"One of the most ironic, intelligent, grimly funny voices to comment on life in present-day America" (The New York Times), Don DeLillo presents an extraordinary new novel about novelists and terrorists, the mass mind and the arch individualist. A love triangle that moves from New York to London to Beirut, Mao II tells an intimate story of faith, longing and redemption.
Although not DeLillo's best novel, it's definitely worth a read even if the themes are not as fleshed out as they could have been.
More intense scenes of crowds follow in this book that is as much about ideas and images as it is about plot and story. Several people are crushed to death at a soccer game as a horde of gate-crashers push the capacity of the stadium past its limits. A million people gather in a great square in the China beneath a portrait of Mao Zedong. A woman wanders through a New York City park that is overrun by a nameless, faceless throng of homeless people, trying to help in what little ways she can. Two individuals sit in the seclusion of an apartment and watch on television as hundreds of thousands mourn at the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini. As the author himself puts it: “The future belongs to crowds.”
The plot of Mao II embeds another of its provocative themes: how terrorists have supplanted the role of novelists to shock and capture the public’s collective imagination. Bill Gray is in self-imposed exile after his early success as a novelist made him a celebrated figure. Protected by a young assistant and his girlfriend—a deprogrammed Moonie—Gray has spent the last 23 years working a new book that he may never finish. Two events bring him out of isolation: the arrival of photographer obsessed with capturing the images of famous writers and a request from his former editor to aid in freeing a poet who is being held hostage by radical Maoist revolutionaries in the Middle East. The protagonist’s increasing involvement in the rescue attempt, along with the juxtaposition between the hostage and Gray himself, is the story line that drives the narrative.
This novel was written right after White Noise and Libra and immediately before Underworld, which places it squarely in the middle of the most productive part of Don DeLillo’s lengthy and remarkable career. Although Mao II lacks some of the depth and complexity (and even some of the dark humor) of those other works, it is still a compelling piece of fiction that challenges the reader throughout. DeLillo is masterful when it comes to embedding captivating thoughts into taut, well-crafted sentences. He is also frequently prophetic. The terror motif the defines this work anticipated both the Oklahoma City bombing and September 11th by several years; in fact, his occasional descriptions of the twin towers are simply haunting. More than a quarter-century after its publication, this remains relevant story-telling.
So I finished it. Thanks largely to a couple of long plane rides. Either I called it early or I was a prisoner of my early bias, but it did run to type. It didn't end with a bang, or a whimper, but more of the slow hiss of air escaping from a punctured balloon. The initial scene is a marvel, depicting a Reverend Moon mass marriage in Yankee stadium while the narration flickers from the consciousness of one of the "brides" to a 3rd person observation of her desolate parents watching from the grandstand. There are many virtuoso set pieces like this, many quick sharp asides like the recitation of of brands (Midori, Kirin , Suntory) which becomes an "esperanto of jetlag." Yet nothing -- or not enough -- connects these elements. They remain alone, disjointed, like the hooded hostage in the Beirut basement. Perhaps this is the point, but gears that mesh and move without making a change are not part of the mechanism.
"Whire I live, okay, there's a rooftop chaos, a jumble, four, five, six, seven storeys, and it's water tanks, laundry lines, antennas, belfries, pigeon lofts, chimney pots, everyting human about the lower island--little crouched gardens, statuary, painted signs. And I wake up to this and love it and depend on it. But it's all being flattened and hauled away so they can build their towers"
On a side note I found it eerie that a book written in 1991 that does have a sub plot regarding terrorism also mentions the Twin Towers multiple times. One of the characters hates them and it comes up throughout the book.
It was perhaps the first properly "modern" book I read, and I still think of it sometimes, now that I'm more comfortable with that world.
I wish there were a few less "talking heads" however I think he did this because the flow is so strong and the rhythm would be broken by "she said" and "he laughed."
There's just something about the word choice and the repetition, especially toward the end, that you have to say out loud even if you're standing alone at the front desk of the hotel you work in... which I am...
First, I'd like to say that DeLillo's writing style is as ornate and expressive as ever.
This is more of a rambling discussion, a loose connection of thoughts on crowds, mass movements, the Unification Church, writers, New York, baseball, terrorism, and post-modernism. Sometimes DeLillo goes for multi-page conversations, and sometimes for little aphorisms which you can repeat to impress your friends and sound wise.
Again, the usual caveat with DeLillo: it's not really a novel so much as it is a collection of elements with the most tenuous connection of plot. It may almost tempt you to call it 'dull' and give up, but then you're jerked awake by a turn of phrase or insight. His musings on crowds and mass movements are intensely fascinating. The Ayatollah and Mao and Reverend Moon scenes are probably the best in the book.
So if you're a devotee or dewy-eyed admirer, go right ahead.
I did like White Noise better; I thought Mao II was spotty.