History Novel

Mao II

by Don DeLillo
Viking, 241 pp., $19.95

Don DeLillo’s reputation had been advancing stealthily for more than a decade before the publication of White Noise (1985) and Libra (1989) secured his current position as one of the most original, intelligent, and visionary novelists now writing in America. He had by this time created a distinctive fictional world, a technologically sophisticated place riddled with conspiracy and coded messages, subject at times to bursts of terrorist fire. The “paranoia” of DeLillo’s vision—especially notable in Running Dog and The Names—has something in common with Pynchon’s and Burroughs’s, but it is less wild, less surreal, far more deeply grounded in the reality made known to us by journalists and intelligence agents testifying at congressional hearings.

In White Noise DeLillo widened his scope to include a sendup—at once hilarious and ominous—of the shopping-mall culture, written in exuberant prose combining up-to-date technological jargon with the soothing hum of television commercials; and he revealed an unexpected gift for domestic comedy that was wonderfully compatible with the latent horrors of “the airborne toxic event” and his narrator’s obsessive fear of death at the center of the novel. In Libra DeLillo brought the Oswald-Kennedy-Jack Ruby story to vivid fictional life, endowing it with his own “theory” of rogue CIA agents, Cuban connections, and the Mafia, and managing—despite everything already known—to create an almost unbearable suspense: Would the President indeed be shot, or would the complex scheme at the last moment fail?

Mao II is a more somber work, less concentrated as a narrative; and it is shorter than either of its predecessors. The cast of characters is relatively small, and the characters themselves, while sharply delineated, are perhaps less interesting in the long run than the images and themes that cluster around them. The novel opens with a scene at Yankee Stadium, where a pair of anguished parents watch helplessly as their daughter Karen is married by the Reverend Moon in a mass ceremony involving more than six thousand chanting couples in identical blue suits and white bridal gowns. Karen and her husband, a young Korean whom she met only two days before, have been matched by the Master and will lead an entirely communal life devoted to accomplishing the divine mission of their leader. The scene ends with the statement of one of the novel’s major themes, “The future belongs to crowds.”

Karen, however, is not an important character in her own right. She is essentially a blank stare, a malleable young woman with a minimum of ego, who is among the satellites revolving around the novel’s dominant figure: a famous and famously reclusive writer named Bill Gray. Following the Yankee Stadium scene, the story immediately jumps forward several years to a meeting between a young man, Scott Martineau, and a Swedish photographer, Brita Nilsson. After a successful career of shooting sordid urban scenes, Brita has decided that her work was unsatisfactory (“No matter what I shot, how much horror, reality, misery …

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