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

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.


"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."

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."

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