In Don DeLillo's latest novel, two men sit outside a desert hideaway, deep in discussion about the Iraq war.
Don DeLillo is well regarded for his facility with plots, the strange inner lives of historical events that veer toward paranoid conspiracy but, in the hands of a fine novelist, produce compelling fiction. In the novels “White Noise,” “Libra,” “Underworld,” and “Mao II,” this sense of plot – that there is some latent subtext, a peculiar psychology, to the act of terrorism, an atomic bomb, or presidential assassination – comes freighted with metaphysical portent. In “White Noise,” the airborne toxic event is not only an industrial disaster that leads to a bewildering government rescue operation; it’s an emblem of the everyday madness of our commercialized age.
Each of these novels also relies on DeLillo’s ability to conjure indelible images, and despite the uneven success of his last novel, “Falling Man,” that novel contained such an image, in the form of the titular falling man, a performance artist whose ritualized, controlled falls harked back to office workers falling out of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11. The image became a perverse sort of visual koan, reminding all who observed it, characters and readers alike, that it shared the inscrutable power of the horrific attacks to which it referred.
Perhaps, then, the most revealing part of DeLillo’s latest novel, Point Omega, is that it has no image or vast plot to refer back to, no history-spanning event that can provide some center of gravity. The novel concerns Richard Elster, an academic who was an adviser to the planners of the Iraq war. But here the war is elsewhere, its brutal reality forgotten. Elster has fled to a cabin in California’s Anza-Borrego Desert. He’s joined by Jim Finley, a documentarian who wishes to interview Elster about his experiences in one long take. One would think that the Iraq war, with its fabricated intelligence, its bevy of self-interested actors – from Ahmed Chalabi to Curveball to Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans, which Elster may have worked for – would be prime material for DeLillo. Add to that an otherworldly desert landscape, which Finley often describes as “science fiction,” and one of DeLillo’s recurrent inspirations (film’s cultish aspect), and the circumstances seem perfect.
Except that, like Finley, we never quite get there. For Elster is reticent about telling his story. He agrees to let Finley join him in his desert hideaway, but he still hasn’t agreed to appear on camera.
Instead, the men spend nights outside under the desert sky, drinking liberally, and rhapsodizing in the idiosyncratic brand of dialogue that the author continually makes both glib and compelling. In one of these conversations Elster says, “War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for the plotters, the strategists. Except their war is acronyms, projections, contingencies, methodologies.”
When Finely narrates that Elster “chanted the words, he intoned liturgically,” an experienced DeLillo reader thinks: Yes, of course, this is the author’s inimitable style, which lays bare our false orthodoxies; which shows how the confidence of power, of secret knowledge, contains its own kind of vanity.
But this progress toward Elster’s eventual confession is interrupted by the arrival of Jessie, Elster’s daughter. When a potentially tragic event occurs, everything changes. The novel speeds up, but it leaves the characters even more adrift.
“Point Omega” is bookended by descriptions of characters observing “24 Hour Psycho,” Douglas Gordon’s video-work that appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006. The installation consisted of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Psycho” slowed down to two frames per second and projected on a translucent screen hung in the middle of the room so observers could watch the attenuated video from both sides. This arrangement allows to the viewer to see the film’s mirror image on the screen’s opposite side and to examine previously hidden inconsistencies. DeLillo describes the installation well – in a series of frames showing an empty staircase, “suspense is trying to build but the silence and stillness outlive it” – but there’s an austere vagueness that matches the chapter titles of “Anonymity” and “Anonymity 2.” The moving images are slowed down so much as to be not indelible but opaque.
And such is the frustrating experience of reading “Point Omega.” Gesturing at some of DeLillo’s great themes and introducing a potentially great character in Richard Elster, the book manages to be worthwhile. But at about 120 pages, it never gets where we’re promised: Elster’s testimony remains tantalizingly unheard. Like the mysterious man watching the video installation, who wants to watch the movie for 24 consecutive hours rather than stopping when the museum closes, the reader here is left desiring more. Because Jim Finley is right: a true account of the war’s planning is an important story indeed, even if it were to arrive packaged as fiction.