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)...
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