DeLillo’s new book may be the shortest I’ve read since Clarice Lispector’s The Hour Of The Star, which I was just thinking about the other day, coincidentally. But it’s one of those reads that I call “two paragraphs and a pause.” You really want to stop and think about it as you go along. It’s dense with insights.
Four chapters (the “story”) are book-ended by Anonymity and Anonymity 2, both of which are centered on an actual video installation at MOMA by Scottish artist, Douglas Gordon called 24 Hour Psycho. The work is the actual Hitchcock film slowed down to approximately 2 frames-per-second – a speed which runs for 24 hours. Called Anonymity, because the man watching the showing is referred to only as “the man.”
The showing is mirrored on two sides of the same screen, so that on one side Anthony Perkins uses his right hand while on the other side he uses his left hand (the wrong hand). Perception and reality.
But could he call the left hand the wrong hand? Because what made this side of the screen any less truthful than the other side?
We’re taught to look at things in a certain way. But there are other ways to look at them which bring to the foreground things we didn’t even know were there. Time/motion changes allows this. The character Elster tells a story of a woman in his apartment who always walked down the stairs backwards. In Psycho, Detective Arbogast went down the stairs backwards as well. Went, is a nondescript term here. Even the character Jessie (Elster’s daughter) tells of the strange sensation she feels whenever she steps on a non-operating elevator. The sense of motion and time is all confused by our expectations based on expereience.
The narrator of the novel is Jim Finley, a video artist himself, who wants to make a one-man film about seventy-three year old Richard Elster, who had spent two years inside the war machine (“the blat and stammer of Iraq”). Elster has invited Finley out to spend some time with him, but making no promises regarding the pitch to have him participate in his Fog Of War like project. Finley explains to Elster that the film he envisions will be just him against a blank wall, saying anything he likes but to be shot in one continuous take like Sokurov’s Russian Ark.
Russian Ark is a great film by the way. And unlike Finley’s proposed project (one man, one blank wall for the background, the sound only of Elsters voice), Sokurov’s film boasts 2,000 actors, 33 rooms of The Hermitage Museum, 3 live orchestras).
Finley’s one other film had been an assemblage of old footage mostly from Jerry Lewis’ Telethon days. The descriptions of Lewis are frighteningly apt:
Jerry Lewis day and night and into the following day, heroic, tragicomic, surreal.
The footage Finley edited into his film was as if from
another civilization, mid-century America, the footage resembling some deviant technological life form struggling out of the irradiated dust of the atomic age…The film was all Jerry, pure performance, Jerry talking, singing, weeping, Jerry with his ruffled shirt open at the collar, bow tie undone, a raccoon flung over his shoulders, Jerry inviting the nation’s love and wonder at four in the morning, in closeup, a crew-cut sweating man in semidelirium, a disease artist, begging us to send money to his afflicted children.
Elster talks to Finley about war:
“I’ll tell you this much. War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for the plotters, the strategists. Except their was is acronym, projections, contingencies, methodologies…They become paralyzed by the systems at their disposal. Their war is abstract. They think they’re sending an army to a place on a map…There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create.
Elster explains to Finley that what he wanted was a “Haiku” war:
“I wanted a war in three lines. This was not a matter of force levels or logistics. What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things. This is the soul of haiku. Bare everything in plain sight. See what’s there. Things in war are transient. See what’s there and then be prepared to watch it disappear.”
After a few weeks alone with Elster, his daughter suddenly shows up, having been sent down from the Upper East Side where she lives with her mother. Elster is divorced and her mother feels that Jessie needs to get away from the city where a man seems to be stalking her. Elster also has two sons from a previous marriage (“Wrack and Ruin” he names them). Finley thinks Jessie (Jessica) seems “attentive to some interior presence.” Her father tells Finley that “she heard words from inside them”, Finley not knowing what this could possibly mean. He puts it down to Elster being Elster: “It was his job to say such things.”
As Elster looks out over the vast landscape, he notes that days pass on a grand scale, a scale of light to dark to light again. But this it not “mortal” time passing with its accompanying terror. The time that passes here is “time that precedes us and survives us.” Mortal time with its terrors is “the minute to minute reckoning” that he only feels in cities. The minute to minute reckoning that is the very essence of the slowed down 24 Hour Psycho. In the cities, this ‘mortal’ time, this tick-tick-tick time, this slithering, slinking time, is embedded in our daily lives.
It’s all about time, dimwit time, inferior time, people checking watches and other devices, other reminders. This is time draining out of our lives Cities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature. There’s an endless counting down.
Endless. Until the countdown ends, that is. These are thoughts of extinction. The very purpose, the very reason for the being of Literature, is to cure this terror (“the epic poem, the bedtime story”). Let us live a little more, a little more.
Finley tells Jessie that he had taken her father to a viewing of 24 Hour Psycho. But her father had already described it to her as like “watching the universe die over a period of about seven billion years.” Later, she had gone to see it as well (for about a half hour. Her father had stayed but ten minutes and fled).
Elster now fears the coming cataclysm. We – mankind – is coming to the end consciousness, the end of matter.
“Matter wants to lose its self-consciousness…We want to be the dead matter we used to be. We’re the last billionth of a second in the evolution of matter.”
And now (something he learned form Tielhard du Chardin), the introversion, the Omega point becomes Point Omega.
“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. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.”
For Elster consciousness accumulates until it becomes self-consciousness, and “begins to reflect upon itself.” This is the highest rung (as far as we know) on the evolutionary ladder. The omega point is where “the mind transcends all direction inward.”
One night Jessie disappears mysteriously. Only this is known. She came out to the desert (at her Mother’s insistence) to escape what her mother thought was a stalker. There were hang-up phone calls. Jessie’s mother knew only that his name was Dennis. Jessie throughout is described as a sylph-like figure, with no sense of self. Half there and half not. The only explanation for her disappearance, and for the presence of the two “Anonymous” sections is that “the man” perhaps is Dennis and that “the woman” in Anonymous 2 is Jessie. This would certainly tie ‘the story’ part of the book (Chapters 1-4) with the Anonymous sections, first and last. And Dennis as a Norman Bates like character works as well.
With all the deep ideas that are a part of this book, DeLillo also has a keen eye for the quirks of human nature. There are a couple of things revealed about Finley, that I recognized in myself. The first is oddly funny, quirky. At one point he talks about his obsession, at least as a film student, of watching film credits to the end. I do this obsessively.
It was part of the experience, everything mattered, absorb it, endure it, stunt driving, set dressing, payroll accounting…
The other trait in Finley that Elster spots is that fact that he probably has the kind of marriage where he tells his partner everything, Elster doesn’t recommend this (though he’s been divorced twice), emphasizing that it’s not a matter of deception.
“If you reveal everything, bare every feeling, ask for understanding, you lose something crucial to your sense of yourself. You need to know things the others don’t know. It’s what no one knows about you that allows you to know yourself.”
I want to believe this is good and true advice, but I don’t know.
Then there’s this observation of Jessie, which really made me laugh, because I do the same damn thing. She religiously (compulsively) rotates all of the dishes in the cabinets when she puts away the dishes from the dryer (“so we wouldn’t use the same ones all the time and neglect the others”). Yep. Bright light flash of recognition.
Always one of my very favorite themes in literature, DeLillo’s meditations on time are amongst the most profound and insightful I’ve read. This is a short book, but one that demands deliberateness and attention. Approached this way, you’ll be well rewarded.