THE OLDER I GET, the narrower my tastes become, and more and more I find myself drawn to very particular minimalism—a time will inevitably come when I read nothing but Strindberg's chamber plays. And while I won't argue against Underworld as Don DeLillo's masterpiece, I secretly look forward to the spare volumes he's been putting out ever since.
His latest, Point Omega, is just over 100 pages, the bulk of which takes place in a small under-furnished cabin in the California desert, "somewhere south of nowhere" (and is bookended by a man standing, mostly alone, in front of a film installation). The narrator, filmmaker Jim Finley, is trying to convince a man named Richard Elster to agree to be the subject of his latest documentary, a film comprised of a single shot of Elster speaking in front of a bare wall. Elster, a controversial academic, was something of a conceptual consultant—not a strategist, he points out—for the Iraq invasion. He pictured a "Haiku War" (whatever that means), and concerned himself not with force levels or logistics, but "overarching ideas and principles." When he became disillusioned with the Bush administration's plans, he "exchanged all that for space and time." He retired to the desert.
What was supposed to be a quick trip for Finley—a movie pitch—turns into an interminable series of abstruse, academic conversations. Elster speaks in big declarations that, ultimately, reveal more about the speaker than his subjects. For weeks, the men talk in a language we would only accept from a writer like DeLillo. They pontificate about extinction, the universe... consciousness. His life, Elster says, happened "when he sat staring at a blank wall, thinking about dinner."
But when his daughter comes to visit, Elster's life "happens" in a very concrete way, and he can no longer keep it at arm's length. Loss isn't some intellectual abstraction.
There's a claustrophobic tension in Point Omega (appropriate for a story framed by a man watching Hitchcock), but, like the best works of minimalism, it's balanced with expansiveness—of ideas and of landscape—and suggests more than most authors could fit in a 700-page tome. That's why I'll take my DeLillo in small doses these days—118 pages are all he needs.