Tuesday, August 25, 2009

224. Mao II – Don DeLillo

June 2009
History: Published in 1991. The title is derived from a series of Andy Warhol silkscreen prints depicting Mao Zedong.
Plot: A reclusive novelist named Bill Gray toils endlessly on a novel he can't finish. After publishing two celebrated novels he is stuck perpetually editing and rewriting his much anticipated new work, much to the chagrin of his publisher and old friend, Charles Everson, and his obsessive live-in assistant Scott Martineau. Scott would prefer Bill didn't publish the book for fear that the mass-production of the work will destroy the "real" Bill. Bill has a dalliance with Scott's partner Karen Janney, a former member of the Unification Church who is married to Kim Jo Pak in a Unification Church Blessing ceremony in the prologue of the book.
Bill, who lives as a complete recluse, accedes to be photographed by a New York photographer named Brita who is documenting writers. In dialogue with Brita and others, Bill laments that novelists are quickly becoming obsolete in an age where terrorism has supplanted art as the "raids on consciousness" that jolt and transform culture at large. Gray disappears without a word and secretly decides to accept an opportunity from Charles to travel to London to publicly speak on the behalf of a Swiss writer held hostage in war-torn Beirut.
Meanhile Karen ends up living in Brita's NY apartment and spends most of her time in the homeless slums of Tompkins Square Park. In London, Bill is introduced to George Haddad, a representative of the Maoist group responsible for kidnapping the writer. Bill decides to go to Lebanon himself and negotiate the release of the writer. Cutting himself off from Charles, he flees to Cyprus where he awaits a ship that will take him to Lebanon.
In Cyprus Bill is hit by a car and suffers a lacerated liver which, exacerbated by his heavy drinking, kills him in his sleep while en route to Beirut. In the epilogue/last chapter, Brita goes to Beirut to photograph Abu Rashid, the terrorist responsible for the kidnapping. The fate of the hostage is never revealed, though the implication is grim. The plot unfolds with DeLillo's customary shifts of time, setting, and character.
Review: I listened to this book. Mao II is not a fun book. It won't make you laugh out loud, nor will you cry with gentle joy when the hero is reunited with the princess. The book is unsettling, a prescient book about what ails the modern world.
It is written from a bizarre distance. The author is far away from us readers - and has no mercy with us. It's as if he finds the world - or more narrowly, the US - an incredibly strange place, and he'll go to any length to prove it to us. We don't yearn to meet him - or his characters - at any imaginary cocktail party ...
Mao II is a book of ideas told through three-dimensional characters. Most of the characters are lonely and unsure how - or even whether - they fit into the world as a whole. Long passages, entire chapters are in dialogue, and who the characters are and how they interrelate is revealed in what they say rather than in wordy descriptive passages. There's an easy flow from dialogue to inner monologue, though DeLillo doesn't use 'he said' or 'she thought'.
One of the book's themes is about losing one's identity in a mass of people. The opening scene - a Moonie wedding in Yankee Stadium - is as unsettling on second reading, ten years later, as it was the first time around. In another spooky scene, a crowd of spectators is crushed at a football stadium in Europe - but our narrator is not on the scene, nor is she discussing what she saw or heard or read with others; she's watching TV with the sound off, her boyfriend asleep next to her. This character is uniquely susceptible to atmosphere and to influences; she often serves as a filter for what's going on in the outside world.
Another theme is about consuming the world visually. Another main character is travelling around the world photographing writers, trying to capture an ineffable something in their auras. In other passages, words describe the process of writing visually, reversing the process. "Here was the old, marked and melancholy head, the lost man of letters, and there was the early alphabet on the wall, the plan of his missing book in the form of lopsided boxes and felt-tipped scrawls and sets of directional signs like arrows scratched out by a child with a pencil in his fist." Andy Warhol's paintings of popular icons are also discussed - hence the book's title.
Mao II is also about terrorism and anonymity. Terrorism from a 1991 vantage point does not mean a huge gesture hurting Americans to their very core; it means a cold, vague threat to the individual - torture drumming who you are out of you; the act of standing up to terrorism as a gesture of humanity. A representative of a terrorist group tries to persuade Bill to make a significant political gesture
Opening Line: “Here they come, marching into American sunlight.”
Closing Line: “The dead city, photographed one more time.”
Quotes: "He caught the back-and-forthness. The way things fit almost anywhere and nothing gets completely forgotten." [
“He had tumbled into the new culture, the system of world terror, and they'd given him a second self, an immortality, the spirit of Jean-Claude Julien. He was a digital mosaic in the processing grid, lines of ghostly type on microfilm. They were putting him together, storing his data in starfish satellites, bouncing his image off the moon. He saw himself floating to the far shores of space, past his own death and back again. But he sensed they'd forgotten his body by now. He was lost in the wavebands, one more code for the computer mesh, for the memory of crimes too pointless to be solved.”
Rating: Good, but meaningfully depressing.

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