Don DeLillo is an author I have had brief moments of contact with in my reading career. His National Book Award winner White Noise was a tome I had always kept my eye on and attempted to read once before. It was one of those reading scenarios where it's not that you particularly don't like the book, it just wasn't the right time in your life to read it, absorb it. As much as I love to read, I am not the fastest reader. So, when I pick a book out of my stack it has to be a yarn that I'm ready to engaged in a relationship with for a while. I like for a book to help set the template for what's going on in my life, be a companion to bring texture and context to my experience. And a few weeks back I picked up his 1991 work Mao II, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award.
The plot centers around novelist Bill Gray, who is in the latter stages of an esteemed career, but recluse and withdrawn. A Thomas Pynchon. Set during the Lebanese Civil War, the story emerges as Bill has decided to allow a photographer, Brita, to come to his isolated estate and photograph him. Bill Gray is ready to reveal himself to the world, yet in a way it is like his death, like he is giving up his power as a writer. This episode leads him back to New York, to visit his publisher, wherein he is pitched the opportunity to make a press appearance in public support of a foreign poet who was captured by terrorists in Lebannon. And this becomes the war: the age of the writer verses the age of terror.
"Through history it's the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark."
This is the struggle in which Bill Gray and the the supporting characters who swirl around him encounter in this new struggle at the end of the 20th Century. A century where meaning is lost to violence. Violence reigns over the world and the characters of the book are battered around in its wake. Mao Zedong, the communist revolutionary, is of course a central theme. In a way, Mao's philosophy of tyranny is the prime antagonist to the artist, the novelist, the poet. Mao's rise gives way to the death of the soul. The conflict of these two polarities is ever-present throughout the novel featured in pop-artist Andy Warhol's rendition of Mao. Chaiman Mao's imposing sovereignty is played with in Warhol's silk-screen series . . . colorful patches blot his stately features in an almost-comical way, a dance of absurdity in this new world of rapid commercialism and war. It is indeed a portrait of our time, whether you appreciate Warhol's aesthetic or not: we are laughable in our brutality toward ourselves.
Don DeLillo was ahead of his time with this book. If I had read this before 9/11, I'm not sure I would have grasped its true essence. What he has created is a Bible of our time. The world he proposes in Mao II is indeed our world now to a very real degree, a world where we are slaves to the news, to the next disaster, to exploding buildings and airplanes, where violence reigns as supreme as Mao and we have no choice but to submit to its rule over every facet of our lives. It is a bleak picture and DeLillo paints it with a brutal honesty that could only come from the belly of a dying poet. There are times when the prose in the book can seem pretentious, where even each character speaks as though they were reading straight out of Faulkner or Pynchon themselves. However, I believe this pretentiousness is really the result of my own sensibilities . . . we have lost many standards for the novelist in this day and age of YA and blogger-style attention spans. The age of terrorism has led us to an acute lack of focus and deliberation. As Bill Gray might point out, we should demand more from our writers. Their words should choke us, push us to our own own limitations. Our art should overpower the violence that pervades our planet. As we soften the resourcefulness of our imaginations, so then will the dictatorship of terror ever reign supreme.
Mao II is a triumph, a novel that I look forward to revisiting. DeLillo has earned his place as one of my top writers, up there with Pynchon himself. He has earned it. I can't wait to dive in to the rest of his portfolio. My final rating for this book is: