22 Following


Currently reading

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Max Brooks

Mao II

Mao II - Don DeLillo Mao II (1994), by Don DeLillo. The ostensible central subject of this novel is a novelist recluse, Bill Gray, who has spent the past few decades working on, but never finishing, his latest novel. Other characters include Scott, a veritable old-school 'butler' who handles all of Bill's affairs and keeps his whereabouts secret; Brita, a photographer taking pictures of writers; Karen, a girl who lives with Scott and Bill and functions as a sort of funnel for their emotional, sexual, and existential anxieties; Charles, Bill's one-time publisher; and George Haddad, a terrorist group sympathizer who ends up having some rather revealing conversations with Bill.

The narrative is framed by two loosely linked short stories: the prologue tells of a mass marriage at Yankee stadium in which Karen participated, and the epilogue follows Brita as she abandons her writer-photograph project and instead takes an assignment photographing the reader of a Maoist terrorist group in Beirut. The two frames set up the themes of the novel nicely: the power of the crowd, the search for meaning in people's lives, its connection to the post-modern world of images, and its exploitability by totalitarian projects.

The actual narrative of the novel begins when Brita arrives to the remote house where Bill, Scott, and Karen live, in order to take some photographs of Bill, which fills up Part One of the novel. It sets up the dynamics between the characters, and exposes some of Bill's central anxieties: the role of himself and other writers in the modern world and the 'freezing' or death-like quality of the image. At the end of Part One, Charles invites Bill to participate in an event staged to secure the release of a Swiss poet held hostage by a terrorist group in Beirut, by reading some of the poet's work and telling of his release on live television, which is supposed to be followed directly by the actual release of the poet by the group (who ostensibly cannot resist the power of the mediated image). Part Two follows Bill to London where the event is to take place, but it is botched by an unexpected bombing. Bill then travels east and meets up with George Haddad in Athens, and they talk extensively about the motives of the terrorist group and Bill's supposed affinity with its aims (which Bill disagrees with). Bill also starts writing scraps of a story about the captured poet, which we see two glimpses of. In Athens, Bill is run over by a car and injured, but he still travels to Cyprus in order to gain passage to Lebanon, to step in contact with the terrorist group, perhaps to offer himself up as a hostage in place of the poet. From Cyprus, he manages to board a boat to Lebanon, but never makes it there, as he dies in his cabin on board. All the while, he is searched for by Scott and Karen, whom he never even talks to about the plot for the poet's release.

My own feelings about the novel are rather conflicted. On the one hand, DeLillo's writing style is, as always, excellent. Some passages are difficult to read because of his tendency to skip between images that are incongruous on the surface, but taking the effort to plow through them is always rewarding. Further, DeLillo's dialogues are as always an amazing experience. They seem to straddle the line between the said and the unsaid - characters often appear to be talking past each other, as if they were linked on some transcendent level that goes beyond the actual words exchanged in a conversation (or as if what we're reading is more of a 'digest' of the conversation than its actual transcript). That this still makes sense and flows rather nicely testifies to DeLillo's skills as a writer.

On the other hand, I never like novels whose themes are announced directly. In DeLillo's work, Ratner's Star is probably the most egregious example - metaphysical musings put into the mouths of stand-in characters (as in the worst of Pynchon's writing). Mao II also mentions its theme explicitly: the feeling that 'the future belongs to the crowd', that the rise of new media flattens subjectivity in search for a higher absolute meaning - as in fanatical followings of Mao Zedong, Ayatollah Khomeini, terrorist leaders, or religious leaders that are such a prominent running theme of the book. In such a world, Bill Gray - a writer who firmly believes in Bakhtinian heteroglossia and intersubjectivity, as he says explicitly in one of his conversations with Haddad - has no place. Ironically, the macro-narrative makes of Bill in death precisely what he rejected in life: his pictures become the only thing that is left of him, and Scott decides to try keep his unfinished novel unpublished, in order to give Bill an aura akin to that of such religiously followed figures.

That 'crowd mentality' erases the multiplicity of subjectivities is, of course, a rather naïve notion. (It has not been borne out by history: if anything, new media - from television to the Internet - have increased the possibility for heteroglossia to assert itself, even if the tally of actual achievements has to date been low.) Indeed, there are sub-texts in Mao II that appear to deride this very idea: George Haddad's belief in the power of crowds' search for meaning is self-contradictory, and Karen fails to 'create' meaning for a crowd of homeless and workless slum-dwellers she works among during the period of Bill's disappearance. It's impossible to say what DeLillo's own viewpoint on the matter is (which, again, re-confirms the persistence of heteroglossia, at least in a novelistic medium). In other words, on a close reading, Mao II goes against the notion that 'the novelist's power to influence the inner life of a culture' now belongs to images, of which the terrorist's image of violence is the most powerful. There is more to it than that - people search for meaning, but not in a mindless or uniform way. But this reading is much too subtle - it is much too easy to just read the novel as lamenting the rise of mindless crowd mentality. This is why - although it is undoubtedly very well-written - I haven't found it as good as it could have been.