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Incident in the Desert

The Hollow Man Reaches His Omega Point

by RON JACOBS

Point Omega is Don Delillo’s latest novel.  It is nominally about an inexperienced filmmaker who journeys to the US Southwest in the hopes of making a film about a former official who helped run the US war in Iraq.  The novel opens and closes with a description of people watching a video installation by Douglas Gordon titled 24 Hour Psycho.  This artwork stretched the Hitchcock film Psycho to a speed that made it last twenty-four hours.  In between, the narrator treks to the Southwest with the intention of making the aforementioned film but ends up just being the official’s companion for a few weeks.  During this period, the official’s daughter comes to visit and then disappears.  The film is never made.

The subject of the film that is never made is to many people an American war criminal.  He is an academic hired to sell the Iraq war to the citizens and the press while creating terminology that would diminish the force of the war’s actuality.  The offer of the position to him from the warmakers was based on a paper titled "Renditions" he wrote that began with the words "A government is a criminal enterprise."  The reader is left to assume that this was not a critique but a statement of fact. Furthermore, the intention of this statement was to provoke a discussion as to how this enterprise should be undertaken, not to criticize it. 

The academic and protagonist, named Elster, describes his task as one that re-defined the reality of  the war–its torture and death.  As any relatively keen observer would acknowledge, this  "re-definition" allows the regular citizen to pretend that the war being fought in their name is a good war.  Of course, Elster tells the narrator, that is the case except when it isn’t.

Elster has the trappings of an academic.  He reads poetry and knows more than one language.  His cynicism is his most obvious trait.  Yet he accepts the argument that the war he helped describe and rationalize is a necessary war.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of two poems by two different poets while reading this brief novelistic exercise.  The first of these poems was TS Eliot’s "Hollow Men."  Like the landscape Eliot describes in Parts Three and Four, the bulk of Delillo’s novel takes place in a dead land, a land of cactus where the stars are dying.  In fact, the location is the desert somewhere east of San Diego, California. 

Also like Eliot’s verse, this is a work about a member of a conspiracy of humans who are blinded by their cause; just like the conspirators in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar,  to which the title of the poem alludes.  The other poem is "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell.  In this case, it is the men and women who died for the lies Elster helped create that remind me of Jarrell’s short and pointed disavowal of wars and those who demand we fight them.

Delillo plays with time here.  Indeed, the entire book seems to exist in the spaces between when something happens.  Like a baseball game after an at-bat and before the next pitch.  The entire playing field is waiting, ready to catch any ball it or thrown their way.  The spectators sit on their hands or look into the sun, hoping the next pitch and any subsequent play will bring their team that much closer to the last out in the ninth inning.  The umpires crouch, ready to apply their understanding of the game’s rules to the sequence of events bound to occur after the ball is pitched.

If there is ball that is pitched in this tale–a tale where the dogs never bark–it is when Elster’s daughter disappears. Her exit is never resolved.  It just occurs. Elster suffers emotionally and the narrator does his best to support him.  Meanwhile, her mother calls and lets the narrator know there is a questionable lover in the daughter’s life.  Elster remarks somewhere in the text that the narrator merely wants to film a man "breaking down."  The narrator pauses, reflecting that, yes, perhaps that is what he wants to film.  Perhaps he does want to film a man who still believes in a cause most would prefer to pretend never existed–his war.   There is no judgment on the part of the author or his filmmaker narrator here.  Elster is shown to be both a caring human and a hollow human, like so many who roam the earth.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net