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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.