The Paranoid Elite

Michael Wood

  • Point Omega by Don DeLillo
    Picador, 117 pp, £14.99, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 330 51238 1

Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) was in many ways a farewell to paranoia. Not the paranoid style in American politics, to quote the title of a famous essay by Richard Hofstadter (how could anyone say farewell to a mode so lavishly on the rise?), but to the paranoid fictions that animated DeLillo’s own novels The Names (1982) and Libra (1988), and went all the way back to Pynchon’s V (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). Those were the days when we knew the score: it was whatever the authorities were not telling us. Conspiracy theory wasn’t even a theory, it was a basic interpretative procedure, a way of getting through the week. There was ‘a world inside the world’, as Lee Harvey Oswald kept saying in Libra. And then one day there wasn’t. The world was just the world, a vast clutter of causes and coincidences. The underworld emptied itself onto the streets, and mere suspicion began to seem naive, a form of reverse faith. Things were what they were, and quite bad enough at that.

This is not quite where DeLillo himself went. He became as post-paranoid as the rest of us – when in Underworld he wrote of ‘the paranoid elite’ he was joking – but he also maintained a strong fidelity to what was most persuasive about paranoia as a mode of inquiry (as distinct from a clinical condition). Paranoia could be, and is, wrong about all kinds of things, but it can’t be wrong about the riddling nature of the world as we experience it much of the time. The fact that there is probably no answer to the riddle, or if you prefer that the riddle isn’t really a riddle at all, doesn’t mean our puzzlement is a poorly advised response. It may be all we have, and it is certainly all we have if we can’t resist tuning our minds to what puzzles us.

All four of the novels DeLillo has published since UnderworldThe Body Artist (2001), Cosmopolis (2003), Falling Man (2007) and now Point Omega – are relatively short. None of them is longer than 250 pages, and the most recent, at 117 pages, is the shortest. He seems to be drawn to the short story too, as evidenced by his brilliant ‘Midnight in Dostoevsky’, published in the New Yorker late last year. The brevity is interesting but perhaps on its own can’t be made to mean much. Or maybe it is a way of saying how difficult it has become to say things, what it’s like to be left with a feeling of conspiracy when you know the conspiracy has died. Certainly all of this recent work insists on questions of how to think and talk about the world we imagine we know. Is it true, as we read in The Body Artist, that ‘only the bedtime language of childhood can save us from awe and shame’? Do we want to be saved? The opening words of Falling Man are, ‘It was not a street anymore but a world,’ a fine phrase but also a wave of words rather than an acquired truth. It is more likely that the New York of the terrorist attacks of 2001, the scene of this novel, was a world before it was a street, that the street turned to rubble in part because it wasn’t listening to the imperial boast in the name of the World Trade Center.

Point Omega too is full of fine phrases, but most of them are attributed to a character we come to trust less and less. Richard Elster is described as a ‘defence intellectual’: he has been employed by the Bush government to find words and arguments for war strategy, and he has had a thoroughly good time doing it. He got himself hired by writing, among other things, a controversial article about the meaning of the word ‘rendition’, the first sentence of which is: ‘A government is a criminal enterprise.’ ‘I wanted a haiku war,’ he now says, having left his exalted position. ‘I wanted a war in three lines.’ ‘A great power has to act. We were struck hard. We need to retake the future.’ Once it was his job to say things like that. The trouble is he’s still saying them, and apparently still believing them. He is never more eloquent than when he is talking about the powerlessness of words. ‘The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.’ That’s clear enough, and verbal enough. The narrator comments, more in a tone of mild wonderment than irony: ‘He said this more than once, Elster did, in more than one way.’

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