Don DeLillo is one of those names you often hear bandied about but—unfortunately for me—someone I’ve never read. That is, not until now when I recently finished Mao II.
The story centers around a reclusive writer named Bill Gray who has penned two influential novels and has been working on a third for the better part of twenty-three years, a novel that is more or less finished but one he hesitates to submit to his publisher because it doesn’t live up to the quality of his earlier works. Gray lives in Salinger-like reclusiveness and, because he hasn’t been published or even seen in years, a powerful “cult of personality” surrounds the author and his works. According to Scott, Gray’s live-in personal assistant, publishing this new and flawed work would severely damage whatever influence—even power—Gray may yield over the public imagination.
But coming out of the shadows is exactly what Gray does, or attempts to do. His friend and editor, Charlie Everson, convinces Gray to speak publicly at a press conference in London urging the release of a Swiss poet who has been taken hostage in Beirut by a band of Maoist terrorists, a press conference that never materializes because the building is bombed moments after the attendees are evacuated. And herein lies the central theme of the novel: terrorism vs. art, especially as it relates to the masses.
Although written more than two decades ago, DeLillo’s book was not only stunningly prescient but also just as valid today as it was then. While in conversation with George Haddad, a man who can introduce Gray to the hostage’s kidnappers, Gray says, “‘What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which [terrorists] influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous’” (157). A few lines later, he adds, “‘Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative’” (157).
What adds to the eerie farsightedness of this passage are the several references DeLillo makes to the twin towers in New York, what Brita, a New York photographer, describes as “the million-storey towers” (87), buildings that in themselves contain masses of people and seem to carry such haunting weight and power in the novel.
Crowds, not surprisingly, figure heavily in the novel, particularly in terms of the prominence they play during that historically pivotal year 1989. The Prologue to Mao II begins with one of those mass weddings held in Yankee Stadium led by the Reverend Moon of the Unification Church. Among the thousands to tie the knot that day is Karen, a young woman who is subsequently abducted by her family but is never fully deprogrammed of her cult-like beliefs. After running away, she is eventually “rescued” by Scott and becomes his usual bed partner, and sometimes Gray’s as well. It’s through Karen’s eyes that we see the frightening and chaotic mix of both the power and powerlessness of crowds, particularly as she sees them on television: the human stampede of soccer fans in which nearly 100 people were crushed to death in Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England (a photo of the crushed faces up against a fence introduces Part I of the book) and that utterly maniacal gathering of an estimated two million mourners after the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Teheran. Along with Karen we watch on television the masses of people surging upon Khomeini’s body on its way to the gravesite. Unwilling to relinquish their dead leader, the crowd tears apart his shroud, leaving his defenseless corpse exposed and even trampled on. Along with Karen we also watch the failed Tiananmen Square Uprising, the crowds of people gathered under the iconic Mao portrait, the troops coming in, and the piles of corpses on the street, some of whom are "still seated on their bikes" (177). (Although not mentioned, 1989 was also the year the Berlin Wall came down, bringing to mind images of the crowds of people streaming through the now-useless wall.) In her search for the missing Bill Gray, who was last seen stepping onto a crowded New York sidewalk, Karen’s roaming through New York takes her to Tompkins Square Park and the encampment of thousands of the city’s homeless living in plastic bags, cardboard boxes and makeshift lean-to's. Karen's awe at the sight of all this "human refuse" harkens back to an earlier comment made by Brita in which she claims only a handful of nameless men own everything in New York and “‘[p]eople are swept out into the streets because the owners need the space. Then they are swept off the streets because someone owns the air they breathe. Men buy and sell air in the sky and there are bodies heaped together in boxes on the sidewalk. Then they sweep away the boxes’” (88), a reference it would seem to the 1988 riots when, according to Wikipedia, police attempted to clear the park of its squatters.
And looming above it all is the image of Mao—or Mao II, a series of prints Andy Warhol produced (like his famous Marilyn Munroe series) which represents not so much an actual historical personage as a represenation, a mix of lines and shadows that denote something or someone iconic—a fiction, in other words—that the crowds can believe in, blindly follow, claim as their own, and invest their faith in; images that become increasingly meaningless as the anonymous narrative of terror takes hold.