Last Updated September 5, 2023.
One important theme in Mao II is the high price of celebrity. Bill Gray’s decision to withdraw from society in the wake of his crushing fame holds firm for decades, but once he tries to re-enter gradually he finds that is not a viable option. Another theme that Dom DeLillo explores is the difficulty of acting upon one’s personal convictions. When Gray steps back into the limelight, it is to aid what he perceives as a good cause; he ends up paying with his life. This odd combination of circumstances suggests that DeLillo endorses the inevitability of a rendezvous with fate. Because Gray remains stubbornly “old school” in eschewing modern conveniences, the author also seems to imply that technological “advances” have not really improved society.
The character of Bill Gray seems to be modeled on J. D. Salinger in terms of the time period and circumstances. In the 1950s Gray published one novel that catapulted him to fame. After one follow-up, unable to cope with the demands of celebrity that included lack of privacy, he left the city and holed up in a rural retreat. There he continued to write, hoping to produce another magnum opus, and growing ever more disenchanted with the state of the world.
When Gray emerges, he has both the lofty aims of aiding an endangered political dissident and the naïve aspiration of reducing his fame by piercing the bubble of mystery around him. These plans take him first to London, where the glare of publicity is unbearable. Throwing himself into the altruistic political project, Gray never fully accepts realizes how quixotic his quest has become. The seemingly inescapable chain of events carries him along. The coincidence that spells his demise is perhaps too contrived: with his documents stolen, he literally loses his identity. The reader is left to decide whether the loss of his life is the price of fame or of trying to do the right thing.