When Mao II opens, novelist Bill Gray has elected to withdraw from public scrutiny for more than twenty-five years. The author of two books that, in the 1950’s, had found a cultlike following, Gray decided that such celebrity status made him a commodity and retired to a bunkerlike compound outside Manhattan. In that time, he has worked endlessly revising a novel-in-progress that rests in dozens of boxes and binders in his compound. Gray knows the book is a waste but cannot bring himself to acknowledge that. With curmudgeon eccentricity, Gray sees himself as the last fragile vestige of the written word, the last individual voice in an era of electronic media wherein the individual vanishes. DeLillo uses religious cults, communism, terrorism, and the media to suggest the cultural addiction to conformity.
The novel is set in 1989. Gray has reasoned that his withdrawal has, in fact, simply made him more of a celebrity. He decides to re-engage the world. He first agrees to sit for a photo shoot and then, far more dramatically (and disastrously), to assist in an international campaign to free a Swiss diplomat and minor poet who has been taken hostage in Beirut. However, when he participates in a public reading in London, he realizes that the consciousness-raising event is merely a publicity event that his publishers are using to promote the release of Gray’s long-awaited new novel. Determined to help the kidnapped poet, Gray recklessly (or perhaps...
(The entire section is 516 words.)