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, ruined bodies, bloody faces, it was all so fucking pretty in the end”), and she now photographs only writers. She wants to make a complete photographic record of writers—“a species count,” as if the breed were threatened with extinction.
Scott has come to New York to escort her to the secret upstate house of his employer, the writer Bill Gray, who has unexpectedly decided to have his picture taken for the first time in thirty years. As Scott and Brita follow a complicated route of concealment, traveling by night through a network of dirt roads, gravel roads, and old logging trails, Brita says, “I feel as if I’m being taken to see some terrorist chief at his secret retreat in the mountains,” to which Scott replies, “Tell Bill. He’ll love that.”
The household, Brita discovers, consists of Bill Gray, who has managed to disappear even more successfully than Salinger or Pynchon; Scott, who has attached himself to Bill as his assistant, secretary, archivist, and de facto keeper; and Karen, the ex-Moonie, never fully “deprogrammed,” who has attached herself to Scott but also from time to time slips into Bill’s bed. When Brita at last meets Bill, he promptly makes the connection between novelists and terrorists. “Years ago,” he tells Brita during their first photo session, “I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.” And a little later, “News of disaster is the only narrative people need. The darker the news, the grander the narrative.”
Bill is a defeated man, a writer of stubborn integrity, a semi-alcoholic, addicted to the medicines he is taking. He has not published a book in twenty years. Obsessed by the mystique of the perfect sentence—in a way reminiscent of the sentence-turning Lonoff in Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer—Bill has been been endlessly revising the sentences of a finished novel, though he knows that the revisions are worthless. “Every sentence,” he tells Brita,
has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there…. The deeper I become entangled in the process of getting a sentence right in its syllables and rhythms, the more I learn about myself. I’ve worked the sentences of this book long and hard but not long and hard enough because I no longer see myself in the language…. I’ve lacked courage and perseverance. Exhausted. Sick of struggling. I’ve let good enough be good enough. This is someone else’s book. It feels all forced and wrong.
Brita urges Bill to publish the novel, but the insanely possessive Scott is opposed to the idea. Bill, he says, is at the height of his fame simply because he has not published for so long.
We could make a king’s whatever, multimillions, with the new book. But it would be the end of Bill as a myth, a force. Bill gets bigger as his distance from the scene deepens.
Bill, however, is restless, tired of his isolation. His book has become horrible to him—“a neutered near-human dragging through the house, humpbacked, hydrocephalic, with puckered lips and soft skin, dribbling brain fluid from its mouth.” He longs to re-enter the world, and when Brita delivers a cryptic message from his editor, he goes to New York, gives Scott the slip, and accepts his editor’s proposal to go to London in an effort to win the release of a young Swiss poet held prisoner by terrorists in Beirut.
What follows in the novel’s second half is a series of events as Bill pursues his improbable mission; these include a terrorist bombing in London, an interview with a Lebanese emissary of the terrorists in Athens, a street accident that leaves Bill with a lacerated liver, a ferry trip from Cyprus to Lebanon that ends with Bill lying dead in his bunk. Interspersed with these, and serving as an elaborate counterpoint to Bill’s story, are scenes in which Brita, Karen, Scott, the emissary, the wretched Swiss poet, and the head terrorist himself, the Mao-inspired Abu Rashid, all figure.
Written with the nervous terseness and descriptive immediacy that DeLillo has perfected, these episodes all, in one way or another, reinforce the novel’s presiding themes. Mao II is a book in which many of the motifs recurrent in DeLillo’s fiction, at least since Running Dog, are given their baldest, most explicit statement.
Bill’s point concerning the impotence of fictional narration when compared with the news of violence and disaster is underscored when, early in the novel, Karen turns off the sound on the TV set and watches as hundreds of English soccer fans are crushed against a wire fence:
She sees people caught in strangleholds of no intent, arms upflung, faces popping out at her, hands trying to reach, the fence but only floating in the air…. In people’s faces she sees the hopelessness of knowing. They show men calmly looking on. They show the fence from a distance, bodies piling up behind it, smothered, sometimes only fingers moving, and it is like a fresco in an old dark church, a crowded twisted vision of a rush to death as only a master of the age could paint it.
This preoccupation with the mesmeric power of disaster is reminiscent of the course in car crashes given by the witty professor of popular culture in White Noise; here, however, the treatment is deadpan, untouched by the comedy of the earlier novel.
“The future belongs to crowds.” Scenes of crowd behavior recur again and again, from the orderly marching of the Moonie couples in the prologue to the mob of countless frenzied mourners snatching at the body of the Ayatollah Khomeini during his funeral. We are taken by Karen to Tompkins Square in New York, which has been occupied by the wretched of the earth, and then, as Karen again watches television with the sound off, to another famous square, in which a million people are gathered, a square with a portrait of Mao Zedong in the distance into which troops of jogging soldiers come, leaving behind dead bodies entangled in their fallen bicycles. Over the crowds loom the figures of the Masters—the Reverend Moon, the Ayatollah, Mao Zedong.
It is the image of Mao that figuratively dominates the novel just as it dominates the square in Beijing. It is Mao who inspires the little band of terrorists in Beirut and whose writings provide them with their ideology, their rationale; and it is Mao with whom Bill Gray—the isolated novelist, the voice of the stubborn, unprogrammed, palpably dying free spirit—finds himself locked in symbolic conflict. DeLillo provides a paradoxical twist to the image of Mao. In the novel we see him not through official photographs or portraits, but through a pencil sketch called “Mao II” which Scott has given to Karen.
It was by a famous painter whose name she could never remember but he was famous, he was dead, he had a white mask of a face and glowing white hair. Or maybe he was just supposed to be dead. Scott said he didn’t seem dead because he never seemed real. Andy. That was it.
Andy Warhol’s art of course epitomizes the deadpan, passive fascination with disaster (car crashes), the personal tragedy of celebrities (Marilyn, Jackie), the impersonal cruelty (the electric chair) and power (Mao) that pervade a consumerist, television-addicted society like ours, which, as a character in White Noise puts it, suffers periodic “brain-fade.” By the multiplication of his images Warhol creates his own crowd effect, while he is himself subject to almost infinite reproduction and multiplication. Brita’s photograph of him is hung in a gallery show devoted to Warholiana: “Andy’s image on canvas, Masonite, velvet, paper-and-acetate. Andy in metallic paint, silk-screen ink, pencil, polymer, gold leaf….” Warhol, like Mao, is the spiritual enemy of everything that Bill Gray has stood for in his life of “gas pains and skipped heartbeats, grinding teeth and dizzy spells and smothered breath.”
There is much to admire in Mao II. DeLillo’s impassioned determination to write a work charged with contemporary ideas and issues is fully matched by his ability to find arrestingly contemporary images to embody them. I have in mind particularly the final scene, in ravaged, explosion-wracked Beirut, where Brita, standing on a balcony at four o’clock in the morning, witnesses a joyous wedding party proceeding down the cratered street with a ruinous, grafitti-covered old Soviet tank leading the way:
She wants to dance or laugh or jump off the balcony. It seems completely possible that she will land softly among them and walk along in her pajama shirt and panties all the way to heaven. The tank is passing right below her, turret covered in crude drawings, and she hurries inside and pours another glass of melon liqueur and comes out to toast the newlyweds, calling down, “Bonne chance” and “Bonheur” and “Good luck” and “Salám” and “Skål,” and the gun turret begins to rotate and the cannon eases slowly around like a smutty honeymoon joke and everyone is laughing. The bridegroom raises his glass to the half-dressed foreigner on the top-floor balcony and then they pass into the night, followed by a jeep with a recoilless rifle mounted at the rear.
DeLillo’s prose has never been more vigorous, more graphic, yet I found the novel less engrossing than either White Noise or Libra, and less suggestive than the mysterious and haunting The Names. For all the brilliance of its parts, Mao II is not entirely satisfying as a whole. The narrative does not gain in momentum and excitement as it advances. The main conflicts are ideological rather than personal. Bill Gray is movingly and convincingly described, but in action he is much less persuasive. His leap from festering isolation to committed involvement in behalf of a stranger thousands of miles away is too swift—and too symbolically “right”—to be believable even as an act of impulse.
Similarly, Scott’s attachment to Bill, and Karen’s to Scott, are presented more as fixed points in a quasiallegorical scheme than as either the choices or compulsions that emerge from an ongoing action; only Brita seems to be a relatively free agent, capable of spontaneity and real surprise. None of them is given a voice as lively and original and engaging as those DeLillo contrived for his “real” characters, Marguerite Oswald and Jack Ruby, in Libra. The short cuts in motivation and the sometimes excessively stylized dialogue (Brita and Scott sound exactly alike) would not matter if the texture of the book were less realistic, were more frankly arbitrary and surreal. What we have is an over schematized work of realist fiction, theme-ridden to the degree that the novel’s articulation becomes some-what creaky.
These considerations should not count too heavily. Mao II is the work of a major novelist writing almost, though not quite, at the top of his powers. What will remain with me is a series of extraordinary images presented with a complex intensity that no photograph or Warhol silk-screen, or even a film sequence, could achieve.
June 27, 1991