DeLillo's Man In The Desert, Up Against The Wall

Don DeLillo i i

hide captionDon DeLillo is the author of 16 novels, including Underworld and Falling Man. His book White Noise won the 1985 National Book Award

Nigel Parry/CPi
Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is the author of 16 novels, including Underworld and Falling Man. His book White Noise won the 1985 National Book Award

Nigel Parry/CPi

The main character in Don DeLillo's newest novel isn't the typical "man in a small room," as the author describes some of the tortured characters who populated his early novels. Instead, Richard Elster is a septuagenarian, a gray-haired, ponytailed university intellectual recovering from his participation in the buildup to the Iraq war by retreating to the Arizona desert.

"He was part of a series of closed meetings in conference rooms, and what he was intended to contribute was a kind of overarching view — not of specific troop movements, but to give them a deeper idea of how to wage this particular kind of war," DeLillo tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep. "It gives him something to be in retreat from — that is, his experience during those two years or so as a Defense intellectual. And his retreat occurs in this desert terrain."

During his time in the desert, Elster is visited by a younger man, a filmmaker named Jim Finley, who wants something: to use the academic as a talking head in a documentary about the war.

"He wants a man against a wall. He wants a man standing and talking," DeLillo says. "He wants a face on the screen, and if Elster decides to veer in his monologue from Iraq to any other subject, young Jim Finley is happy to film it. He believes that on film, the face is the soul. He calls it a primal film, and this is what he hopes Elster will agree to do."

Writing Real Life

Through his career, DeLillo has fulfilled his own attraction to themes of time, life and death by creating characters who have some connection to real-life news events. His 1988 novel, Libra, is a fictionalized biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, and the opening section of his enormous 1997 novel Underworld takes place at the famous 1951 baseball playoff game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers in which the Giants' Bobby Thomson hit the game-winning "shot heard 'round the world."

DeLillo says his use of real-life events is just part of living in a world saturated by media.

Point Omega

"Once it becomes part of everybody's life, it becomes part of a fiction writer's conceivable subject, at least at some level," DeLillo says. "I guess my work all these years has been about living in dangerous times, and part of this danger has been what the media reports, and how it changes our perceptions."

This skepticism, marked by confusion at the curious gap between reality and the world presented by the media, sets up shop in a scene from what is maybe DeLillo's most celebrated work, the 1985 novel White Noise. In the scene, which takes on the absurd dimensions of a joke, a father and son are driving in a torrential rainstorm, when the son, who has heard on the radio that it will rain later that night, cannot reconcile the reality outside the car with the voice of authority on the radio.

"The conflict is, I think, ever present," DeLillo says. "It's something we breathe in through our pores. It's just part of our perception."

Point Omega
By Don DeLillo
Hardcover, 128 pages
Scribner
List price: $24

Read An Excerpt

The Inevitable

Asked if he has the same obsessions now that he did in earlier works, DeLillo assents.

"I'm not sure I could state them clearly," he says. "I think they involve danger and to some extent violence, and people moving toward some sort of inevitability, perhaps."

He adds that death shapes his work — "that's at the end of everything." But DeLillo says that when it comes to considering that inevitability in his own life, that's still a distant horizon.

"I'm still 22 in my mind," DeLillo says. "When I'm walking along a street, I'm not a novelist of a certain age. I'm just the same guy I always was. That's how I feel. I don't feel different; I'm not aware that I think different. I don't think about these matters in a very conscious way."

And yet, they keep coming out on the page.

"That's what writers do. We do express ourselves," DeLillo says. "But we don't necessarily do it in the first person. We don't necessarily do it as autobiography. It simply flows out of us and into characters."

It's pointed out that those characters occupy many different spaces in society, and yet no matter what their circumstance, a great many are lonely or alienated. DeLillo agrees that this is likely the case, and notes that Richard Elster, the man in the vast desert at the heart of Point Omega, is in that way similar to the men in small rooms who dot his early works.

What draws him to that alienation?

"There's no simple answer to that question. It certainly isn't an autobiographical aspect of my fiction," DeLillo says. "But there's something about a single individual isolated from the world that appeals to me as a writer. Everything funneled into one man in one room. You know, it's not something I try to explain to myself. It's just a feeling, and it's something I'm driven toward."

Excerpt: 'Point Omega'

Point Omega
Point Omega
By Don DeLillo
Hardcover, 128 pages
Scribner
List price: $24

Richard Elster was seventy-three, I was less than half his age. He'd invited me to join him here, old house, underfurnished, somewhere south of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert or maybe it was the Mojave Desert or another desert altogether. Not a long visit, he'd said.

Today was day ten.

I'd talked to him twice before, in New York, and he knew what I had in mind, his participation in a film I wanted to make about his time in government, in the blat and stammer of Iraq.

He would in fact be the only participant. His face, his words. This was all I needed.

First he said no. Then he said never. Finally he called and said we could discuss the matter but not in New York or in Washington. Too many goddamn echoes. I flew to San Diego, rented a car and drove east into mountains that seemed to rise out of turns in the road, late summer thunderheads building, and then down through brown hills past rock-slide warnings and leaning clusters of spiny stalks and finally off the paved road and onto a primitive trail, lost for a time in the hazy scrawl of Elster's penciled map.

I arrived after dark.

"No plush armchair with warm lighting and books on a shelf in the background. Just a man and a wall," I told him. "The man stands there and relates the complete experience, everything that comes to mind, personalities, theories, details, feelings. You're the man. There's no offscreen voice asking questions. There's no interspersed combat footage or comments from others, oncamera or off."

"What else?"

"A simple head shot."

"What else?" he said.

"Any pauses, they're your pauses, I keep shooting."

"What else?"

"Camera with a hard drive. One continuous take."

"How long a take?"

"Depends on you. There's a Russian film, feature film, Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov. A single extended shot, about a thousand actors and extras, three orchestras, history, fantasy, crowd scenes, ballroom scenes and then an hour into the movie a waiter drops a napkin, no cut, can't cut, camera flying down hallways and around corners. Ninety-nine minutes," I said.

"But that was a man named Aleksandr Sokurov. Your name is Jim Finley."

I would have laughed if he hadn't delivered the line with a smirk. Elster spoke Russian and he pronounced the director's name with an earthy flourish. This gave his remark an extra measure of self-satisfaction. I could have made the obvious point, that I wouldn't be shooting large numbers of people in textured motion. But I let the joke live out its full term. He was not a man who might make space for even the gentlest correction.

He paused and drank and paused again.

"What are we?"

"I don't know."

"We're a crowd, a swarm. We think in groups, travel in armies. Armies carry the gene for self-destruction. One bomb is never enough. The blur of technology, this is where the oracles plot their wars. Because now comes the introversion. Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. 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."

I went in for ice. When I returned he was pissing off the deck, standing on tiptoe to get the emerging stream to clear the rail. Then we sat and listened to animal cries somewhere off in the thickets and we remembered where we were and didn't speak for a time after the sounds died away. He said he wished he had remained a student, gone to Mongolia, true remoteness, to live and work and think. He called me Jimmy.

"You'll have every opportunity to talk about these things," I said. "Talk, pause, think, talk. Your face," I said. "Who you are, what you believe. Other thinkers, writers, artists, nobody's done a film like this, nothing planned, nothing rehearsed, no elaborate setup, no conclusions in advance, this is completely sort of barefaced, uncut." I spoke these lines in a whisky babble, half aware that I'd said all this before, and I heard a deep breath and then his voice, quiet and contained, even sad.

"What you want, my friend, whether you know it or not, is a public confession."

This could not be right. I told him absolutely not. I told him I had no intention of doing anything like that.

"A deathbed conversion. This is what you want. The foolishness, the vanity of the intellectual. The blind vanity, the worship of power. Forgive me, absolve me."

I fought off this notion, inwardly, and told him I had no special ideas beyond what I'd described.

"You want to film a man breaking down," he said. "I understand that. What's the point otherwise?"

A man melting into the war. A man who still believes in the righteousness of the war, his war. How would he look and sound on film, in a theater, on a screen anywhere, talking about a haiku war? Had I thought about this? I'd thought about the wall, the color and texture of the wall, and I'd thought about the man's face, the features that were strong but also collapsible in the show of whatever cruel truths might come spilling into his eyes, and then I thought about Jerry Lewis in closeup in 1952, Jerry ripping off his tie as he sang some weepy Broadway ballad.

Before he went inside Elster gripped my shoulder, reassuringly, it seemed, and I remained on the deck for some time, too deeply settled in my chair, in the night itself, to reach for the bottle of scotch. Behind me, his bedroom light went out, brightening the sky, and how queer it seemed, half the heavens coming nearer, all those incandescent masses increasing in number, the stars and constellations, because somebody turns off a light in a house in the desert, and I was sorry he wasn't here so I could listen to him talk about this, the near and far, what we think we're seeing when we're not.

I wondered if we were becoming a family, no more strange than most families except that we had nothing to do, nowhere to go, but that's not so strange either, father, daughter and whatever-I-was.

Excerpted from Point Omega by Don DeLillo. Copyright 2010 by Don DeLillo. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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