Don Delillo: Point Omega

Point OmegaPoint Omega by Don DeLillo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m learning to trust my son’s literary taste in the same way I do his musical acumen. That is, at 16 he is far hipper and knowing than I have the energy to even try to be, knowing I would fail. He’s also several years past insistently recommending the latest animal fable from Brian Jacques. (A guilty father’s admission: I don’t think I could have taken many more years of toiling through the literally untranslatable renditions of ferrets speaking in what appears to be a working class Scottish brogue.) This faith in my son’s judgment was rewarded again a couple of weeks ago as we were flying out together to see my parents in Oklahoma City. He finished Point Omega on the leg from Cincinnati to Dallas, and said I really needed to read it before we got home.

That the book is readable on a plane flight into flyover country says nothing about the substance, though I will say that there are times Delillo is getting away with being Delillo. Not least is the fact that he can disguise a novella as a novel with large print and widely spaced lines and still get away with charging novel prices. More importantly, I thought the first third to a half of this very short book required a lot of patience, with the reader saying, “I know this must be good; it’s Don Delillo.” The first third is filled with the exceedingly detached and ruminant monologue of a documentary film maker and his subject, an academician who has lent his talents to the government to justify a war. The book as a whole is on one level a meditation on the mystifications that led us to prosecuting the war in Iraq.

“I’ll tell you this much. War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for th eplotters, the strategists. Except their war is acronyms, projections, contingencies, methodologies.”

He chanted the words, he intoned liturgically.

“They become paralyzed by the systems at their disposal. Their war is abstract. they think they’re sending an army into a place on a map.”

He was not one of the strategists, he said unnecessarily. I knew what he was, or what he was supposed to be, a defense intellectual, without the usual credentials, and when I used the term it made him tense his jaw with a proud longing for the early weeks and months, before he began to understand that he was occupying an empty seat.

“There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create.”

“What reality?”

“This is something we do with every eyeblink. Human perception is a saga of created reality. But we were devising entities beyond the agreed-upon limits of recognition or interpretation. Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resmble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability. These were words that would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional. The reality stands, it walks, it squats. Except when it doesn’t.”

This is vintage Delillo in a lot of ways, but I’m not sure this dry detachment would have born up for another fifty pages. We get it pretty quickly, the immorality of the abstracted intellectual. What makes the story go, finally, is his having to come face to face with flesh and blood loss, forced in to a recognition that he had become so abstracted from his life that he had only experienced it and those who he should have been caring about as an absence.

Ultimately in novels we care first about relationships and not ideas. Or, rather, we only care about ideas to the degree that they bear the weight of relationships or corrupt relationships or get fleshed out in relationships. And so Raskolnikov, the man of ideas in Crime and Punishment, fascinates not so much because of his ideas but because he makes them flesh and blood and bone. With an axe. What makes Dickens live is not the sociological abstraction of oppressive class circumstance, but the orphaning of Little Nell. Delillo follows in that line in that what makes the novel work is not ultimately the grand ideas of the abstracted intellectual but the ways in which those grand ideas fracture man and wife, father and daughter, man from himself.

That is not in itself profoundly new; if that were as far as Delillo’s book went we’d have to say it was an interesting enough take on the villany of intellectuals. We’ve had that since Faust. But as the book concludes, we recognize that the violence of abstraction is not so much a property of intellectuals as of all living in this twilight of the western world, all those of us who watch the unfolding of images on the screen of our lives, substituting the slow motion replay of dropping bombs and exploding lives for the event, experiencing that violence as an aesthetic object worthy of our repeated fascination, image abstracted from meaning, until the death of others becomes indistinguishable from other means of entertainment in an entertaining world.

Delillo ultimately is a moral visionary. The darkness of his vision is not simply that he sees a world gone bad–though he indeed sees that. Rather it is that one root of that badness lies in the violence we visit on the world through our ways of looking at it. It is in the looking that we can’t escape our own complicity.

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Joyce Carol Oates’s Man Crazy

Man CrazyMan Crazy by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oates is often an artist of extremes. When it works it really, really works. When it doesn’t it can feel like there’s something manipulative going on, and something that feels too close to exploitation in her obsession with human degradation. I wavered throughout this book. The Satanic motorcycle gang feels cheap and obvious, and the resolution was too quick to be genuine. On the other hand, I found the writing compelling, and i care in the end about the lives of Ingrid and her mother, made crazy by the world of violent or inadequate men that they love or think they love.

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War and Community–Sebastian Junger’s “War”

Just got done reading Sebastian Junger’s new book, War.  The title is a little

Sebastian Junger--"War"

grandiose since I don’t think Junger delivers the truth of War, but I do think it is a very good book and certainly the best thing, in a relatively limited sample, that I’ve read about the American experience in Afghanistan.

Junger avoids political pronouncements in preference for a close examination of the individual experience of the soldier at war, and even more particularly on the soldier in the combat zone.   Indeed, I think to some degree that the book might more appropriately have been titled “Combat,” since it is really focused not on the large scale strategy, tactics or mechanics of carrying out a war, but on the men at the point of the spear who live under fire or the threat of it.

I’m interested in a lot of things about this book, but most particularly on Junger’s concentration on the supremacy of the combat unit, the squad or platoon through whom the basic bloody work of military strategy is made real.  Junger emphasizes the fact that survival and success in combat depends on every individual soldier deciding repeatedly, if unconsciously, that the lives of other members of the team are more important than his own.  Indeed, in what was to my mind Junger’s most startling claim,  courage in battle must be understood first and foremost as a form of love:

Combat fog obscures your fate–obscures when and where you might die–and from the unknown is born a desperate bond between the men.  That bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can absolutely count on.  the army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time.  The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.  What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless metanalyses, slowly came to understand was that courage was love.  In war, neither could exist without the other, and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.  According to their questionnaries, the primary motivation in combat (other than “ending the task”–which meant they all could go home was “solidarity with the group.”  that far outweighed self-preservation or idealism as a motivator” (239-230).

Junger connects this even to the solidarity of the group in the pursuit of killing.  Killing in war is not primarily about the hatred or dehumanization of the enemy, idealism about causes, patriotism for country.  It is more primordially about saving the lives of those you love.

Junger’s depictions and ruminations here are convincing to me, quite apart from my own convictions about personal or state violence, and they do give me pause over a particular conundrum.  American life is so thoroughly characterized by individualism and self-promotion.   And yet life in combat–which is in some ways also seen as quintessentially American–is by Junger’s accounting absolutely about self-effacement in some profound and existential way.  I was reminded of the controversy over The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker Poster

where veterans of bomb squads were deeply troubled by the individualistic and cowboy renegade image that was projected by the protagonist.  Reading Junger, I understand that complaint more clearly now.  The individualistic hero who strikes out on his or her own at apparently great risk to himself and others is a Hollywood figure, but one who, if univeralized, would very quickly mean the absolute destruction of a fighting the unit, the opposite of the kind of sacrificial heroism that Junger believes is a characteristic not of exceptional persons in combat, but the fundamental nature of what makes combat possible at all.

Support Kenya

Friends, given the disaster that is ongoing in Kenya, I decided to create a new page, “Support Kenya,” that would allow folks to get involved (the few dozen of you who visit this page, that is:)). There’s a link on that page from folks at AVAAZ.org that will allow you to contact Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to urge more decisive diplomatic intervention on the part of the United States.