Choose Your Own Advent, Day 10: Mother Night

Mother Night, Kurt VonnegutChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Mother Night
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Year: 1961

I’m not jealous of many authors. I respect, admire, and enjoy many authors. There are even authors that I study, that I try to emulate, that I pore over in an attempt to better understand my craft.

But jealousy? No. Jealousy is a bit different. In most cases when I enjoy an author, or a specific work, it’s enough just to be close to it. They inspire me…they convince me to keep writing when it seems as though I can’t find anything to say, or any interesting way in which to say it…they enrich me.

Kurt Vonnegut, though…I’m jealous of Kurt Vonnegut.

I think it’s because he wasn’t just great at what he did; he also did something that I simply cannot do. I know, because I’ve tried. And as anyone who has read anything I’ve ever written will know, I’ve failed.

Here’s what he does that makes me jealous: he writes simply.

He writes efficiently.

He says so much with so little. He changes lives and defines characters with just a short sentence. Maybe less.

And I can’t do that. Most of the authors I love can’t do that either. We’re long-winded creatures. We describe. We elaborate. We digress. We layer, we compound, we examine.

Here’s the funny part: Vonnegut does all of that, too. He just does it more simply, and more efficiently.

And I’m jealous of him.

It’s jealousy because I want what he has, and try as I might (have once tried), I can’t have it.

Writing isn’t easy, but I do believe that given enough time, enough practice, enough exposure to those who write well, once can achieve a certain level of competence. Maybe not talent, but the more you work at something, the better at it you will get.

I’ve seen this happen. I’ve seen great authors discover themselves. I’ve seen amateurs find a voice. I’ve seen so many people with so much to say one day, at last, figure out how to say it.

And almost none of them gravitate toward brevity.

Not true brevity.

Not Vonnegut brevity, wherein a couple of words can suggest a complete narrative arc, wherein a chapter two sentences long provides a gut-punch from which the reader will never recover, wherein the author somehow, impossibly, comes to grips with a large comic conundrum explained with the vocabulary of a third grader.

Vonnegut was a simple man who packed simple messages with disarming profundities. He looked like a cranky old grandpa and carried within him the wisdom of children. He was tormented by his experiences serving in World War II and was yet one of literature’s sweetest, most sincere humorists.

He was a treasure, and I didn’t know what to make of him–and didn’t quite like him–until a professor suggested I read Mother Night. Once I did, I was better prepared for the man’s bibliography as a whole.

Mother Night is Vonnegut’s most traditional novel, most human novel, and probably his most relatable novel. It’s also his best, and it’s the one that I would without hesitation slot among the best books I’ve ever read.

It’s the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American living in Germany at the onset of the second World War. He’s a playwright of some moderate success, married to a woman who is also his leading lady. And then he’s offered the chance to do some good, which is where everything goes wrong.

He agrees, essentially, to work as a spy for the Americans. The Germans trust him, after all, and his experience lends him an air of authority when he’s hired to broadcast propaganda. The Nazis think they’ve lucked out having an actual celebrity reading their bulletins, and the Americans think they have a brave patriot behind enemy lines.

The question of which side is correct the point of the entire novel.

Campbell, sure, is working for the Americans. As he reads propaganda over the airwaves, he makes sure to sniffle, cough, clear his throat as instructed. These cues relay information that he never himself learns to the Allies listening at home.

Then again, all the while, he is broadcasting actual Nazi propaganda.

In the act of helping his country, he’s also perpetuating the horrors of Nazi Germany. The moment he realizes this–that work for the good guys was also work, perhaps even more effective work, for the villains–he knows there’s no going back to ignorance.

His internal conflict…his struggle to live while encumbered by horrifying guilt…is the book. Mother Night is a meditation on who we are as people. On whether our words or our intentions mean more. On what defines us. On what we pretend to be, and what we wish we were.

And it’s very funny. Vonnegut never could tell a story without giving it some kind of humorous twist, and to spoil the novel’s best jokes would be to rob you of your own discoveries. But I will say this: every single character in Mother Night, no matter how minor, lives at least a double life, and the subtle way in which Vonnegut weaves this detail through the fabric of his universe…potentially our universe…is tragic and comic in equal measure.

Campbell is gradually torn apart by his inability to rectify his deeds with his intentions, and whether or not you ultimately find him guilty or acquit him will say something about you as a reader, and perhaps as a human being. More importantly, though, whichever side you come down on, Mother Night forces you to consider, deeply, the other.

It’s exactly the kind of story that many authors would tell over the course of around 1,000 pages, with dense prose and horrific wartime vignettes sprinkled throughout.

Vonnegut writes it simply, focusing only on a lonely man, without a country, in possession of too many copies of “White Christmas.”

In other words, Vonnegut told it precisely the right way.

I’m profoundly jealous.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 9: Pale Fire

Pale Fire, Vladimir NabokovChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Pale Fire
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Year: 1962

I took a series of writing workshops in college. They were massively helpful to me, not least because I was in a room with other writers, who could offer constructive criticism that was difficult to come by otherwise.

I wrote. People read what I wrote. They enjoyed it, or they didn’t enjoy it, and that was about that. There was no opportunity to improve though, unquestionably, there was significant room for improvement. There’s no more reliable road to mediocrity than remaining closed off from active, articulate feedback.

I’d taught myself as much as I could. I learned from my mistakes to a certain point, but beyond that I wasn’t aware of the mistakes. The writing workshops made me strongly, acutely, often uncomfortably aware of my mistakes. I owe them everything.

In one of the workshops there was a student named Scott. He was a bit older than the rest of us, and he didn’t seem to like me much. At the very least, I can confirm that he did not like my writing. That stuck out to me, because my writing was, on the whole, pretty good. It was the last of the workshops I’d taken, so I’d honed my craft fairly well by that point. My instructor enjoyed my work a lot, and often used my stories as examples to illustrate his points to others.

I think Scott may have been a bit jealous of that. But, hey, all writers think they see jealousy where they probably don’t. It’s just as likely he simply didn’t enjoy the kind of writing I did…and no matter how well or poorly I did it, there would be a disconnect between my intentions and his reception.

Toward the end of the semester he was providing feedback on one of my stories. It was one I was proud of. It’s one that eventually went on to be published, and to be turned into a short film by an amateur director. I’m still proud of it.

But Scott didn’t enjoy it. I remember his feedback well. He said, as though he couldn’t find anything else positive to say, “Well, at least Philip is showing us that you can enjoy yourself while writing.”

It was meant as a backhanded compliment, I’m sure, but I remember being baffled by that. Why wouldn’t you enjoy yourself while writing? If you don’t enjoy it, why do it? There are dozens of other ways to express yourself…why pick one that you don’t thoroughly enjoy?

I think that’s why he didn’t like my work; I enjoyed what I was doing. I tried to let that enjoyment shine through. His work–and presumably, therefore, his preferred kind of work–was serious. Always. Without variation. Everything was deep and painful and profound without any room for levity. I preferred the delicate chaos of combining both.

All of which is to say that this is what I prefer in the stories I read. Playfulness. Not lightness, necessarily. Not joy. Not happy endings. Not even relief. But I prefer authors who enjoy writing. And I’m not sure any author in history had more fun with the English language than Vladimir Nabokov.

In fact, once Nabokov began writing in English, he never went back to his native Russian. He found English to be more expressive. More satisfying. More…fun.

Nabokov toyed with convention, with structure, with readers’ expectations of all kinds. And, as a result, he remains one of literature’s greatest treasures.

Pale Fire might just be Nabokov at his most playful. The central conceit is that “Pale Fire” is the title of the final poem by (fictional) poet John Shade, and that’s what Pale Fire contains: the complete, uninterrupted (ahem…) text of that poem.

You, dear reader, are part of the story. Because you bought Pale Fire in order to read the last creative spark from the celebrated Shade. Only you get a bit more than the poem; you also get a foreword and commentary from his protege, Charles Kinbote.

And so “Pale Fire” ends up sandwiched between the words of Shade’s commentator, and a game of last-words, literary one-upmanship, and dueling (dualing?) contextualization begins.

It amounts to a sprawling, intricate puzzle of fiction, and there’s no particular “right” way to read it. Sure, you start with the foreword, but then do you read the lengthy poem straight through? Do you flip back and forth between the lines and the commentary that (ostensibly) explains them? And when you come to a conflict–when “Pale Fire” clearly says one thing, but Kinbote assures you that it says another–what do you do?

Nabokov played with narrative unreliability throughout his entire career, but Pale Fire amplifies it to a level that, in my opinion, has never been equaled. Kinbote gradually reveals himself to be not just unreliable, but outright malicious, delusional, and dangerous. And he does it all through the seemingly benign, academic work of annotating the text of the final poem by his closest friend.

Nabokov doesn’t give us the story; he gives us the final product. He gives us the exact book that Kinbote ended up publishing…warts and all. It’s a reader’s job to figure out what the story even is. Indeed, there have doubtless been readers who finished the book without realizing that there was a story.

Kinbote uses his strike of personal kismet–the fact that he, and not Shade’s wife Sybil, ended up with custody of the poem after the man’s death–to give himself a platform he would not have otherwise had. Readers would buy “Pale Fire” because John Shade wrote it, but they’d be “rewarded,” in our beloved commentator’s eyes, with the insightful, thrilling, personal thoughts of Charles Kinbote instead. It’s a bait and switch that confounds both real and imagined readers of Pale Fire, and Kinbote’s desperation to make the most of his fleeting moment in the literary spotlight is comic, distressing, and frustrating in equal measure.

To say more about Pale Fire would be to spoil at least one of its incredible surprises…surprises I’m still unearthing with each successive read. In fact, I could list my favorite surprises and another reader might not recognize a single one of them. And vice versa, of course.

Pale Fire may be Nabokov at his most playful, but it’s certainly Nabokov at his most brilliant. It’s dense, deceptively tricky, and infinitely rewarding. It’s high on my list of favorite novels, and it’s still like nothing else I’ve ever read. Oh, and if you are going to read it, I’ll help you a little bit: the index is part of the story, too.

I like Scott. I wish him well. But for his sake as a writer–and especially as a reader–I hope he’s discovered the value of enjoying things.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 8: Ulysses

Ulysses, James JoyceChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Ulysses
Author: James Joyce
Year: 1922

James Joyce, perhaps more than any other single author who’s ever lived, gets a lot of credit for redefining the novel. Here’s the interesting thing: he deserves all of it.

Joyce redefined what reading meant. He demolished boundaries, both in a literary sense and a social sense. He introduced many readers to a kind of writing they didn’t believe could exist, and believed even less that it could work.

James Joyce, that is to say, is one of very few people who changed the world.

That sounds like high praise. It sounds even more like that when you realize he did this through an extraordinarily short career, which consisted mainly of just three novels and a collection of short stories.

With only a handful of titles to his name, James Joyce changed literature.

Actually, let’s not mince words; with one title, James Joyce changed literature.

Dubliners may well be the best short story collection in the English language, but outside of the meticulous recreation of its central city, it wasn’t pushing any boundaries. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was influential, and rightly so, but I’m not sure that any of its ideas aren’t more fully and more successfully explored by Ulysses. And Finnegans Wake‘s biggest achievement is that anyone wanted to publish it; it was a more daring experiment than it was a successful one.

With Ulysses, though, Joyce struck an immortal chord, and we’re still hearing it resonate today.

Even if you don’t read, you owe something to Ulysses. Perhaps it’s the fact that Joyce’s crippling fight through obscenity trials allows you to experience works of art that others would seek to forbid you, for one reason or another. Perhaps it’s the book’s profound, incredible ability to tear down the walls of structure, paving the way for concept albums, bottle episodes, experimental films, and every other kind of art that attempts to transcend the agreed-upon boundaries. Or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that it presented “stream of consciousness” as a viable way for an author to express himself.

So many things we take for granted we can trace to Ulysses. And we can jump back and read the novels published before it, and see just how urgent and massive a change it really represented.

With Ulysses, Joyce knew, played against, and challenged the preconceptions readers would have about any given novel. They see one they think they’ll enjoy, they pick it up, they open it, and they expect something. Joyce gave them something else, and he did so with a title that was guaranteed to give them even further expectations. Ulysses is named for the hero of The Odyssey, after all…a character who may well hold the title for being the most adventuresome protagonist ever set to page.

Joyce’s Ulysses, then, is about a man who wakes up, eats breakfast, goes to work, eyeballs some women, and wanders around until bedtime.

He knew your expectations. He just knew he’d get bored meeting them.

What Joyce does is forcibly enlarge our understanding of what narrative is. By mapping the mundane wanderings of his own protagonist, Leopold Bloom, to the relentless action and cunning violence of Ulysses (or Odysseus), Joyce tacitly argues that the real excitement is within. It’s in the mind of an unremarkable man. It’s in how we process the world. It’s in our thoughts and hesitations and self-doubt. That’s what he finds interesting, and, he suggests, it’s what we should find interesting, too.

Ulysses has a reputation for being (at least) a bit too difficult. I can’t say that I agree…at least not entirely. Perhaps I just had a really great professor teach it to me. (Scratch that “perhaps.”) There are difficult passages, of course, and there are stretches of the novel that to this day I find impenetrable. But that may be by design. Shouldn’t the thoughts of another human being be at least intermittently unintelligible? We understand our thoughts, but would we understand someone else’s? Should we? Isn’t it privilege enough to peer into another man’s mind and understand even just the broad strokes?

It’s an odd novel, and one I will always love. It’s beautiful in its ugliness. It’s inviting, and it keeps you at a solid intellectual distance. It’s challenging and benign. It’s the simplest story imaginable told in the most complicated possible way.

And it’s incredible. It’s one of those books I feel that everybody should read at least once. Even if you hate it, which you might. Even if you don’t understand it, which is a very real possibility. Even if you come away feeling like you wasted your time. I’ll disagree with you endlessly on that last one, but it’s a novel that helps you to understand what a novel is. It’s a book that teaches you how to read. And, strangely, it’s a book that filters Joyce’s experiences through a fictional character and again through a classical filter and again through your own mind as a reader. It’s a chain of intellectual reasoning that can actually teach you one hell of a lot about the way your brain works.

You have to admit, that’s a pretty great trick.

There’s some literary group on Facebook of which I’m a member. I don’t remember joining it. Maybe somebody else added me. I’m pretty sure I’ve never even commented on anything there.

But, fairly recently, somebody posted a picture of this book and asked if anyone had read it. I wasn’t surprised that many of the commenters had; it’s a literary group, after all, and Ulysses is one of the most famous novels. I was surprised, though, at how many people told this reader not to bother.

They said they started it, and gave up a few chapters in.

They said it was confusing, and that other, easier books would be more deserving of their time.

That was heartbreaking to me. Literature should be a challenge. Readers should be willing to fight, to push through, to be enriched by the experience.

That’s what an adventure is, isn’t it?

What’s an odyssey that isn’t difficult?

To whom could that possibly have any value?

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 7: The Boy Detective Fails

The Boy Detective Fails, Joe MenoChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Boy Detective Fails
Author: Joe Meno
Year: 2006

Life hurts.

It’s cruel. It’s painful. It knows every weakness you have and it digs right into them. It’s unfair, and at times feels malicious.

It’s probably even worse for those who peak early. While the rest of us learn gradually, day after day, just how difficult the world can be, some people must face it all at once…the rudest of all possible awakenings…after being led to believe that they were different. That they’d be loved and celebrated forever. Or, at the very least, that they’d be okay.

Child celebrities are our most enduring examples of this. They learn that the world is one thing, but, gradually, the money disappears. They lose their youthful cuteness. The more mature, more complex roles don’t come. They were born into one world, and, all at once, they wake up in another. One in which they aren’t adored, but laughed at. Mocked. Framed as cautionary tales.

Some of them adjust. Many of them don’t.

Every child is willing to believe he is extraordinary. Celebrities, however, actually have hundreds or thousands or millions of people sustaining that illusion for them. Making it feel real. Making it feel permanent.

Then the bottom falls out.

And some of them just keep falling.

The Boy Detective Fails is about an extraordinary youth who isn’t a youth anymore. Billy Argo was a naturally gifted child who never learned how to be an adult. And he grows up, as we all must, to find that he’s unprepared for the world of employment, of romance, of…well…responsibility.

It’s a very funny book, and it’s also deeply, bracingly sad.

As children, Billy, his sister Caroline, and their best friend Fenton solved crimes. They banded together, the little scamps, to piece together the clues that the police missed. They used their intuition, their particular skills, their friendship to make the world a safer, cleaner, better place…one moustache-twirling criminal at a time.

But it couldn’t, and didn’t, last forever. Fenton fell into a deep, unhealthy depression. Caroline, despondent, took her own life. And Billy…

Billy doesn’t know what to do.

And that’s The Boy Detective Fails. It’s the story of a man too smart for his own good that doesn’t know what to do. It’s the story of a genius learning, for the first time, the things you and I forgot long ago. It’s the story of someone who spent his entire childhood being told who he was, and now has to discover the real answer for himself.

There’s a deep, affecting, heart-breaking sweetness to that, and the book handles it brilliantly, striking an absolutely razor-perfect balance between the comedy and the pathos. It’s tricky, and the story threatens to pull author Joe Meno too far in either direction. He never lets it.

Our familiarity with fallen child stars–or at least those who peaked early, and were unprepared for what the world actually was–has led to a number of riffs on the idea, pairing this concept with certain exceptional, fictional character types. The two fit together very naturally.

The Venture Bros., for instance, uses boy adventurers. Watchmen used superheroes. The Boy Detective Fails uses, of course, young detectives…most specifically Encyclopedia Brown, whose shadow deliberately resembles the one cast by poor, lost Billy Argo.

We use fictional characters to better understand our actual lives. By putting ourselves in the heads of characters, get to see the world from another perspective. Which is what makes things like Watchmen, The Venture Bros., and this book so interesting: we step outside of our heads once, and then we take a step further. We identify with one aspect of these exceptional characters, and then are forced to come to terms with another.

The Boy Detective Fails is deceptively complex. It’s not a difficult read at all, but Billy’s adjustment from celebrated child to tormented adult is a fascinating one, and Joe Meno leaves enough of his threads unconnected–artfully so–that only rarely will two readers come away with the same understanding of Billy’s situation. It has its clear ups and downs, but it also has its important ambiguities.

Billy does find love. Kind of.

Billy does find friendship. Kind of.

Billy does make peace with his old, scheming nemesis.

Kind of.

There are no easy answers, and, debateably, there’s not even a definitive ending. I’ve read it several times and I’m still not sure if one specific final gesture of Billy’s is reassuring, or darkly comic. I understand his intention, don’t get me wrong…but I’m not convinced I fully understand Meno’s.

And I like that.

The Boy Detective Fails is a mystery in itself. Not the mystery it claims to be, exactly. No…it’s more a puzzle of existence. It’s more a questioning of why any of us are here…and what responsibility we have to our own reputations, to the people around us…to those we affect without even realizing it.

It takes a lot for me to refer to something as “a great novel.” There are many good ones. Many important ones. Many worth reading. Many I’d recommend.

But I don’t know how many great ones I can really identify, without any kind of qualification or second thought.

And yet, as simple as it is, as silly as it is, as well-trod its subject matter, I do think The Boy Detective Fails is a great novel. It cuts in a wholly unique way to the truth of what it means to be alive, here, on this planet. It relishes the ridiculousness of the human condition, and while it doesn’t–and shouldn’t–offer much advice for how to transcend this, it does offer a bit of companionship along the way.

Which is probably the most important thing any of us can offer to anyone else. We’re all here. We’re all being dragged, slowly, toward the end.

Life hurts. It’s cruel. It’s painful.

But, you know what? You don’t have to go through it alone. And as difficult as the journey might be, as inevitable the sadness of its end, as painful as it is to know that the people you love are suffering, too…well…you might still find some small moment of redemption along the way.

Whether or not that justifies anything is up to you.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 6: Point Omega

Point Omega, Don DeLilloChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Point Omega
Author: Don DeLillo
Year: 2010

I don’t love Don DeLillo. I keep reading his books and I’ll eventually read them all, but I’m not entirely sure why. He’s a strong writer and he’s clearly gifted, but either he has a bit of trouble getting all the gears to turn or I have a bit of trouble staying interested.

Examples? Sure. Underworld was a great concept and a daring undertaking that, ultimately, resulted in a novel that was just overlong for the limited number of things it had to say. It was an elaborately constructed, complex text that…didn’t work.

I could see what was invested in it. It was an impressive machine. But, somewhere inside, something wasn’t working. I stayed interested, but I didn’t care. I read on because there was no real reason to stop, rather than because I had a good reason to keep going. I know that many others disagree; critics loved Underworld. For me, though, the most memorable parts were its fantastic opening (a legendary, real-life baseball game between the Giants and the Dodgers) and a recipe for Jell-O chicken mousse embedded later in the text.

Underworld certainly seems like it should be a great novel…but, reading it, I was only ever happy when it rose to being “very good.” I think DeLillo wanted it to be his masterpiece, but couldn’t figure out how to get it there. He released it anyway. I guess you might as well, at that point.

Then there’s Falling Man, his novel of 9/11, which I genuinely remember nothing about at all, aside from the image of a rolling water bottle. For a novel about a massive, recent historical event, and one that occurred quite near to me and changed the way my world actually looked, let alone felt, that’s saying something. Falling Man might not have been bad, but it certainly wasn’t interesting.

But I keep reading DeLillo, and I will keep reading DeLillo.

The reason is White Noise. That’s his real masterpiece. A brilliantly witty, clever, powerful examination of mankind’s response to its own mortality. It’s hilarious and horrifying in approximately equal measures, with a strong character and an impressively rendered family–one flawed, as families are, but ultimately loving, even if they lack the words to express themselves.

It taps into a lot of interesting ideas along the way, as the protagonist learns that due to exposure to an “airborne toxic event”–a carefully euphemized chemical disaster–he is going to die.

When? It’s unknown. How? It’s unknown. Symptoms? Unknown.

In short…nothing has really changed. We’re all going to die. But there’s a difference between knowing it, and finding it out. Having to face the mystery. Bringing it to the fore.

No, you never knew. You still don’t know. It’s just that now, you have to think about it.

DeLillo found an interesting aspect of human life, a shared and universal and important aspect of human life, to use as the foundation for what was already bound to be a great novel. It was sharp, effective, and insightful. What’s more, it felt as though it came naturally…the way all the best novels do. That’s something I can’t say about anything else I’ve read of his, and I truly believe that that’s the defining difference.

But when I tried to pick a DeLillo book to spotlight, White Noise wasn’t doing it for me. I’m not sure why. It’s great, and I’d have a lot to say about it, but it didn’t feel right. So I left a spot on my list for it, sat down to write about it, and thought about Point Omega instead.

Point Omega, I’m pretty sure, isn’t even good. It’s barely 100 pages long and it still feels padded. It’s less like a brief novel than it is a tragically overlong short story. DeLillo is talented enough to do remarkable things with unremarkable material, but at times it doesn’t even feel like he’s trying.

At other times, though, Point Omega feels like it could have given rise to something much more interesting than it really is.

It’s such a short and uneventful novel that to mention anything about it would pretty much count as a spoiler. So, you’ve been warned.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to Jim Finley, a filmmaker. He seeks out, and finds, an elderly, retired war advisor named Richard Elster who spends his time in a small home in the desert. Finley has an idea for a film about Elster. Sort of. It’s a film in which Elster stands in front of a wall and speaks. And that’s it.

We can argue all night long about whether or not such a film could possibly have artistic value (my answer: it could, of course, but it wouldn’t have automatic artistic value), but I can say at least that the novel doesn’t quite know what to do with it. The making of what sounds like a fairly boring film turns out to be a fairly boring story. Finley and Elster are two isolates who make vague conversation and while away the days. It’s exactly as exciting to read as you might expect.

Bookending this sequence are two shorter sections taking place at the (real) 24 Hour Psycho art installation, in which Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film is screened at a much slower speed so that it takes an entire day to watch it. A character obsesses over this installation, and eventually meets a girl there.

The girl is Jessie, Elster’s daughter. She joins her father and Finley in the desert about halfway through the book, and Finley takes what is strongly implied to be an unhealthy interest in her. She notices this, and disappears before he’s able to act on a terrible impulse.

And that’s it.

We don’t know where she went, or how much she knew about Finley’s intentions toward her. We get suggestions of each, but no definitive answer, which is a good thing, because it’s here–only here, and for far too brief a period–that the book becomes interesting.

Jessie is gone. Finley and Elster search the desert for her. They are unprepared for the environment. They find what might be a clue, and what might be nothing.

Eventually, as they must, they stop looking.

Jessie is gone, and the two are left alone in their clear hopelessness.

It’s a haunting book, if only because it contains the ghost of something so much better. At times it feels like a rough outline that periodically stumbles across interesting ideas, which you’d think would be explored more thoroughly in a later draft.

But we never get there. Like Finley’s movie, I guess, it never really comes to anything. Unfortunately, also like Finley’s movie, it never really had a sense of what it was about anyway.

There’s artistic possibility in the hollow stasis Finley and Elster build up together, which is then upset permanently by the arrival and disappearance of Elster’s daughter…

…but it never goes further than being a possibility.

The best version of Point Omega is what happens your mind for the months and years after you’ve read it, in which the story is reconfigured into something more gripping, more interesting, more powerful. The book, as it stands, gets you started.

But, as is too often the case with DeLillo, the reader has to meet him more than halfway.

If it weren’t for White Noise, I don’t know that I’d keep making the journey.

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