Thursday, July 9, 2009
Don Delillo: Mao II (1991)
"There's a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence. Do you ask your writers how they feel about this? Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated." In Mao II, Delillo analyzes (as always, through the blunt speeches of his characters) the role of literature in a world not only saturated with mass media but also punctured by terrorism and radical violence. The book opens with a masterful description of a mass wedding at Yankee Stadium of thirteen thousand members of the Moonie cult. In this scene, Delillo introduces the idea that individualism has been supplanted by new forms of collective identity and behavior. In other words, it presents the possibility that "The future belongs to crowds." The participants in the mass ceremony, who have been "immunized against the language of self," are described first as "an undifferentiated mass," but then as "a mass of people turned into a sculptured object." Unfortunately, the first scene's phenomenology of the crowd is soon replaced by a dialogue-heavy narrative that marginalizes Delillo's descriptive skills. A photographer named Brita travels to take pictures of the author Bill Gray, who has not published a novel in decades and who has fallen into a completely reclusive lifestyle in his hidden country home. Brita only takes photographs of writers, despite the fact that writers' works should make their images superfluous. Brita's photographs produce the first break in Bill's solitary routine, a break that eventually sends him into the heart of modern political violence. Throughout the book, Delillo plays with comparisons of writers and terrorists. Brita compares being guided to Bill's secret house to "being taken to see some terrorist chief." Bill's manuscript appears like the aftermath of a bomb's explosion, appearing composed of "the ooze of speckled matter, the blood sneeze, the daily pale secretion, the bits of human tissue sticking to the page." The writer and his protagonists are equated with the terrorist. Someone tells Bill, "isn't it the novelist . . . above all people, above all writers, who understand this rage, who knows in his soul what the terrorist thinks and feels? Through history it's the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark. Where are your sympathies? With the colonial police, the occupier, the rich landlord, the corrupt government, the militaristic state? Or with the terrorist?" Delillo goes even further elsewhere, claiming that writing and terrorism are not merely similar but also competitors in a zero sum game: "What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous. . . . Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involved midair explosions and crumbld buildings. This is the new tragic narrative." In other words, the true inheritor of modernism is not postmodernism but terrorism. But like postmodernism, terrorism - or at least the appeal and power of terrorism - is a response to the growing media saturation of everyday life. Bill comments, "There's the life and there's the consumer event. Everything around us tends to channel our lives toward some final reality in print or on film. . . . Everything seeks its own heightened version. Or put it this way. Nothing happens until it's consumed." The novel's title refers to an Andy Warhol image of Mao that crosses revolutionary politics with media culture. One character tells Bill, "In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act. There's too much everything, more things and messages and meanings than we can use in ten thousand lifetimes. . . . Only the terrorist stands outside. The culture hasn't figured out how to assimilate him." Shortly after his photo shoot with Brita, Bill gets involved through his publisher in an effort to free a Swiss writer who is being held hostage by an unknown communist/terrorist group in Beirut. Bill agrees to participate in a press conference in London, which would give the new group publicity in exchange for the freeing of the hostage: "His freedom is tied to the public announcement of his freedom. You can't have the first without the second. This is one of many things Beirut has learned from the West." But a bomb threat frustrates this coupling of terrorism and mass media. Instead, Bill soon makes contact with a mysterious man who is in communication with the group holding the hostage. Bill embraces the intrigue he gets swept up in as an opportunity to revise "the terms of his seclusion." The novel's conclusion finds Bill forsaking his writing and traveling to Lebanon to exchange himself for the Swiss writer, a quasi-suicidal rejection of the task of the writer.