Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, Mao II is the work of an ingenious writer at the height of his powers. Bill Gray, a famous, reclusive novelist, emerges from his isolation when he becomes the key figure in an event staged to force the release of a poet hostage in Beirut. As Bill enters the world of political violence, a nightscape of Semtex explosives and hostages locked in basement rooms, Bill's dangerous passage leaves two people stranded: his brilliant, fixated assistant, Scott, and the strange young woman who is Scott's lover - and Bill's. An extraordinary novel from Don DeLillo about words and images, novelists and terrorists, the mass mind and the arch-individualist, Mao II explores a world in which the novelist's power to influence the inner life of a culture now belongs to bomb-makers and gunmen.
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.
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.
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.
It was perhaps the first properly "modern"
"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.
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,
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 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
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...
I did like White Noise better; I thought Mao II was spotty.
"Mao II" (1991), by Don DeLillo (b. 1936), is the story of Bill Gray, a reclusive novelist. He lives off royalties, supporting Scott, a live-in secretary, and Karen, a young woman with whom both men have a comfortable relationship.
Bill is a recluse, supposedly
Bill's agent tells him he has been asked to meet a terrorist group in Beirut, which has taken a hostage. He is to read a statement of support, at a London press conference, and the hostage will be released. He goes to London, but after some difficulties, steals away to Cyprus, unbeknownst to his agent, or to Scott and Karen. He accompanies a sympathizer of the Maoist group, hoping to meet the leader himself, perhaps in Beirut.
Will he make it to Beirut? Will he return to America? Will he meet the terrorists? Will he free the hostage, or will he be taken hostage himself? The book will answer these questions eventually, but more interesting are the deeper challenges DeLillo poses.
The book makes much of Chairman Mao throughout. In London and Cyprus, Bill converses at length with the terror group's sympathizer, arguing over the nature of terrorism, socialism, totalitarianism, and other such matters. The book discusses such organizations as the Shining Path, such world leaders as Khomeini (who died in 1989), and such events as the Tiananmen Square massacres (which occured in 1989).
DeLillo seems to ask, what makes a leader? What makes a follower? Why is Karen so credulous? Will she get caught by another cult? Is Scott a leader, perhaps a frustrated one? Why is Bill interested in these matters? Why is a terrorist leader interested in him? Does Bill remain an outsider just so he won't get inadvertently influenced by society's inevitable groupings?
Like a contemporary artist, DeLillo doesn't provide a didactic guide, but a curious exploration. He studies crowd behavior and credulity, as well as those (always men?) who manipulate others, or perhaps only superficially attempt it. Most remarkable that he addressed an issue in 1989 which is so relevant today, post-9/11, and did so before Saddam Hussein, another manipulator, became such a household name. It reminds us that history progresses from one manipulative despot to another.
DeLillo remains artistically neutral, but seems to have more sympathy for freedom and individuality than for group behavior of any sort, even though he understands the reasons for it. Readers may decide for themselves.
The prose is lively. The dialog is interesting and idiomatic, if awkward at times, but most often clever. The tone is hustling and bustling, scrambled and chaotic, and contrasted with the literary seclusion of the countryside. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys contemporary American fiction, or wants to reflect on the nature of crowd behavior, manipulative leaders, or terrorism. It will engage curious readers, and provoke you to thought.