The Fog of War

I n the sparsest of stories, a young filmmaker arranges to visit Richard Elster, somewhere in the desert of the Southwest (the Sonoran or the Mojave, possibly) in order to interview the seventy-three-year-old man who was one of the architects of the Iraq war. Both men are Easterners and Jim Finley, the younger man, believes that he’ll be staying with Elster for only a few days. But the visit is prolonged because Elster reveals very little. Then, unexpectedly, Jessie, his daughter, shows up to visit him. The days pass, the three of them take walks, and then one day Jessie disappears while the two older men are away from the cabin. She leaves no note; there seems to be no evidence of a struggle.

The subsequent search by the local authorities is futile. Finley finds himself in the position of caretaker to Elster, who has resorted to little more than silence since Jessie disappeared. One day, Finley gets in his rental car and drives to another place in the desert, a restricted area near the site of past governmental bomb tests (an “Impact Area”), but there’s still no evidence of what has happened to Elster’s daughter. Finley thinks of the night before Jessie’s disappearance, when he made a pass at her, to which she responded noncommittally. He realizes that he can’t abandon the old man to the desert. He’s got to take him back to civilization.

Elster’s fame was based on a celebrated article he’d written called ”Renditions,” which drew the attention of the government and took him away from his protected academic life and into the spotlight. In virtually the only response Finley gets from the older man, Elster says, “I still want a war. A great power has to act. We were stuck hard. We need to retake the future. The force of will, the sheer visceral need. We can’t let others shape our world, our minds. All they have are old dead despotic traditions. We have a living history and I thought I would be in the middle of it.” Paul Wolfowitz? Dick Cheney? Richard Perle?

Creepy stuff.

But not as spooky as the end of Elster’s essay, where, according to Finley,

“he wrote about select current meanings of the word rendition—interpretation, translation, performance. Within those walls, somewhere, in seclusion, a drama is being enacted, old as human memory, he wrote, actors naked, chained, blindfolded, other actors with props of intimidation, the renderers, nameless and masked, dressed in black, and what ensues, he wrote, is a revenge play that reflects the mass will and interprets the shadowy need for an entire nation, ours.”

The country needed a war; “we needed it in our desperation, our dwindling, needed something, anything, whatever we could get, rendition, yes, and then invasion.” Restore our manhood. So Elster got his fame, his attention: time in the government, lectures around the world and then the final retreat: his “dream of extinction…in the desert.” Is Don DeLillo right? Is this what the madmen in the Bush administration really wanted: extinction? If you can no longer be number one, is the end of the world preferable?

Before the main story, there’s a sequence dated titled “Anonymity,” dated “September 3.” A young man (who we later realize is Finley) is standing in a room of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, watching a part of 24 Hour Psycho, which stretches the movie out to a full day. Then at the end of the novel, there’s a second sequence (“Anonymity 2, September 4”) which captures Finley a second time, observing every agonizing scene slowed down, revealing each excruciating incident of the film. He also watches other people who view the video, most of them only for a few minutes. He fantasizes about a women standing next to him, but the pass he makes at her is essentially rebuffed, like the pass he made at Jessie the night before she vanished. When we read the second sequence, we realize that both sections take place after Finley’s encounter with Elster, as if he’s been numbed by the entire encounter, thrown into an alternative world like the actors in the video.

There’s much more to this disturbing little gem, but I’ve already revealed more than I should. What I suspect is that Point Omega will be discussed for years–but perhaps not in conservative circles.

Point Omega
By Don DeLillo
Scribner, 117 pp., $24

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.