apocalyptic. Marked time gives way to duration, relative and elastic. In Gordon’s version of Hitchcock’s film, extreme slow motion enables us to see more than we are normally able. We scrutinize the gaps that don’t register when a film is shown at familiar speed. Gestures and changes in facial expression are absurdly protracted. The perceptive capacity of the naked eye is extended by technological tricks and techniques into the realm that Walter Benjamin called “the optical unconscious.”
For DeLillo’s main protagonist, Elster (his name derived from the anti-hero of Hitchcock’s Vertigo), a shift of location produces a parallel effect of deceleration. “Time falling away. That’s what I feel here,” he said. “Time becoming slowly older, enormously old. Not day by day. This is deep time, epochal time. Our lives receding into the long past. That’s what’s out there. The Pleistocene desert, the rule of extinction.” Elster retreats to the desert of the American Southwest to relieve the nausea of News and Traffic caused by contemporary urban existence. Elster manages to escape only at the highest cost.
What do these manipulations of time reveal? By parsing frame-by-frame the infamous shower scene in which Marion is murdered, we might expect to be brought closer to the horror of the Real (defined by Jacques Lacan as that, including death, which we can never fully comprehend). In actuality, we do not catch such a glimpse. The slowing down abstracts the film. An anxiety-filled viewer is no longer carried along by the irresistible narrative pull that is Hitchcock’s hallmark. Cuts appear few and far between. Acting reveals its artifice and is emptied of emotion. Scenes settle into barely shifting compositions in black and white. Blood in its slow spiraling down the drain might just as well be ink. Here abstraction breeds numbness.
“A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. That is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.” The anti-humanist slant of Point Omega expressed by Elster redoubles the formalizing effect of 24 Hour Psycho. The actions of human beings cease to matter when great swathes of time are unfurled. Mortals are overtaken by brute materiality. John Banville makes the astute observation that DeLillo at this point in his career is like Giacometti, chipping away at the human figure until it almost disappears.
Even with time bent badly, the all-too-familiar Psycho can’t shake its lingering themes of madness and violence. They haunt the novel and Elster lends them voice. In this character, DeLillo’s icy precision has found its mouthpiece. Elster’s former occupation involved playing wordsmith to the men who wage war in Iraq by proxy, through lenses, on screen, euphemistically. “I wanted a war in three lines.” What is most disturbing about DeLillo’s Point Omega—and Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho–is not the proximity of horror, but the terror of detachment.
Two other characters join Elster in the desert to complete the haphazard family grouping. (Other than Norman’s, mothers are notably absent in these works). A desultory filmmaker, Jim Finlay, narrates the middle portion of the novel. He intends to shoot a film about Elster in a single, scrutinizing take. He’s a come-lately Errol Morris trying to penetrate the fog of war. He never quite manages to get the project started, but becomes witness to Elster’s unrelenting rumination. Elster’s daughter Jessie, a paper-thin understudy for Janet Leigh, arrives to stir the sleepy plot into motion. Jessie vanishes into the mute landscape almost as soon as she’s appeared, like the girl gone missing in Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960). The search for her gets underway. Clues as easily overlooked as jangling shower curtain rings tack the central narrative to its frame. Elster contends with his own human-scale tragedy.
An incidental and uncanny convergence: in 1995 Douglas Gordon conceived of another video work similar in strategy, setting, and theme to Point Omega. Just days after September 11, 2001, a segment of 5 Year Drive-By was played in the desert close to Twentynine Palms, California–the site of a decades’ old Marine training base for desert combat. This location would not have been far from Elster’s clapboard retreat. The film slowed to slower than slow in this instance was the iconic John Ford Western, The Searchers (1956). In it, John Wayne’s rage-driven character spends five full years trying to find his abducted niece (played by Natalie Wood). Gordon intended for his appropriation of the one-hundred-and-eighteen-minute movie to span five years, thereby opening the folds of cinematic time to correlate with time that’s true to life.
24 Hour Psycho’s stubborn crawl deeply informs Point Omega and coaxes it toward the subliminal register where words fall short. The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever. In the final segment of the book, we return to the gallery knowing that Elster and Jim have seen 24 Hour Psycho. In DeLillo deadpan, Jessie reports her father’s response: “He told me it was like watching the universe die over a period of about seven billion years.” Jim replies: “We were there ten minutes.” As the novel goes black, the fictional “real” is subsumed by real (reel) representation. The anonymous viewer in the museum gallery has come to inhabit the guise of Norman Bates. Back by the north wall the darkness was nearly complete and the man standing alone moved a hand toward his face, repeating, ever so slowly, the action of a figure on the screen.