Don Delillo: Point Omega

Point OmegaPoint Omega by Don DeLillo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m learning to trust my son’s literary taste in the same way I do his musical acumen. That is, at 16 he is far hipper and knowing than I have the energy to even try to be, knowing I would fail. He’s also several years past insistently recommending the latest animal fable from Brian Jacques. (A guilty father’s admission: I don’t think I could have taken many more years of toiling through the literally untranslatable renditions of ferrets speaking in what appears to be a working class Scottish brogue.) This faith in my son’s judgment was rewarded again a couple of weeks ago as we were flying out together to see my parents in Oklahoma City. He finished Point Omega on the leg from Cincinnati to Dallas, and said I really needed to read it before we got home.

That the book is readable on a plane flight into flyover country says nothing about the substance, though I will say that there are times Delillo is getting away with being Delillo. Not least is the fact that he can disguise a novella as a novel with large print and widely spaced lines and still get away with charging novel prices. More importantly, I thought the first third to a half of this very short book required a lot of patience, with the reader saying, “I know this must be good; it’s Don Delillo.” The first third is filled with the exceedingly detached and ruminant monologue of a documentary film maker and his subject, an academician who has lent his talents to the government to justify a war. The book as a whole is on one level a meditation on the mystifications that led us to prosecuting the war in Iraq.

“I’ll tell you this much. War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for th eplotters, the strategists. Except their war is acronyms, projections, contingencies, methodologies.”

He chanted the words, he intoned liturgically.

“They become paralyzed by the systems at their disposal. Their war is abstract. they think they’re sending an army into a place on a map.”

He was not one of the strategists, he said unnecessarily. I knew what he was, or what he was supposed to be, a defense intellectual, without the usual credentials, and when I used the term it made him tense his jaw with a proud longing for the early weeks and months, before he began to understand that he was occupying an empty seat.

“There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create.”

“What reality?”

“This is something we do with every eyeblink. Human perception is a saga of created reality. But we were devising entities beyond the agreed-upon limits of recognition or interpretation. Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resmble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability. These were words that would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional. The reality stands, it walks, it squats. Except when it doesn’t.”

This is vintage Delillo in a lot of ways, but I’m not sure this dry detachment would have born up for another fifty pages. We get it pretty quickly, the immorality of the abstracted intellectual. What makes the story go, finally, is his having to come face to face with flesh and blood loss, forced in to a recognition that he had become so abstracted from his life that he had only experienced it and those who he should have been caring about as an absence.

Ultimately in novels we care first about relationships and not ideas. Or, rather, we only care about ideas to the degree that they bear the weight of relationships or corrupt relationships or get fleshed out in relationships. And so Raskolnikov, the man of ideas in Crime and Punishment, fascinates not so much because of his ideas but because he makes them flesh and blood and bone. With an axe. What makes Dickens live is not the sociological abstraction of oppressive class circumstance, but the orphaning of Little Nell. Delillo follows in that line in that what makes the novel work is not ultimately the grand ideas of the abstracted intellectual but the ways in which those grand ideas fracture man and wife, father and daughter, man from himself.

That is not in itself profoundly new; if that were as far as Delillo’s book went we’d have to say it was an interesting enough take on the villany of intellectuals. We’ve had that since Faust. But as the book concludes, we recognize that the violence of abstraction is not so much a property of intellectuals as of all living in this twilight of the western world, all those of us who watch the unfolding of images on the screen of our lives, substituting the slow motion replay of dropping bombs and exploding lives for the event, experiencing that violence as an aesthetic object worthy of our repeated fascination, image abstracted from meaning, until the death of others becomes indistinguishable from other means of entertainment in an entertaining world.

Delillo ultimately is a moral visionary. The darkness of his vision is not simply that he sees a world gone bad–though he indeed sees that. Rather it is that one root of that badness lies in the violence we visit on the world through our ways of looking at it. It is in the looking that we can’t escape our own complicity.

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Del Toro Takes Manhattan

I realize I now no longer have a claim to being a blogger.  Alas cruel fate.  I lost the time, some of the interest, and I didn’t like the sense I started developing that I owed something to my blog.  Just another task to complete.  Still, I just wrote up a quick review over on Good Reads after finishing Del Toro’s new book, The Strain, so I thought I might as well add it here.  Who knows, maybe I’ll find a way to do this again.  I’ve read a bunch of Dostoevsky since my post lo these many months ago.  Some of it is actually worth writing about.

Re. Del Toro’s The Strain.  Ok, I’m a sucker for a decent vampire thriller. I forced myself through the Twilight books as an act of solidarity with my infatuated daughter, so it was good to get back to the dark side with Del Toro’s book. If anything, Del Toro’s book reads a little too much like an immediate slap in the face at the Stephanie Meyer phenomenon. While Meyer’s Vampires are the pictures of life, health, and youth, Del Toro’s vampires are literally a kind of living cancer virus, consuming and transforming the host into undead animalistic killing machines. Clearly Del Toro the filmmaker is lurching back to Nosferatu, where the vampire is more animal than human, and hardly an exemplar of sexual seductiveness. And, indeed, there’s a lot of quotations of cinema–the armies of vampires are a little bit more like the zombies of Dawn of the Dead than the isolated and brooding quasi-intellectuals that have been a dominant strain since Stoker’s original. The bizarre but effective weaponry quotes from both Van Helsing and from Men in Black. The apocalypse that threatens Manhattan quotes from I Am Legend and from…well, almost every other movie that threatens the destruction of Manhattan. Mostly I like going with this and love it though I thought the nail gun that shot silver tipped nails was a little much and the connection to the Holocaust oddly original and overreaching at the same time–the Van Helsing of this book is a holocaust survivor on a hunt for metaphorical antisemites. And I thought a Dracula in Manhattan could have been a little more original than to have a literal coffin filled with soil, but what do I know. Still, I admit it was a good break after being very serious and thoughtful and intellectual as I made my way through Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment last week. I’ll look forward to reading the next

Dostoevsky. AGAIN!!

My best laid plans of blogging daily throughout the summer on my Dostoevsky experience is all for naught.  I had dreams of blogging a couple of pages a day on my thoughts, attitudes and experiences related to GREAT RUSSIAN.  In truth, however, if I stopped to write about my reading, I’d have no time to read at all, then what would I have to write about?  Nevertheless, since my last post on July 2, I’ve gorged on Dostoevsky–all/most of the early work and in to the middle period after the period in the labor camps.  What follows is the reading list and my three sentence reviews.

The Double–Absolute best of the early Dostoevsky.  A kafkaesque tale of a poor clerk’s descent into madness as he loses his station in life to a man who appears in every respect to be himself.  Which begs the question, why do we call Dostoevsky kafkaesque when we do not call Kafka Dostoevskian.

Netochka Nezvanova–Dostoevsky’s version of the stock poor orphan story of nineteenth century fiction.  Defenseless girls, brutal and unfeeling fathers, sickly mothers.  Haven’t we been here before?  Sometimes I feel like D. is trying to work against convention, which keeps things interesting, but it’s only a fragment and so impossible to tell what the achievement might ultimately have been.  For Dostoevsky addicts only.

“The Landlady” (a novella)–The early Dostoevsky makes me think he must be the master of the novella or short novel, at odds with my picture of him as the writer of the big book.  An eerie, nearly surreal tale in which our hero falls tragically for a young woman who is apparently in some kind of demonic sexual thrall to an elderly spiritualist.  The fallen woman as irresistably attractive is a feature of others of Dostoevsky’s early stories as well.   Then again, of what writer’s work is the fallen woman not a feature.

“Mr. Prokharchin” (short story)–too slight to remember.

“White Nights” (short story)–I ought to remember it but can’t.

The House of the Dead–Not really a novel, though presented as one.  More of a sociological study of life in the labor camps.  Competent and interesting, but probably only of interests to Dostoevsky fanatics.

Humiliated and Insulted–A Dickensian novel of the poor oppresssed — humiliated and insulted — by the rich.  Brings back Dostoevsky’s fascination with doubling, and for my taste ties things together all too neatly in the end.  I feel Dostoevsky trying to work agains the conventions of the sentimental novel, but not entirely successfully.  Still, a decently good read.  I see why some critics say D is too repetitive by half.

Well that’s it.  Hardly astutue observations, but I’ve done my duty.

One thing I’ve discovered during the last four weeks–it is indeed possible to read a book while doing the elliptical trainer at the Y and not fall flat on my back.  I’m sure D never imagined himself as reading material for the sweating set of baby boomers trying to beat back the flab and hold off impending old age.

Poor Folk Redux

In the last ten days I’ve read most of Dostoevsky written before his sojourn to the penal colony, and a little written in its immediate aftermath,  but just a couple of more words about Poor Folk.  I’m intrigued by two aspects of Dostoevsky’s work as an artist.  For a first novel it strikes me as being remarkably sophisticated in terms of it’s narrative technique.  His use of gaps and empty places where the reader has to fill in the blanks keeps the reader working.  In this sense it seems to me that reading Dostoevsky is a thoroughly active process, something quite different than the passivity that people sometimes attach to reading.  We’re constantly being given bits of information in the letters that imply a world of fact, of allusion to a life beyond the text (though, of course, that life is a fiction of the text) that the reader must construct and fill in in order to make sense of the text at hand,  the “narrative” then is a process between the reader and the text itself.  We understand the text both by reading what is there, and by filling in what isn’t there.  The reader’s active participation is necessary for making means.

I hope it’s not just a deconstructive turn of some sort on my part, but I’m struck by how Doestoevsky is obsessed with both reading and writing throughout this text.  To this degree it strikes a fairly common tone in first novels—we don’t know what else to write about, so let’s write about writing—Joyce’s kunstlerroman “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” being the exemplar here.  But I find it intriguing in Dostoevsky that this isn’t embedded in the life of a young man struggling to find a voice, but in the consciousness of a middle-aged and aging man who never found a voice, whose struggle with language will, by his own lights, has proven fruitless even while writing is his stock and trade as a kind of scrivener.

I know I that I can earn but little by my labors as a copyist;  yet even of that little I am proud, for it has entailed work, and has wrung sweat from my borw.  What harm is there in being a copyist?  “He is only an amanuensis,’ people say of me.  Bust what is there so disgraceful in that?  My writing is at least legible, neat, and pleasant to look upon – and his Excellency is satisfied withit.  Indeed, I trtanscribe many important documents.  At the same time, I know that my writing lacks style, which is why I have never risen in the service.  Even to you, my dear one, I write simply and without tricks, but just as a thought may happen to enter my head.  Yes, I know all this;  but if everyone were to become a fine writer, who would there be left to act as copyists?

Who indeed? I’ve commented somewhere else on this blog of the peculiar cultural imperialism of writing in our own day, but perhaps every day.  I increasingly get English majors who have no interest in reading, who even claim to dislike reading, but who are obsessed with writing.  Everyman his own author.  So much so I have no time left for reading Dostoevsky since one must keep busy updating one’s blog, twittering one’s feed, and textings one’s faves.

But this is beside my main point for the day, which is the fascination I find in Dostoevsky who turns in a first novel to Poor Folk as his subject, not because they have a superior or natural style—as Rousseau or Wordsworth or Whitman might suppose—but because they have no style at all.  His work doesn’t seem intent on disproving that claim.  At the end of this text, one isn’t led to declaim endlessly on the natural style of poor folk that Dostoevsky has managed to produce.

No.  What’s fascinating is that he has made interesting and plausible the story of two people who are not of their own accord self-consciously interesting or stylish.  I am not sure what lesson of the day to draw from this, but when I come away from Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, I find that I respect them, but I do not admire them.  This is terribly politically correct these days, but it strikes me that it is pretty clear-minded.  I’m reminded, for some reason, of all those Christian artists who go about romanticizing the middle ages, and refuse to recognize that the life really was nasty brutish and short, even for most of the most exalted, and none of us would for one instance trade in our latte’s and air conditioning for smallpox, plague, and roast pig on a spit.

Well, I’m drifting now, but thought I should come back to this particular element of Poor Folk before moving on.

Downing Dostoevsky–Book the First–Poor Folk

Up until three weeks ago I didn’t even know Dostoevsky had written a book called “Poor Folk,” and up until last week I hadn’t read it.  I think there’s probably a dissertation to be written by someone out there entitled “Obscure Third Rank Novels by Great Writers: or, Non-canonical Aesthetics.”  Seriously, though, I think the continued publication life of this book depends a great deal upon the existence and reputation of its author and his attendant acolytes rather than on it’s inherent interest to a contemporary audience.  It’s evidence of Foucault’s dictum that the social construction of the author and authorship in a world is at least as important as the formal and aesthetic facts of the work itself in our receiving and treating of a work as important.

At the same time, Poor Folk surely rises above the level of a laundry list or a letter to an accountant, texts that only a scholar with no life or a graduate student with little hope could find endearing.  Indeed, third rank Dostoevsky is better than first rank Stephanie Meyer, whose tertalogy devoted to vampiric chastity I spent the better part of the past year reading so that I could claim that I was being a good father by reading up on my daughter’s obsessions.  (Mostly we argued over the fact that I see Edward, prince of vampires, as a model spouse abuser–smirking at Bella’s every half thought and more or less stalking her every move.  This analysis did not go over well.  I also find it bizarre and somewhat icky that Meyer seems to endorse the idea that men–whether werewolves or vampires–can find soulmates and life partners in women who are approximately one-sixth their age.  But that’s a whole nother blog and a whole nother argument with my daughter).

Back to my point.  Even though I didn’t feel gripped by Poor Folk, and even if I imagine it as bad Dostoevsky, it was better by several factors than most of the  schlock that passes for a reading life these days.  All of which points to two inconvenient beliefs that most of the literary academy these days seems to want to dismiss:  first, some books are clearly better than other books, at least in specifically aesthetic and formal ways;  second, and a corollary of the first, some authors really are better than other authors.  These seem basic and obvious things to say, but they aren’t so basic and obvious in the academy these days, wherein every author, giving evidence of our infinitely multiple intelligences and creativities, is good in his or her own special way and shouldn’t be compared to other authors in some kind of formal hierarchy.  I used to believe this, but as I’ve started pressing up against fifty, I’ve realized I don’t have the time or inclination to believe that everything is of equal value just because it is of value to someone.  So even though I only read this book because it was written by Dostoevsky, and even though the only reason I can think that anyone living today would want to read this book is because it was written by Dostoevsky, I can still see that it’s better than a lot of books I read for whatever reasons.

I’m not sure if Poor Folk gives evidence or betrays the later obsessions that characterize Dostoevsky’s work.  Largely because i don’t know much about Dostoevsky’s work at all.  It strikes me as thinner and less complex than the things I remember from Brother K and from Crime and Punishment, but I doubt that should be the standard.  What I do like about the book is its effort for psychological complexity, and the sophistication it displays in using the epistolary novel form.  I’ll admit that when I saw the title Poor Folk, and read a few comments on the book jacket, I was kind of ready for a lachrymose and sentimental journey into the heart of the poor–a Stowesque tour of life among the lowly.  Or perhaps, alternatively, into a reversed naturalistic sentimentality that depicted the deprivity of the depraved or the depravity of the deprived.   Native Son in a Russian key.  Novel titles linked to abstract social categories seem to shout–come learn about group X.

But I really didn’t get that in this book.  To be sure, there’s a concern with the way in which social conditions press upon the main characters, Barbara Dobroselova and Makar Dievushkin.  But I very quickly got beyond the feeling that these were somehow to be taken as pasteboard representatives of “Poor Folk,”  and instead they lived uniquely individual lives made of various and even competing levels of personal responsibility and delusion.  In moral terms, I never feel Dostoevsky sets the lowly innocent against the amoral or immoral forces of social might–as, usually, do both sentimental romance and naturalism though to different ends.  Instead, these characters are complex, partially self-aware, partially deluded, and partially free to make bad choices in restricted circumstances.  In other words, I think what I like about this book in the end is that Dostoevsky gives “Poor Folk” the human dignity to participate in the process of their own damnation.

Dievushkin, for instance, repeatedly makes really bad choices with what little money he does have, sometimes in the name of romance and sometimes in the name of drink–and that these two are linked as the usual occasions for his fiscal irresponsibility is telling as well since it’s not entirely clear whether his romantic attachment to the much younger Dobroselova is a love based in the purity of self-giving or in the mania of self-delusion–an escapist addiction as powerful as vodka.

For her part, Dobroselova protests throughout the book that Dievushkin must not be sending her gifts and money, that he is being dissolute and irresponsible in doing so when he has so little himself.  Yet one cannot help noticing that she never refuses, in fact, to take what he offers.  In the end, her decision to enter a loveless but secure marriage with a wealthier man does little to allay the suspicion that her relationship with Dievushkin is one–even unknowingly–of mutual enablement. Or disablement.   She feeds his addiction to love while he enhances her personal sense of moral wisdom, one on which she relies in making the apparent self-sacrifice in marrying a man that she despises. Yet this “self-sacrifice” is in the end the latest in a long string of decisions to live in relationships that guarantee her survival.

Yet they are without guile, sincere in their delusions.  This from the final page of the book as Dobroselova has driven off in to the sunset with her sour lover.

Nevertheless, as soon as I have received my next installment of salary I mean to buy you a new cloak.  I mean to buy it at a shop with which I am acquainted.  Only, you must wait until my next installment is due, my angel of a Barbara.  Ah, God, my God! To think that you are going away into the Steppes with Monsieur Bwikov–that you are going away never to return!…nay, nay, but you shall write to me.  you shall write me a letter as soon as you have started, even if it be your last letter of all, my dearest.  Yet will it be your last letter?  How has it come about so suddenly, so irrevocably, that this letter should be your last?  Nay, nay;  I will write, and you shall write– yes, now, when at length I am beginning to improve my style.  Style?  I do not know what I  am writing.  I never do know what I am writing.  I could not possibly know, for I never read over what I have written, nor correct its orthography.  At the present moment, I am writing merely for the sake of writing, and to put as much as possible into this last letter of mine….

Ah, dearest, my pet, my own darling…!

No, he won’t buy her a coat–or perhaps he will in all sincerity.   No, she will not write.  Perhaps they will both live out their lives with the delusion of a great love lost, though, in the end what did that love amount to except a pile of letters, in the language of love that sometimes seems in its abstractions more about itself than about another.   Or perhaps they will think of that love as eternal for a day or a month or a year, but it will drift in the end, an attenuated ellipsis wherein letters and words aren’t broken off definitively but drift and sway and finally fade into an indeterminate silence.

What I like about this finally is that “Poor Folk” finally isn’t about “THEM” and their circumstance, but about us, however idiosyncratic or complex or individual our own stories may be.  How much we live sincerely in the grip of our half-awareness, loving in ways that seem both self-giving and selfish at the same time, love seeming both to reveal to us the world as it really is and to grip us with a fantasy about who we might become.  There are probably books that do this better.  Maybe even books by Dostoevsky.  But even second rate Dostoevsky seems to do this well.

Downing Dostoevsky–Book the First, Part I

Ok, so “Book, the First” sounds pretentious and sooo nineteenth century, but given that my summer is going to be devoted to downing, devouring, deciphering, and otherwise drowning in 19th century Russian depressive Fyodor Dostoevsky, it seemed somhow vaguely appropriate.

(Sidenote, somehow I feel that it must be incumbent on me to make some comment on the fact that I HAVEN’T POSTED A WORD IN FOUR MONTHS, but I guess that I have arrived at the conclusion that, hey, it’s my blog and I’ll go dark if  I want to.  Not that anyone has missed me enough to so much as send a single note asking after my health and well-being.  For all any of you knew I had finally passed away of the heart attack that I must so richly deserve since I spend my days eating donuts and sitting at a computer rather than sweating off my sins like a materialist Puritan.  Ok, enough chastisement of my readers–who are apparently non-existent–for their obvious disinterest in my silent spring.  Back to Dostoevsky.)

Why?  you ask.  Why? Let’s say I ask that myself.  I remember a New Yorker cartoon of a guy on a beach being arrested for reading Dostoevsky, evidence of inappropriate summer time reading. (Yes, it is available on the web--check here;  I wonder if the New Yorker will send me a free subscription for all the traffic I will be sending their way.  I am not wondering too hard.)  Seriously though, I had a lot of things on my agenda this summer, and it looks like reading the gray russian will get in the way.  Among other things, it would be nice to go to the opera in Italy, or parasailing in Florida, or learning to kayak in the Alaskan hinterlands.  Who am I kidding, it would also be also be nice to get a massage at the Y and sleep through the night.  These things being mostly impossible or embarrassing, I do have longings to read.  I’ve wanted to spend a summer reading Vonnegut, or, since my late great hero John Updike died, maybe reading all of Updike never gave myself time to get to.  Or maybe J.D. Salinger, or Joyce Carol Oates, or the latest by Toni Morrison.  Instead I am stuck with Dostoevsky, the grey one, whose novelistic worlds i imagine in shades of black and white.

This verb, “stuck,” is, I realize, something of a heresy, isn’t it.  I feel that I should be a good example of a devoted reader, or at least an English prof–not always the case that these two go together.  Isn’t admitting that as the summer starts I can imagine pleasanter things to do with my days than Dostoevsky a little gauche, something like a gourmand or the food critic admitting that he could do without a weekly repast at Sardi’s, and maybe, just maybe, would be Ok with something a little more middle class like Chili’s or TGI Fridays.  Well, summer is for slumming, and reading Dostoevsky in June is a bit like working for a company that insists on dark suits and ties all summer.  Seriousness.

Still, this doesn’t answer the question.  The basic answer to the question posed is that I am directing an honors project for a worthy student who wants to go to graduate school, and will do well.  What he doesn’t yet know is that graduate school will quickly turn reading and all the intellectual and imaginative excitement that he feels for the world of books in to what Dostoevsky is for me, first and foremost: work, an act of labor, a responsiblity, something that must be done.

To be sure, it is always a great and guilty pleasure to get new books, especially when I can get someone else to pay for them since I am, after all, fulfilling the responsibilities of my position. I’ve taken great joy in the many packages that have arrived over the past couple of weeks bearing those weighty Dostoevskian tomes.  A bunch of Everyman’s library editions, and then other editions for those books no one felt were good enough to be canonized.  Among other things, who knew Dostoevsky wrote so much?  The Brothers K and Crime and Punishment.  The canon within the canon.  That should be enough for anyone, and could take a summer in themselves, but the list is almost endless.

And in order to know Dostoevsky, of course, I must read them all.  I have not yet started counting pages, though there are thousands.  I am like the bird in the old story around the campfire at church camp.  I fly and remove a single grain of sand from the highest mountain in the world, flying to the other side of the world to deposit it in my nest, returning trip after trip for a single grain of sand.  When the mountain has been leveled to  a plain, a single day of eternity shall have passed.

Dostoevsky, my summer’s mountain;  my summer’s eternity.