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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 398

Mao II is a 1991 fictional, postmodern novel written by American novelist, playwright, and short story writer Don DeLillo. He dedicated the book to his good friend Gordon Lish, another American writer.

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The main story focuses on Bill Gray—an introverted, reclusive, and relatively popular novelist living in uptown New York—who is working on a novel that he won't publish. He is torn between wanting to make a literary comeback in public life and wanting to seclude and isolate himself from society in order to write in peace.

Bill is drawn out of his seclusion, however, when a portrait photographer named Breta takes his picture and sends him a message from his old publisher. Soon, Bill becomes involuntarily involved in the world of political violence, terrorism, and art as he heads to London with the intention of helping a Swiss poet—who is held hostage by an organized terrorist group in Beirut, Lebanon.

Mao II borrows its title from a series of Andy Warhol silkscreen prints that depict the infamous Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Zedong. It is written from the third-person point of view, as the perspective shifts between the four main characters: Bill, his assistant Scott, Scott's partner Karen, and Breta. The novel has an open ending, and the Swiss poet's fate is left to the reader's imagination.

DeLillo present a unique, tragic, historically accurate, and thought-provoking narrative filled with detailed imagery and aphoristic language. Published a decade earlier than the tragic events that occurred on 9/11, he focuses on explaining the relationship between art and global terrorism, claiming that the main idea of both is to destroy old realities in order to create a new one.

Essentially, DeLillo argues that art and literature exist solely for the purpose of initiating social, ideological, and cultural change on a global scale and that terrorism is probably the "only meaningful act" that can actually instigate this change. This is, basically, Mao Zedong's infamous outlook on war and society. Aside from this, DeLillo explores peoples' need for isolation as well as their need for social inclusion.

Because of its occasional humoristic scenes and dialogues, Mao II is also considered a satire.

The novel received generally positive reviews and even won the 1992 PEN/Faulkner Award for best fiction. DeLillo gained critical acclaim and praise from the general public for his bold, original, and authentic commentary on contemporary Western society and its mindset.

Mao II

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2486

Don DeLillo is American fiction’s master of menace, inscriber of ominous surfaces in which the only direction to go is “deeper into the mystery.” It is, however, a mystery that is postmodern to its hollow core, a mystery undercut by DeLillo’s distinctive brand of edgy humor, as in Ratner’s Star (1976) and especially White Noise (1985), his breakthrough book. Even Libra (1988) is funny—oddly, inappropriately so given its ostensible subject, the Kennedy assassination. If at times DeLillo runs the risk of being too ponderous and portentous for his own good, the risk is worth it, for no one writing today—no American writer in particular—comes as close as he does to exposing the nature of the postindustrial, postmodern malaise, or mania, from disaster to celebrity to conspiracy theories and now, the appeal as well as the terror of terrorism to that strange new beast, Media Man.

Mao II, DeLillo’s tenth novel, begins with a pretext: the mass wedding of sixty-five hundred couples at Yankee Stadium, presided over by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. As Rodge, father of one of the brides, Karen, explains, this “is what happens to all the unexpended faith” after God has exited the world. “This” is also what Rodge had thought his middle-classness would protect him from: “He’s got a degree and a business and a tax attorney and a cardiologist and a mutual fund and whole life and major medical. But do the assurances always apply?” Searching in vain for his daughter in the “undifferentiated mass,” Rodge begins to understand that the assurances do not apply. Neither do the narrative assurances, as Mao II jump-cuts from one pretext to another. After thirty years, a famous but reclusive novelist, Bill Gray, is about to have his photograph taken. Like so much in this novel, the two pretexts are strangely connected. Bill’s reclusiveness is linked—and not just comically—to “God’s famous reluctance to appear,” and his deciding to make an appearance (even a photographic one) is tied to his “loss of faith” in the novel he has been writing and revising over the past twenty-three years. Like the ordinary but nonetheless messianic Reverend Moon, Bill has become a cult figure who attracts some more of that “unexpended faith.” Bill’s biggest fan (as in fanatic) is Scott Martineau, whose dedication borders on the pathological: a loner in the Lee Harvey Oswald tradition who goes not to Russia but, after considering Tibet, to Bill. “He had a life now and that’s what mattered.” Devotion here is mixed with dependency and tinged with a strong dose of Nietzschean ressentiment; protecting Bill from the outside world becomes Scott’s full-time obsession—an act of proprietorship, with Bill serving as Scott’s work-in- progress. Scott is more than merely obsessive-possessive; he is self-reflexive in a terrifyingly (yet again comically) childlike, credulous way: “Bill needs Scott,” Scott says to himself.

Two women also appear at Bill’s, one briefly, the other not so much permanently as less temporarily. Brita Nilson her own work-in-progress—a collection of writer’s photographs (chiefly reclusive writers, like Bill), a “basic reference work,” she explains, “just for storing” (in much the same way Scott compulsively catalogues and stores all of Bill’s papers). Karen is the Moonie bride whom Scott, on one of his infrequent trips away from the house, inadvertently rescued from her deprogrammers. “All spin and drift,” she gravitates to whatever center of force is nearest—Scott, Bill, Brita, Moon—avatars all of the “total vision” she desires (though desire may be too strong a word to use in Karen’s case). Awash in the “waves and radiation” of her times, she watches television, or watches rather the pure image itself stripped not just of sound but more importantly, of all historical context. Not surprisingly, Karen desires to become an image: Who would have thought, she thinks to herself during the mass wedding, that she would be in Yankee Stadium surrounded by thousands of people taking her picture. From devotion such as hers delusions necessarily spring.

Mao II is in large part a novelist’s meditation on the relation between makers of images and consumers of images, between writers and readers, artists and audience, and as such evokes the very context of which Karen remains ignorant: J. D. Salinger, of course, but also Thomas Pynchon (whose blurb appears on the book’s dust jacket), and the slightly less reclusive DeLillo himself. Readers of Libra will also see in Bill Gray some resemblance to Nicholas Branch, who sits in his study, surrounded by CIA-supplied material on the Kennedy assassination about which he is to write the official report that no one outside the CIA, and perhaps no one inside the CIA either, will ever read. Bill’s relation to his book proves no less strange than his relation to his readers (one sent him a severed finger; Scott sent himself; Karen offers her body; and even Brita believes she “knows” Bill because she has read his books; he is the word made flesh, possessor of some special power). Bill on the other hand claims that he writes not to exert power but to find his way back to the innocence of childhood (a dangerous place, if the novel’s two most childlike characters—Scott and Karen—are any indication); or failing that to use his writing to discover himself, or failing that just to survive: his situation for the past two years spent revising and perhaps for the entire twenty-three he has spent writing the novel that now seems “all forced and wrong,” the book that has become “his hated adversary.”

Bill sees an escape route when his former editor, Charles Everson, involves him in helping to free a hostage, a young Swiss United Nations worker who is at least nominally a writer (fifteen published poems to his name). In DeLillo nothing is ever simple and straightforward. Helping free this hostage will also publicize the terrorist group (Maoist rather than fundamentalist) that is holding him; “The hostage is the only proof they exist.” It will also publicize the existence of the new human rights group to which Everson belongs and which he may be using as a front for securing the book Bill hates, Scott says should not be published, and Everson, as editor, needs to consolidate his own waning powers in the world of corporate publishing. (Everson incidentally sends his message about wanting to see Bill through Brita, who thus becomes implicated, in the reader’s mind at least, in a larger, perhaps paranoid plot worthy of Pynchon—or the CIA). And then there is Bill, who wants not only to put the book and the past twenty-three years behind him but also to become the kind of politically engaged writer he longs to be (echoes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, André Malraux, and, strangely, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who managed to be both engaged and, in his fortress-like retreat in the United States, reclusive). Moreover, becoming involved with a hostage’s release will provide Bill with fresh material—or perhaps not so fresh, given the parallels between Bill’s situation and the hostage’s. Although it is claimed that Bill is not an autobiographical writer, it is clear that he uses his writing not only as a mode of thinking about large issues but also as a means for understanding himself. It proves a rather ambiguous self, for as Scott learns while rummaging through Bill’s personal effects like some celebrity’s unauthorized biographer, Bill Bray was born Willard Skansey, Jr. It is a secret Scott promises never to divulge (promises himself, of course), and it is a secret which links Bill Gray to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby: self-made men in more than one sense. Writing about the hostage becomes Bill’s way of writing about himself. “He wanted to know what it was like to know the extremes of isolation.” The reader, however, will never know whether the passages dealing with the hostage’s experiences “represent” the hostage’s views or are mediated by Bill (and thus form pages in Bill’s newest work-in-progress). Reading Mao II entails dropping through levels of fiction-making, texts within texts, yet DeLillo’s novel is the very opposite of claustrophobically self-referential. Writing about the writer Bill Gray is DeLillo’s way of writing about contemporary culture.

Especially intriguing is the connection DeLillo makes based, or at least anticipated, by the title of Diane Johnson’s 1982 collection of reviews, Terrorists and Novelists. According to Bill, the two are involved in a zero-sum game. The situation is similar to the one Philip Roth described in 1960: “the American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meager imagination.” The situation Bill describes is worse still: the novelist has been supplanted by the terrorist. Bill longs for the power to shape readers’ lives—the way they think and see—that after Beckett Bill believes only terrorists now seem to possess. As novelist, Bill wants his work to serve as Mao’s “Little Red Book” did: as a force binding a people together, less a text written on paper than history itself inscribed on the masses. Bill also fears becoming what Mao became and what Scott wants him to be, a myth rather than a man: remote, inaccessible, the source of awe and tabloid speculation. Yet Scott is right in one respect, that the rumors that have circulated about Bill since he went into seclusion thirty years before are linked to “the world’s oldest stories” and are in fact “not about Bill so much as people’s need to make mysteries and legends.” Paradoxically, in trying to free himself from the cult of the author by going into hiding, Bill only fuels the fire, turning himself into a pure, disembodied sign open to what Umberto Eco calls “endless semiosis.”

For all its brevity, Mao II proves a surprisingly “excessive” work, proliferating its own interpretive possibilities and ending not once but three times. In the first, Bill wends his way toward Beirut, is hit by a passing car in Athens (accident or assassination?), and takes a ferry to Lebanon, where upon arrival his body is found by one of the cleaning crew. “He said a prayer and went through the man’s belongings, leaving the insignificant cash, the good shoes, the things in the bag, the bag itself, but feeling it not a crime against the dead to take the man’s passport and other forms of identification, anything with a name and a number, which he could sell to some militia in Beirut.” Thus the end, or non-end, of “Bill Gray.” In the second ending, Karen returns to Bill’s hideaway where she and Scott will live happily ever (?) after, awaiting Bill’s return, his second coming, while refueling the mass cult’s millennial speculations about Bill. Ending number three does not so much conclude the novel as close its narrative frame, turning the novel back on itself, a narrative ouroboros, as postmodern Finnegans Wake. Brita, who had earlier compared being driven to Bill’s hideaway to “see[ing] some terrorist chief at his secret retreat in the mountains,” now travels to Beirut to photograph Abu Rashid, leader of the terrorist group that had been holding the Swiss hostage whom they had hoped to trade (up) for the better- known Bill Gray. As part of her routine for a “shoot” Brita likes to talk with her subjects—a fairly easy matter with Bill, once Scott is gotten out of the way, but much more problematic with Abu Rashid, as the two must speak through a translator whose words do not literally represent Abu Rashid’s; the translations seem more like editorializings: deleting here, adding there, altering everywhere—a point lost on all present but the reader, and perhaps the translator. The chief is not entirely in charge despite the fact that his hooded followers wear T-shirts emblazoned with his likeness; they maintain silence to signify (the translator says) that, as his “children,” they have all adopted his identity.

As a Maoist, Abu Rashid is the Mao II of Mao II: a cloned image in the ideological serigraph called history. Like Andy Warhol’s famous soup cans, Marilyn Monroes, and Chairman Maos, DeLillo’s extraordinary novel extends Walter Benjamin’s well-known analysis of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to include history, or rather, those images which pass for history in the popular culture and, more specifically, those images witnessed by Karen during her soundless television trances: people being crushed to death at a soccer match, Khomeini’s funeral, Tiananmen Square (where Karen sees the army’s routing of the students in generic terms: “One crowd replaced another”). The progression of televised images becomes the ultimate serigraph, out-Warholing Warhol. Reading Mao II, one thinks of the quaintness of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” and thinks too of Karl Marx’s comment at the beginning of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” In Mao II, the farce is not at all broad but instead almost Beckett-like in its grim attenuation. The novel as a whole and each of its four sections are preceded by a “historical” photograph: Tiananmen Square, the Moonie mass marriage, a huge portrait of Khomeini with a horde of seemingly tiny Iranians massed under his chin, children in bombed-out Beirut. Mao II is not “about” these scenes; it is rather about a world in which the serious novel has become marginalized and/or commodified; where images have replaced ideas, where “access” has replaced awareness, and where, most disturbingly, “the future belongs to crowds.”

Sources for Further Study

American Book Review. XIII, October-November, 1991, p. 18.

Booklist. LXXXVII, February 15, 1991, p. 1162.

Chicago Tribune. June 23, 1991, XIV, p. 1.

Commonweal. CXVIII, August 9, 1991, p. 490.

The Economist. CCCXIX, June 15, 1991, p. 86.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, March 1, 1991, p. 266.

Library Journal. CXVI, April 15, 1991, p. 124.

London Review of Books. XIII, September 12, 1991, p. 13.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 9, 1991, p. 3.

Maclean’s. August 12, 1991, p. 43.

New York Magazine. XXIV, June 17, 1991, p. 84.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, June 27, 1991, p. 17.

The New York Times. CXL, May 28, 1991, p. C15.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, June 9, 1991, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LXVII, June 24, 1991, p. 81.

The Observer. September 1, 1991, p. 54.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, April 12, 1991, p. 44.

Quill & Quire. LVII, July, 1991, p. 50.

The Spectator, CCLXVII, September 7, 1991, p. 34.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 30, 1991, p. 20.

The Village Voice. XXXVI, June 18, 1991, p. 65.

The Wall Street Journal. June 13, 1991, p. A14.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, May 26, 1991, p. 1.

Mao II

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

In essays and interviews, novelists repeatedly insist that they have to start from scratch with each new book. Past performance does not guarantee future success. This is a truth that critics and reviewers have a hard time digesting when dealing with brand-name authors. Case in point is Don DeLillo’s MAO II, which most reviewers are treating as “the new DeLillo.” They are covering the career—the story is the emergence of this gifted writer as a literary superstar after years of respectful but muted attention—rather than the book at hand. They are writing about the ideas extractable from MAO II rather than the actual words that make up the book. DeLillo, who has frequently explored the power of images to supplant reality, would presumably appreciate the irony.

MAO II (the title derives from a series of prints by Andy Warhol) centers on Bill Gray, a reclusive American novelist whose considerable literary reputation rests on two published books and a third famously and interminably in progress. Reviewers have suggested J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon as analogues, and indeed the back cover of MAO II features a rare endorsement by Pynchon, the style of which veers toward parody of dust-jacket rhetoric ("DeLillo takes us on a breathtaking journey. . ."). In detail, however, Gray bears no particular resemblance to Pynchon, Salinger, William Gass, or any other readily recognizable figure. Obsessively writing and rewriting, Gray is haunted by the diminished role of the novelist in contemporary American culture. By contrast, terrorists dominate the imagination of virtually everyone within range of their carefully contrived media happenings.

The role of the writer, the individual versus the crowd (DeLillo has said that Salman Rushdie’s fate was on his mind while he was writing MAO II), the relationship between everyday life in America and the daily horrors of places such as Lebanon: These and other themes are deftly juggled as DeLillo proceeds, yet the principal characters—Gray; his assistant, Scott, who urges him to defer indefinitely completion of his third book, thereby enhancing his mystique; and Karen, a refugee from the Moonies who becomes the lover of both Gray and Scott—never assume reality, nor does the shadow-world of terrorists and hostages that Gray enters.

Neither a novel of character and action (such as DeLillo’s brilliant WHITE NOISE) nor a parable along the lines of Jerzy Kosinski’s BEING THERE, MAO II falls uneasily between the two. That leaves DeLillo and his readers in the same predicament: waiting to see how the next book will turn out.

Sources for Further Study

American Book Review. XIII, October-November, 1991, p. 18.

Booklist. LXXXVII, February 15, 1991, p. 1162.

Chicago Tribune. June 23, 1991, XIV, p. 1.

Commonweal. CXVIII, August 9, 1991, p. 490.

The Economist. CCCXIX, June 15, 1991, p. 86.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, March 1, 1991, p. 266.

Library Journal. CXVI, April 15, 1991, p. 124.

London Review of Books. XIII, September 12, 1991, p. 13.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 9, 1991, p. 3.

Maclean’s. August 12, 1991, p. 43.

New York Magazine. XXIV, June 17, 1991, p. 84.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, June 27, 1991, p. 17.

The New York Times. CXL, May 28, 1991, p. C15.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, June 9, 1991, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LXVII, June 24, 1991, p. 81.

The Observer. September 1, 1991, p. 54.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, April 12, 1991, p. 44.

Quill & Quire. LVII, July, 1991, p. 50.

The Spectator, CCLXVII, September 7, 1991, p. 34.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 30, 1991, p. 20.

The Village Voice. XXXVI, June 18, 1991, p. 65.

The Wall Street Journal. June 13, 1991, p. A14.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, May 26, 1991, p. 1.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141

Sources for Further Study

American Book Review. XIII, October-November, 1991, p. 18.

Booklist. LXXXVII, February 15, 1991, p. 1162.

Chicago Tribune. June 23, 1991, XIV, p. 1.

Commonweal. CXVIII, August 9, 1991, p. 490.

The Economist. CCCXIX, June 15, 1991, p. 86.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, March 1, 1991, p. 266.

Library Journal. CXVI, April 15, 1991, p. 124.

London Review of Books. XIII, September 12, 1991, p. 13.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 9, 1991, p. 3.

Maclean’s. August 12, 1991, p. 43.

New York Magazine. XXIV, June 17, 1991, p. 84.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, June 27, 1991, p. 17.

The New York Times. CXL, May 28, 1991, p. C15.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, June 9, 1991, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LXVII, June 24, 1991, p. 81.

The Observer. September 1, 1991, p. 54.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, April 12, 1991, p. 44.

Quill & Quire. LVII, July, 1991, p. 50.

The Spectator, CCLXVII, September 7, 1991, p. 34.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 30, 1991, p. 20.

The Village Voice. XXXVI, June 18, 1991, p. 65.

The Wall Street Journal. June 13, 1991, p. A14.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, May 26, 1991, p. 1.

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