Review - Mao II by Don DeLillo
Reviewed in the United States on 1 January 2017
This book explores a panopticon of themes, among them being Maoism, the phenomenon of the reclusive author, and the idea that the growing population of people in the world, collectively, are starting to have a large effect on how we as a society see individual identity. The book starts with Bill Gray, a reclusive author living in upstate New York, his assistant, Scott, who plays a large part in keeping Bill isolated in their shared house, and their relationship with Karen, a 24-year old convert to the Unification Church. The novel moves forward when Brita, a photographer, takes pictures of Bill, and carries to Bill a message from Bill’s old publisher. After hearing the message, Bill leaves and heads to London, where he plans to take part in a press conference, to help secure the release of a hostage being held by a terrorist group in Lebanon. Mao II is often categorized as a postmodern novel, and the denouement is where we see the trueness of this description. The press conference doesn’t happen, and it keeps getting postponed until it doesn’t happen at all. It seems that the terrorists win.
I live in Southern China and find the undercurrent of Maoism in the book to be relevant today, even though the book was written over twenty years ago. The novel has multiple settings: the United States, London, and Cyprus, and this feature along with the Chinese influence gives the book a very worldly feel. We see Mao’s idea of the “People’s War” present when the book deals with terrorism, terrorists are resisting society at large both violently and ideologically, they aim not only to subvert the social order, but to change the culture at large. The iconic image of Mao Zedong hanging in Tiananmen Square is less about Mao’s personal identity, but more about the identity of China as a whole. DeLillo highlights that terror and art are in some kind of binary struggle, where writers, in modern society, are less important when it comes to shaping human consciousness. There is a scene in the book also where Karen is watching the funeral of Ruhollah Khomeini and the shit show that proceeds. Khomeini’s image, and dead corpse, definitively represent modern Iran, and people violate it and touch it because they want to be one with it. The scenes where the hostage in Lebanon, slowly losing his sanity in captivity, also reminded me of China’s transformation during the Cultural Revolution.
I read somewhere that DeLillo took inspiration for Bill Gray from the life of J.D. Salinger. The author, in his recluse, becomes larger than life, and the mystery surrounding such an author gives hope to the masses. It is apparent in the book that Scott is holding Bill hostage in the house, as Scott knows that this effect is a force of good in the world (one that can fight against the terrorists). One also gets the idea that Scott does this because he wants to keep his idea of Bill pure in his own mind, even though this is done against Bill’s will. DeLillo, though he is dealing with a lot of material in this novel, writes with insight and with an imagination that is unmatched. Another segment in the book deals with Karen and her interactions with the homeless denizens of Tompkins Square Park in the early nineties. His description of the camp is nightmarish, hellish, and brutally honest. I highly recommend this book, the only other book from DeLillo that I have read is White Noise, but I can say I like this book a lot more.
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