Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Mao II is a novel broadly about the inescapable and homogenizing ubiquity of consumerist culture, and about the diminishing significance of literature within that culture. It is also about how people have become dehumanized by this culture. The quotations below are important quotations which allude to these themes.
In committing a work to memory we make it safe from decay. It stands untouched. Children memorize parts of stories their parents tell them. They want the same story again and again. Don't change a word or they get terribly upset. This is the unchanged narrative every culture needs in order to survive.
In this first quotation the narrator is talking about, and defending the importance of literature, and specifically narratives. He does so by using metaphorical language to describe narratives as sculptures that "we make," and which do not "decay." The artistic metaphor implies that narratives are a form of creativity and self-expression, but also conveys the idea that, like a sculpture, or statue, narratives are permanent, and fixed. Narratives, like sculptures that do not rust, are, therefore, reliable, and this reliability offers security and comfort. When DeLillo writes that "the unchanged narrative" is what "every culture needs to survive," he means that narratives are important because they offer us a fixed, unchangeable centre, or touchstone for our identity. National identities are forged around such unchanging narratives, for example.
What makes this city different is that nobody expects to be in one place for ten minutes. Everybody moves all the time. Seven nameless men own everything and move us around on a board. People 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.
In this second quotation, DeLillo uses metaphorical language again, this time to illustrate the unequal relationship between the rich and everyone else. The rich in this instance are the players and everybody else the pieces of the game. The rich move the rest wherever they like "on a board." This metaphor neatly captures the lack of autonomy and choice that is available to those who are not wealthy. Their lives are governed by the decisions and whims of the rich. In this quotation, DeLillo also repeats the image of the people being sewpt off, or swept away. For example, "People are swept out into the streets" or "off the streets." This image implies that these people are like trash. They are, from the perspective at least of the rich who "buy and sell air in the sky," worthless and unsightly.
Everything around us tends to channel our lives toward some final reality in print or on film. Two lovers quarrel in the back of a taxi and a question becomes implicit in the event. Who will write the book and who will play the lovers in the movie? Everything seeks its own heightened version. Or put it this way. Nothing happens until it's consumed. Or put it this way. Nature has given way to aura. A man cuts himself shaving and someone is signed up to write the biography of the cut. All the material in every life is channeled into the glow.
This third quotation is about the destructive impact of mass, consumerist culture. This culture is presented here as a sort of black hole, which sucks everything around it towards and eventually into its centre, reducing everything to the same meaningless end. Everything is "consumed" by this black hole, and, what's worse, nothing is perceived as having any meaning unless it is consumed, being consumed, or moving towards being consumed. So ubiquitous has this consumerist culture become that anything which exists outside of it seems strange, indefinable and meaningless. Elsewhere in the book, DeLillo suggests that even literature has succumbed to this consumerist culture, and that the only 'things' to still exist outside of it are terrorists and acts of terrorism. This is why literature has lost its power to shape consciousness, whereas terrorism has, meanwhile, accrued the same power.