21st century writing | 21st century approaches

DeLillo, Aesthetics, The Cold Iraq War

Martin Paul Eve


As one of the most important American writers of the late-twentieth century – alongside Toni Morrison and Thomas Pynchon in particular – Don DeLillo is a notable target of academic study. DeLillo, though, merits continuing attention in the twenty-first century because, although many authors have straddled this temporal boundary, the formal nature of his work changes abruptly in the new century while also taking on the politicised issues of representing Iraq and the “War on Terror” that have become a focal point for several other authors, as observed recently in Alluvium.

In fact, Don DeLillo's novels are, in multiple senses, exemplary of a formal movement from postmodern play, through to quasi-encyclopaedicism to a contracted minimalism over the course of his career. From his clear Pynchon-influenced phase in Ratner's Star, we move to Libra and Underworld's grand explorations of history, film and American culture. Around the millennial break, though, DeLillo's fiction contracts. Although it is initially Cosmopolis that reads as the work of a man in shock at 9/11's symbolic emasculation of an era, it is actually in the stark reductions of The Body Artist, Falling Man and Point Omega that the true shift is to be found. While it might be tempting then, given the way in which the two latter novels are focused on 9/11 and the Iraq War respectively, to posit a historicist, quasi-biographical parallel between theme and this stylistic contraction, this poses a problem; The Body Artist was written before the events of 9/11.


DeLillo Novel Covers 2

One of the most important American writers of the 20th Century, DeLillo's fiction has changed abruptly in the 21st Century 
[Images used under fair dealings provisions]


In this piece, as an initial hypothesis-forming exercise, I want to think through some of the ways in which this counter-historicist stance yields readings of DeLillo's works that cannot be understood as specifically about the Iraq War but that nonetheless seem to structurally presage it. This is of interest not least because DeLillo explicitly links his later works back to pre-Iraq works, thus evading the inevitable critiques that might be levelled at a solely critic-driven a-historical methodology. Indeed, Peter Boxall has already framed the way in which prophetic coincidences in DeLillo's work, such as the front cover of Underworld featuring an image of the World Trade Center partially obscured by the silhouette of a church, should not be read as important for the specific details that are later validated, but for its understanding on a historiographic level: “it gains some kind of access to the hidden underlying forces that continue to produce history” (Boxall 158). While my claims for prophetic insight are certainly not going to be this grand, I do think that DeLillo's historiographic passages have a function here of pre-empting a post-national mode of “warfare” – in which the nation-state is no longer the privileged agent of war – to which I'll return, but I also simultaneously want to explore the way in which this historiographic signals a specific return to a mode of State-driven, international conflict.

Set in what Alexander Dunst has referred to as a “traumatized present”, (Dunst 60) Point Omega, DeLillo's latest novel, begins with an unknown character's visit to the Museum of Modern Art, where he has come to view Douglas Gordon's installation Twenty-Four Hour Psycho. This film is, as its name suggests, a version of Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror flick stretched to run over a day-long period. This episode is, however, “merely” an enigmatic frame to the main action of the novel, which concerns the visit of a film-maker to Iraq War strategist Richard Elster whose daughter, Jessie, then disappears without a trace, although it is probable that Jessie's disappearance is linked to her meeting with the unknown viewer of the Gordon installation.


Douglas Gordon - 24 Hour Psycho

A traumatized present? Visiting Douglas Gordon's installation 24 Hour Psycho in Point Omega 
[Image used under fair dealings provisions]


In many ways, Point Omega is a structural re-enactment, at a microscopic, compressed level, of DeLillo's entire canon and the various classificatory phases through which it passes. With echoes of Beckett's Ghost Trio's “door imperceptibly ajar”, the prose in this novel has, as David Cowart puts it, a style indebted to a “modernist aesthetic that married a high standard of economy to new representational challenges”, (Cowart 31) which can be seen in its rhythm and tone from the off: “The guard was here to be unseen” (DeLillo, Point Omega 7). At the same time, DeLillo deliberately evokes postmodern metafiction in a looped repeat of his earlier novels, but particularly Ratner's Star. This is achieved both through direct metafictional statements about the slender Point Omega – “The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw” (DeLillo, Point Omega 5) – and in the allusions to the ultra-slow film epochs of rocks in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow where “We’re talking frames per century”, (Pynchon 612) thereby mirroring Richard Elster's experience of Twenty Four Hour Psycho: “He told me it was like watching the universe die over a period of about seven billion years” (DeLillo, Point Omega 47). While this synthesis of modernist and postmodernist aesthetics might signal some manner of formal dialectic at work, it also is just one of the ways that DeLillo's text re-invokes its generic antecedents, a trait also seen overtly, as opposed to purely structurally, in the genre parodies of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day.

Moving beyond stylistic aesthetics, though, the novel also cycles back, importantly, towards a postmodern indeterminacy; the reader is never given enough evidence to uncover what has happened to Jessie or what has caused her disappearance, only strongly suggestive clues and forking paths, such as when the unknown gallery character “imagined turning and pinning her to the wall” (DeLillo, Point Omega 112). DeLillo does also, however, embed significant allusions to his own earlier works in the text. Most significantly for the topic at hand, the Iraq War and the link to this structural re-enactment, the key line that stands out is “that the country needed this, we needed it in our desperation, our dwindling, needed something, anything, whatever we could get, rendition, yes, and then invasion” (DeLillo, Point Omega 35).

This is an important line of prose because it is almost a direct echo of Marvin Lundy's assertion in DeLillo's earlier novel, Underworld, that “the Cold War is your friend. […] You need it to stay on top […] the whole thing is geared to your dominance in the world” (DeLillo, Underworld 170–171). Indeed, if DeLillo's persistently rendered fear or hope across the period between these two novels is the approaching end of a US-dominated world, the function of the comparison between Iraq and the Cold War must be considered. 


Soviet Propaganda Posters

Abstract war: DeLillo's fiction connects acts of violence with Cold War metaphors 
[Images by James Vaughan under a CC BY-NC SA license] 


It must also be noted, at this juncture, however, that the second Iraq War, like Afghanistan before it, was a national conflict predicated on sub-national terrorist agents who act supra-nationally and the notion of the “rogue state”. Indeed, the US State Department's rationale was the removal of “a regime [hostile governments are always ‘regimes’, not ‘governments’] that developed and used weapons of mass destruction, that harbored and supported terrorists, committed outrageous human rights abuses, and defied the just demands of the United Nations and the world” ("Winning the War on Terror," n. pag.). It is surely unnecessary to point out the hypocrisy of such a rationale given that the invasion was launched in contravention of the United Nations Charter and deemed illegal by the UN Secretary, Kofi Annan. It is also surely unnecessary to say that subsequent claims for weapons of mass destruction and any evidence of cooperation with Al Qaeda were disproved. It is more important to state, though, because such assertions garner less prominence, that Tony Blair has likened the fight against terrorism to the Cold War and also that Larry Diamond, a frontrunning policy academic, has called jihadists “Islamic Bolsheviks” (Diamond 2).

It seems clear, as I have already argued elsewhere, (Eve) that some of DeLillo's pre-9/11 novels, particularly Underworld, bi-directionally conflate sub-national terrorism and acts of violence with statehood and Cold War metaphors. The most prominent examples of this include placing the sub-national Texas Highway Killer within a framework akin to state-level mutually assured destruction and the representative of the ideological state apparatus, Sister Edgar, who, very much like a terrorist, “wanted to teach them fear. This was the secret heart of her curriculum and it would begin with […] omen, loneliness and death” (DeLillo, Underworld 776). Let me now turn, though, to the way in which Iraq 2003 is specifically depicted in Point Omega. Firstly, DeLillo plays on his Baudrillard-infused earlier novel White Noise with the lament of Elster that “their war is acronyms, projections, contingencies, methodologies …. Their war is abstract”; in some senses, the Iraq War Did Not Happen Again (DeLillo, Point Omega 28). Secondly, deriving from this, the truth of the Iraq War, in Elste's warped, apologist stance, is filmic: “Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight …. These were words that would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional” (DeLillo, Point Omega 28–29). Thirdly, again linking from these sown seeds of reality, war is future-orientated: “A great power has to act. We were struck 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” (DeLillo, Point Omega 30). This depiction, garnered from just one conversation with Richard Elster, is a twofold wavering between 1.) a national level of warfare predicated on “great powers”, “the state” locked in battles of will in order to shape the future and 2.) a more decentralized form of abstraction.


Baghdad Unkown Soldier Monument

Reclaiming the future: DeLillo's fiction can be read as outlining a new mode of warfare or as rehistoricizing previous conflicts
[Image by James Gordon under a CC BY-NC license]


Drawing these threads together to posit a hypothesis from these brief observations – and one that, I admit, needs a great deal further exploration – it could be said that Point Omega, Don DeLillo's shortest novel, is a text that is centred around the Iraq War. It is also, however, a multi-layered conflation of and mediation between stylistic genres. The text makes specific back-reference to the Cold War in Underworld, in which sub-national notions of terrorism are placed into direct parallel with this quasi-virtualized past conflict. Point Omega itself situates the Iraq War between State action (international conflict) and non-State actors (terrorism), fluctuating between the massive (Underworld) and the individual (Point Omega). In short: the future of conflict depicted at a the formal level in Point Omega could go either way. This novel can be read as a text of transition to a new mode of warfare in which the massive state is no longer the central player. It can also, though, be read as a text that loops, that re-historicizes, that builds patterns both literary-taxonomical and socio-historical, that re-runs the film of its antecedents, Running Dog, Libra and, of course, Underworld to maintain that past background of state-driven warfare. DeLillo can be read as saying that the nature of international conflict is now changing but he can also be seen as referencing the past and implying the cycle. It is for good reason, after all, that Elster calls “these nuclear flirtations we've been having” “[l]ittle whispers” (DeLillo, Point Omega 50). It is perhaps true, in regard to the first reading, that Elster truly believes that “We're all played out” (DeLillo, Point Omega 50). There are, though, certainly in DeLillo's wor(l)ds, “Too many goddamn echoes” (DeLillo, Point Omega 21).


CITATION: Martin Paul Eve, "DeLillo, Aesthetics, The Cold Iraq War," Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 3 (2013): n. pag. Web. 13 May 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v2.3.04


Dr Martin Paul Eve is Lecturer in English at the University of Lincoln. He is a Project Director of the Open Library of Humanities, a member of the steering committee for JISC's OAPEN-UK project, Chief Editor of Orbit, the open-access peer-reviewed e-journal on the writings of Thomas Pynchon, and is Online Editor of Alluvium.


Works Cited:

Boxall, Peter. Don DeLillo: The Possibility of Fiction  (London: Routledge, 2006). Print.

Cowart, David. ‘The Lady Vanishes: Don DeLillo’s Point Omega’. Contemporary Literature 53 (1) (2012): 31–50. Web. 31 Jan. 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/cli.2012.0009

DeLillo, Don. Point Omega  (London: Picador, 2010). Print.

—. Underworld (London: Picador, 1998). Print.

Diamond, Larry. ‘Winning the New Cold War on Terrorism: The Democratic Governance Imperative’. Institute for Global Democracy Policy Paper No. 1 (2002): n. pag. Print.

Dunst, Alexander. ‘After Trauma: Time and Affect in American Culture Beyond 9/11’. Parallax 18 (2) (2012): 56–71. Web. [accessed 31 January 2013]. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13534645.2012.672244

Eve, Martin Paul. ‘“It Sure’s Hell Looked Like War”: Terrorism and the Cold War in Thomas Pynchon"s Against the Day and Don DeLillo’s Underworld’. Thomas Pynchon and the (De)vices of Global (Post)modernity. Ed. Zofia Kolbuszewska (Lublin: Wydawnictwo KUL, 2012). Print.

‘Iraq War Illegal, Says Annan’. BBC News Online, 16 September 2004: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/3661134.stm [accessed 1 February 2013].

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow (London: Vintage, 1995). Print.

Smith, R. Jeffrey. ‘Hussein’s Prewar Ties To Al-Qaeda Discounted.’ The Washington Post 6 Apr. 2007: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/05/AR2007040502263.html [accessed 1 February 2013].

Winning the War on Terror. US Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, web document, 11 September 2003: http://2001-2009.state.gov/documents/organization/24172.pdf [accessed 11 May 2013].



Please feel free to comment on this article.


  1. Zara Dinnen /

    Thanks for a really interesting piece. I really liked Point Omega– found myself thinking about it, not all the productively, for a long time after reading it. 

    I was wondering how your thinking on the future through the novel might connect to ideas of slowness? 24 Hour Psycho seems to connect to Marclay's The Clock, although they do different things to time. But in the sense of 9/11, and Iraq war(s), being notable "media events"– a term that presumes rapid response– does the slowness, the measured time of media (as opposed to a conflated media time) do something in terms of the shift (I think you are discussing) between present and future? 

    Some ambiguous thoughts. Cheers for the piece! 

  2. Thanks, Zara!

    Interestingly, this notion of slowness and time is prevalent throughout the postmodern canon, though. It seems to be a paradoxical formation that, as the virtuality and mediation of events increases, the fixation on slow time seems to increase. I don't have an answer to the query, but there's definitely some kind of positive correlation…

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