DeLillo’s Mao II
Within the debate of which modern writers deserve to be included in the Western Canon (and college syllabi) is the smaller issue of which of their works ought to define them. Generally speaking, it’s rare that a contemporary novelist should find more than a title or two included on the lists put out by professors and cultural gatekeepers like Harold Bloom, Yale’s professor of English. The magnum opuses of America’s best authors are usually included, and the works that time forgot are often left off the list. So when it comes to a novel like Mao II by Don DeLillo, the question of where it ought to fall within his entire oeuvre is somewhat nebulous. Underworld is widely considered to be his masterpiece, White Noise is the most popular in college classrooms, and Libra is probably his most accessible. This makes the categorization of Mao II a little more difficult.
A lot of the themes in DeLillo get recycled, and so it might be the case that Mao II’s significance is diminished somewhat by the monolithic work that it preceded. However, the novel ought to be judged on its own merit and whatever echoes took root and flourished in Underworld should be temporarily shelved in order to properly consider this work in a vacuum. In isolation, this relatively short text not only packs a powerful punch, but it also features such slick line editing that a slow and careful reading is necessary to digest the various aphorisms like “the future belongs to crowds” (16). To be sure, the sort of minimalism that DeLillo had already begun to cultivate by that time was no doubt enhanced by the famed editor Gordon Lish, who is at least partially to thank for the explosive turns of phrases that are packaged in tight, volatile sentences—pulling pithy passages out of context often robs them of their desired effect, which is why his syncopated nuggets of insight bob and weave with a straightforward narrative voice.
The underlying conflict of Mao II revolves around the friction between the masses and the individuals who resist assimilation into a crowd-centric future. From the opening of the prologue, where a Midwestern family must take their seats in the upper decks of Yankee Stadium in order to witness the marriage of their daughter Karen—along with dozens of other members of the Moonie cult—the struggle is between the freedom associated with individuality and the oppression attributed to widespread conformity. That this ceremony, performed by an Eastern cult leader, takes place on a baseball field subtly suggests to the audience that the enemy is already at the gate, at least if you agree with the distinctly American premise.
Although we meet Karen in the prologue to this text, the scene is more of a thematic set piece than an integral part of the story that follows. Karen does not become the focal point or unlikely protagonist of the subsequent parts; she instead illustrates how naturally the younger generation is oriented toward the masses, the crowds that collectively give things meaning in a world that is ever-changing. The lone voices of individualists are too distant and faint to be effective. Like the gory images of global poverty and guerrilla warfare shown on the nightly news that Karen watches on mute each night, cultural artifacts must become bite-sized in order to be consumed, and this act becomes the images’ raison d’être in the modern world: everything is evaluated based on its ability to be easily consumed.
The scene of Karen’s marriage quickly gives way to the story of the reclusive author Bill Gray. A J.D. Salinger-esque character (based on the dearth of recent publications and the fact that Salinger was eventually discovered and photographed around that time), Bill Gray has not had his picture taken in decades. There is something about this reclusive character that verges on allegory, but whatever abstract ideas one could assign him are offset by the fact that he behaves mostly like a normal person—albeit a paranoid and narcissistic one—rather than an archetypal novelist. Nonetheless, he is presented as a tragic hero who has finally agreed to have his picture taken. This may seem like a simple, possibly even laughable, source of inner turmoil, but Bill Gray does not take the camera for granted the way that you or I might do now, in 2012, or like we might have even done in 1991, which is when this book was published.
This is to say that the photograph is not subordinate to a dynamic sense of reality; instead, Mao II suggests that the photograph is the possessor of a new reality, one whose meanings are cultivated by crowds. The discovery of Warhol’s pencil sketch of Chairman Mao (meant to be mass-produced like much of his pop art) and the secret photos of Bill Gray intensify the conflict between the individual and the mass-produced image. What emerges from these philosophical musings about the act of photography is a series of ideas that are not totally unlike the Native Americans’ fear that photography steals the soul.
The reason why the matter of the soul matters in terms of this text is because the loss of interiority—or what the religiously inclined might refer to as the soul—is what leads to a breakdown of morality on a wide scale. DeLillo doesn’t go so far as making this dichotomy on the surface-level, but he does speak about the “moral force” with which Bill writes each sentence, chooses each word (67). The intimate relationship between the word and the reader, according to Mao II, leads to a quasi-spiritual encounter where one considers revealed truths in private as opposed to blindly consuming cultural artifacts en masse.
There are two halves to Mao II, one that centers on the reclusive writer and his make-shift family and one that focuses on the terrorist cells forming in Beirut. Most people would find these worlds incomparable and incompatible, but according to DeLillo’s cosmology, these spheres can and must be bridged by poets and novelists. In fact, it is a poet held hostage in Beirut that brings Bill Gray out of seclusion and into the dangerous situation in the Middle East. Bill’s longtime friend and one-time editor brokers this deal, and despite the unlikelihood of such a deal happening in the real world, it humanizes the counter-Western terrorist cell by showing a similar ideology found among the writers and the terrorists: both parties are searching for a life free from the tyranny of late capitalism, mass consumption and mindless waste, but the tools of the writer are no longer the tools that society responds to. Violence is the only riveting attention-getter, the novel asserts, and the more senseless and shocking the act, the better it is.
The second half of Mao II is difficult to read without inserting the realities of the last decade into the conversation. This is to say that while cable news has always contributed to the “mean world syndrome” and the unrest in the Middle East has been a historical constant, the novel appears to be eerily prescient in the roles that terrorists play in modern life and in its valuation of the Twin Towers as a symbol of what the terrorists (and the novelists) oppose. It would be rather easy to substitute the image of Osama Bin Laden for the chairman Mao Zedong in the context of this novel, and in so doing, the novel would become even more relevant to a contemporary audience than it was in 1991.
However tempting it might be for some readers to view the text as a nearly prophetic work of fiction, it is perhaps more accurate to say that DeLillo used Mao II to illuminate both the tenor of the culture at that time and to chart its trajectory if uninterrupted. Even before al-Qaeda became a household name in the United States, we knew about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and about Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh. In this way, the September 11th attacks fit into a larger pattern of terrorism already established in our culture over the course of the 90s, and as the events became bigger and more devastating, so too did the mass-produced meanings become equally grandiose.
There is no going back, Mao II seems to say. In the coda, a photographer watches a Lebanese marriage procession moving slowly down the street while a freelance tank acts as escort and flashes go off in the distance, near the coast. To use contemporary jargon, this is the “new normal.” Marriages will still go on, generations will be raised under the threat of terrorism, and the future will, as DeLillo stresses, belong to the crowds.
While Mao II may not confront the death of the author from a strict Barthesian perspective, it places individualistic authors on some kind of endangered species list and it pushes them even further onto society’s fringes until they wind up as extreme outsiders, like the writer and intellectual Richard Eisner in DeLillo’s most recent novel Point Omega. Although the ending of Mao II might seem somewhat sweet or even half-way hopeful, the bleakness on the horizon is properly haunting. Mao II should not be read as a redemptive text; after all, all narratives of salvation require the presence of a soul and a fixed moral center, and the novel emphasizes that stripping the world of these things leaves us on an unalterable atavistic course—one that might look like the world we see today.