Moving a step beyond the disturbing symbolism of Falling Man (2007, etc.), DeLillo ruminates teasingly on a tendency toward obliteration perhaps locked into the DNA of all living things.
His crisp, precisely understated, hauntingly elliptical narrative frames a haltingly revealed story of moral compromise between two viewings of a piece of conceptual art, fashioned from the classic Hitchcock film Psycho, displayed at a small museum in the southwestern United States. The man who watches it, enthralled, is documentary filmmaker Jim Finley, who has traveled west to interview his potential film subject: former academic Richard Elster, now retired from his employment as an advisor during the Iraq War, living in a half-finished house in the California desert. The bulk of this very short book, which in some ways resembles Albert Camus’ scorching novella The Fall, describes Finley’s stay with the taciturn Elster, who is only too aware he was exploited to give credence to questionable military strategic decisions. Painstakingly elicited responses to Finley’s earnest questions eventually disclose Elster’s conviction that, deny it as we may, humankind compulsively bends toward “the omega point” at which life declines to continue existing and embraces the comfort of nonbeing: “We want to be stones in a field.” This affirmation of entropy assumes agonizing human form when Elster’s frail, detached and distracted adult daughter Jessie arrives for a visit that cannot and does not resolve any of her own “failures” and disappointments. The sparse narrative climaxes with yet another retreat from engagement with reality and concludes with Elster, once again a watcher rather than a doer, transformed in a manner that crystallizes DeLillo’s brilliant deployments of two series of images: those in the Hitchcock film, and the borrowed motif of stairs climbed and descended at one’s peril.
An icy, disturbing and masterfully composed study of guilt, loss and regret—quite possibly the author’s finest yet.