Newsletter 4.2 (2010)
In light of the recent extreme divergence of reactions as to the quality and value of Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Point Omega, here a defense of the novel is offered in terms of “liberal irony” an idea which finds its origin in the field of philosophy. Richard Rorty defines the liberal ironist in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity as the writer for whom a “sense of human solidarity” is “ a matter of imaginative identification with the details of others’ lives” (Rorty 190). In terms of what we’ve called “the divided opinion” on DeLillo’s Point Omega, the book has been criticized for disabling the reader’s imaginative and compassionate identification with said details because it does not resolve its ambiguous plotlines and seems deliberately to avoid making concrete anti-Iraq war statements – for instance as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did against slavery in the mid-19th century through the use of traditional realist modes of plot and character which condemned the cruelty of slavery through clear portrayals of the same. But it is precisely the ironic strategy of Point Omega to subvert traditional identification with the novel’s details via omission. This strategy forces readers to look for imaginative identification between the sparse details he or she is afforded and significant conditions of the war itself. What we are given is the tragic and forever unexplainable disappearance of Jessie Elster, daughter of Bush-era Iraq mastermind Richard Elster, whose visit to her father provides a temporary respite from his visit with James “Jim” Finley, a documentary filmmaker who wishes to make an Americana-style soliloquy film of Elster as “a flawed character in a chamber drama, justifying his war and condemning the men who made it” (99). The narrative is abruptly truncated when the two return to find nothing left of the gentle Jessica. The inexplicability of her disappearance is complicated by the fact (amongst other causes) that the local sheriff is reluctant to suspect the house caretaker, the only other man to hold a key to Elster’s home where Jessie and the men were staying, because he has known this caretaker for 30 years (82). Accountability and criminal investigation are obstructed, finally impassibly. As the novel ends with Jessie’s disappearance, the truth of her situation remains an unsolved mystery.
Therefore, it would seem DeLillo has failed us in the traditional realist sense by refusing to provide an allegorical resolution to illustrate more fully the evil of the Iraq conflict. Yet this insolvability is the perfect motif with which to represent the phenomenon of embedded journalism. On April 8, 2003, a U.S. tank attacked the Palestine hotel in Baghdad, a well-known haven for international journalists who were not embedded with the American military and therefore not committed to give a pro-American bias to their reporting of the conflict. Just as this outrageous attack pre-empted true reporting of the many injustices involved in the war in Iraq, the truncated narrative of Point Omega pre-empts the true resolution of Jessie’s disappearance. Ironically, Jessie’s perspective on what might have happened is as lost as is the camera work of Ukrainian cameraman Taras Protysuk, an accomplished video journalist for Reuters killed in the attack (“Three Journalists Killed in Iraq”). Jim Finley’s inane comment that “the story was here, not in Iraq or in Washington” (99) becomes ironic as well, because in both the fictional and historical cases the realstory cannot be anywhere as the reader’s sole means of getting to the truth has been obstructed, with DeLillo’s termination of the story artistically representing the effect of the Palestine hotel attack. In contrast to the age of Stowe, the contemporary American fiction writer presents social evil with a stunned silence, like the silence of the anti-nuclear protester Matt Costanza Shay tries to engage in Underworld (412). Inquiring readers interested in the real story in Baghdad must be inspired to find the truth on their own. If they do, then they’ll find Rorty’s ironic “imaginative identification with details of others’ lives” or as DeLillo puts it more eloquently: “the omega point has narrowed, here and now, … funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not” (99).
DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. New York: Scribner, 2010. Print.
DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Scribner, 1997. Print.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.
“Three Journalists Killed In Baghdad.” Online Newshour Update. PBS. 8 April 2003. Web. 15 April 2010.