Mao II

ISBN: 0140152741
ISBN 13: 9780140152746
By: Don DeLillo

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About this book

"One of the most intelligent, grimly funny voices to comment on life in present-day America" (The New York Times), Don DeLillo presents an extraordinary new novel about words and images, novelists and terrorists, the mass mind and the arch-individualist. At the heart of the book is Bill Gray, a famous reclusive writer who escapes the failed novel he has been working on for many years and enters the world of political violence, a nightscape of Semtex explosives and hostages locked in basement rooms. Bill's dangerous passage leaves two people stranded: his brilliant, fixated assistant, Scott, and the strange young woman who is Scott's lover--and Bill's.

Reader's Thoughts


I once read an interview with DeLillo, where he claimed that he often liked to change or rearrange words in his sentences for the sound or effect it created, even if it ended up changing the meaning of the sentence entirely. For me, this just smacks of irresponsibility for someone held in such high literary esteem, and demonstrates his overriding pretentiousness as a novelist.The characters in this novel speak without any realism, seeming to communicate only in profound aphorisms to pound home the message of the book, and not one of them is at all likeable. I struggled on with it until I got about two-thirds of the way through, when I realised that I didn't care about any of them, or anything that happened to them, and thus it would be pointless to continue reading. Even when I skipped to the end to find out the fate of the "reclusive writer" Bill Gray, I still wasn't at all moved.The only reason I picked up this book in the first place was because I'd heard the character was based on JD Salinger, but then Salinger's own work has so far failed to grab me in any real way, so maybe that should have been an indicator. I have yet to read a good book by DeLillo, though I have since seen worse examples of his work in "The Body Artist" - and I know it's a minor point, but Bill Gray, as a character name? Surely someone of DeLillo's stature can come up with something a little more imaginative than that...


On the one hand, DeLillo would appear to care more about the sentence as an art form than anyone I can think of this side of Donald Barthelme (and let's be clear: Barthelme might have cared as much as DeLillo does, but I don’t think he could do some of the things DeLillo seems to do almost instinctively –– certainly not over the course of whole novels).And yet, in the early stages of many DeLillo books you get preposterous crap like this:"He wanted to fuck her loudly on a hard bed with rain beating on the windows. Please Jesus let me work. Every book is a bug-eyed race, let's face it. Must finish. Can't die yet. He struck enough keys to make a sentence and thought about going down to say goodbye to her but it would only embarrass them both. Got what she came for, didn't she? I'm a picture now, flat as birdshit on a Buick."So I've got a theory: In order to be the Don DeLillo who doesn’t apply his hypertalent for word and phrase to this kind of overwrought silliness, he needs to be operating within a conceptual arena appropriate to his particular set of gifts (which I guess I’d provisionally describe as on the one hand a relentless impulse to impose nomenclatural order, to use language as a kind of basket in which what we know of experience can be perfectly arranged {i.e. precision}; but on the other an uncanny capacity to send those blade-tipped sentences lancing into regions of experience that are ordinarily impervious to probe, to use language as a weapon that opens up the obscure {exploration? illumination?} {as I read it, The Names is in some respects a meta-meditation on DeLillo’s own obsession with language as both tool of demystification and portal into further mystery}), otherwise he seems to slip into the kind of sonorous wheel-spinning for which less enthusiastic readers sometimes take him to task. At his best, DeLillo is simultaneously a lyric poet and a philosopher of the postmodern age, arraying the expression of his far-ranging thought as a jewelry store’s worth of sentence-gems –– but he isn’t always at his best. My theory (and in interviews DeLillo has nearly said as much) is that he needs to write his way into knowing what he wants to write about. So a typical book can take fifty or a hundred pages to warm itself up. Sometimes –– as in, for instance, White Noise –– this kind of pre-game calisthenics can be quite entertaining: the miniature set-pieces on campus and in Gladney’s home are of course quite funny, though that book’s first part only hints at the shape the whole novel will ultimately take. Sometimes –– as in Mao II and, to a lesser extent, The Names –– the wait for DeLillo to get going is kind of a drag. But pace a substanceless parody I once read on McSweeney’s website, DeLillo rewards the reader’s patience with genuine vision, the latter stages of every novel I’ve read (six now, and counting) ascend into series of skywalks lined with windows opening onto pure mystery, and until I come to the end of a novel unaltered, I will continue to work through his oeuvre (maybe omitting The Body Artist, which I’ve heard from a number of sources is pretty unequivocally bad) even if it means wading through the occasional “Please Jesus let me work.”


I'm in kind of a DeLillo hangover, where the images and ideas are still raw in my brain, and they kind of hurt, but I am better for having read them. In Mao II, DeLillo delves into the world of a renowned author and later links him to terrorism, drawing a comparison between writers and terrorists as societal participants. He is also concerned with the crowd as a cultural function or force. DeLillo's cultural commentary is prescient and spot-on. His observations are unspoken universal truths and when coupled with his incredible, dense imagery, they are discomforting, to the point that at times I had to put the book down and take a breath to curb physical manifestations of anxiety. Yeah, his dialogue is stilted, but that has never bothered me that much. To me, it is meta-dialogue, dialectical in function. I can't describe the effect DeLillo has on me, except to say that he makes me look at the world differently.


The final sequence of Mao II’s prologue explicitly states one of the major themes of this dense and klaedioscopic novel, “The future belongs to crowds”. The prologue, probably the most engaging section of the novel, describes a Unification church mass wedding at Yankee Stadium through the eyes of dislocated parents searching for their daughter in amongst the mass of Moonies. It is a thematic firework that echoes throughout the rest of the novel. Mao II is a book filled with crowds, from the walk through a teeming park in New York to the mourners at the Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral, if this had been a sociological paper then it would have been an investigation on collective identity at its most obscure. The imagery and description of the crowds that De Lillo employs is quite amazing at times, he brings a chaotic and breathless tone to the real historic events that he crafts into the narrative, the funeral of Khomeini, in particular, is a masterclass of authorial illustration. Mao II feels like an attempt at a state of the nation novel, written in 1991; however, perhaps the most lasting impression that the narrative left on me was the uncomfortably predictive nature of the novel, the mass hysteria of crowds when faced with historically important events and the move towards the inevitable war on terror. Mao II has perhaps gained importance that it did not have when released, because in a post 9/11 world, the nature of terrorism, as discussed in Mao II becomes something more vital to understand, and De Lillo askance writing offers no solutions.De Lillo’s customary flat dialogue and humourous eye for a detail is very much part of the mix here, however, the book is slight on characterisation, the main character acts predominantly as a defined counterpoint to crowd behaviour and his solitude seems very much in keeping with the prevalent theme of the novel. However, he never convinces as real, nor does he ever become particularly interesting. It is flaw, for me, in what is otherwise a startling novel.

Mark Sacha

The most simple way to read DeLillo is to approach his characters' prophecies as direct addresses to the reader, statements made on the meaning of the text in which they appear. Clearly Don intends us to take these ideas seriously, but I'm not convinced he wants us to accept them automatically. His major characters are often satirical archetypes - the media executive, the financial executive, the assassin, the college professor, and here, the reclusive writer - and the things they say, revealing and surprising as they often are, resemble a kind of metacommentary on their roles, their expected beliefs and behaviors or at least the way that society responds to them. I think that one can disagree with Don's printed ideas without disagreeing with his texts, since their meanings are more dependent on their contexts than on their arguments per se. In Mao II, Bill Gray equates novelists (or certain novelists such as himself) to terrorists, in terms that are suspiciously similar to DeLillo's own statements in an interview with the Paris Review. One can either agree or disagree with this idea, but apart from this binary valuation, its real worth lies in how it stimulates thought about how ideas affect the people who receive them , and who has the power to disseminate them. While the terrorist statement that comes blatantly out of Gray's mouth functions as a shock, there are other, more edifying connections. Mao, it is said, was something of a literary leader, one whose Little Red Book was distributed and consumed as gospel, and who was a professed believer in so-called thought reform. Then there is the ubiquity of his image, like the nonstop assaults of commercial advertising, an insight famously made by Warhol in the prints that adorn the cover of DeLillo's book.Other examples abound, but the ultimate message here seems to be about mass consciousness, the hivemind of crowds. In his most effective scenes, DeLillo presents an event, such as a mass marriage of a religious sect or a televised ordeal of carnage and grief over the death of a revered leader, without giving his readers any clear indication of what to think about them. He selects the images, but refrains from interpreting them. The effect is poignant - how is one to interpret many of the things that occur on this planet? How can we account for the things we do individually, much less in numbers, without a definite awareness that we are in fact taking part? More than anything, DeLillo invites us to wonder where it's all headed. Even he doesn't have the answer, or if he does, he takes a lot of pleasure in teasing us with it.


Much to my disappointment, I found this mostly a tepid underwhelming experience, especially after being captured and swept away by Underworld. To me, this seems to be a treatise on the importance of author and the novel. But the aggrandized protagonist came across as no more than a writer specializing in run-on sentences whom infused his work with an inflated sense of importance. Of course I wouldn't have finished it if there was nothing redeeming. I love Delillo's understated yet powerful prose; he's adept at creating passages that stay with the reader without coming across as hyperbolic. (True, he treats the mundane with an elevated sense of drama but it's mostly effective and lacks gimmickry.) Delillo is that special type of writer that reveals the readers' own inner secrets, but the heavy handed approach in Mao II fell flat for me.

Alan Chen

I really like the way the novel began: Bill is a reclusive writer a la J.D. Salinger, Scott his uber fan turn secretary and Karen the ex-moonie are 3 people who live together and are interdependent upon each other. Their back stories are fleshed out when Brita comes to photograph the author. It begins with Delillo's usual quirkiness but seems to go in a traditional narrative where the story expands as we get to know the characters and we develop a sense of who these people are. Then, in a little past the middle of the novel Bill takes off on it's own and the rest of the novel becomes much more experimental fiction. Bill becomes ever more zany and there's a crazy plot by some leftists in Beirut where they seek attention by capturing a writer and Bill decides to go to take his place of him. Karen wanders off in New York and waxes philosophical while acting like she's on psychedelics and Scott becomes OCD in creating lists while waiting for Bill to come back. I'm annoyed that the main characters I enjoy so much in the first half of the book become, well weird, without any foundating-building that led up to it. I still enjoyed the novel, I appreciate Delillo for his style and big ideas, hence the 4-stars. If someone is going to ramble about the human psyche I rather it be a talent like his. "Fear has it's own ego, hasn't it?""We all know how the thing we secretly fear is not a secret at all but the open and eternal thing that predicts its own recurrence."


I am a fan of Don DeLillo's artistic ambition and his want to address ideas more profound than simple character study. When Tom Wolfe wrote his diatribe against MFA writing programs and accused them of passing along a tradition of meaningless, nonempathetic stories rather than work that addresses morality and social meaning, he undermined his own argument with his own bare-faced self-promotion of _The Bonfire of the Vanities_, a work that may in essence have fit his own ideal but was poorly structured and almost unreadable in the end. But Wolfe had an interesting point, proof of which was the simple fact that his statements caused such ire and intellectual retaliation among the MFA community. In the end, Wolfe would have done better to have used DeLillo as his primary example of writing that aspires to his ideal. DeLillo writes about people, but in the broadest sense of the term. He dwells not only in his characters, which is often the stopping point for many short-minded fictioneers with an assumption that their characters are worth reading (which often means that they are not), but also what those characters mean to the society they are in. _Libra_ is a wonderful example of this, as is _White Noise_ and _Cosmopolis_. Even in works where DeLillo's representations remain as just representations and do not engage as characters themselves (_Ratner's Star_), I am always impressed with his artistic ambition. DeLillo has a lot to say about the world, both topically and philosophically. This book, _Mao II_, is one that dwells on many relatively recent events (the Reverend Moon mass wedding, Khomeni's death), but even when read in 2006, these events hold meaning to the central points DeLillo is out to address--the influence of mass character over singular character, and the effect of art on the human psyche (and in this book, he even allows terrorism to enter into the world of art). _Mao II_ is a work of DeLillo nearly at his best. We deal with singular characters who resonate strongly off the page--there is Karen, a former Reverend Moon cultist who has been only partly relieved through deprogramming. There is Brita, a photographer who deals only writers as her subject. She manages to schedule a session with Bill, a legendary writer who has been self-reclusive and unsure about whether to relinquish his latest project onto the world. And there is his secretary/assistant/connection to the real world, Scott. Every one of these characters, and the characters to come as Bill is drawn into a plan to reveal himself at a benefit for a poet who has been kidnapped in Beirut, distinguish themselves through DeLillo's sharp and witty prose, but they also deal with philosophical concepts regarding society, indentity and art, and it is here that DeLillo is always at his finest. While in books like _The Names_, the characters overconsume the content and diffuse both, in _Mao II_, the characters are sharply intersting because of both their moments of sympathy and antipathy. In short, his characters feel fully fleshed out rather than spokespersons of philosophy, which was what dragged down books line _Ratner's Star_. The work of any artist must be looked at in its entirety rather than by singular example. A great poet is not one who has written one great poem, but has written a canon of work that has sometimes produced godliness, often greatness, and sometimes total misses. DeLillo can be considered a great writer even in the misses, for what he tries to do often far surpasses the greatest work of mediocre writers who dwell too much in the immediate rather than the universal. _Mao II_ may not be one of his greatest works and may not be pondered and scribed over like _Underworld_ or _White Noise_, but it is a great book, and I think many a DeLillo fan will cherish it for its precision and its thinking.

Mike Wojciechowski

There's a memorable comparison between terror and novels. It's sort of how a sci-fi film/book from the 70s/80s gets some things eerily right about the future but not all the pieces are exactly there. Maybe I find the terrorist/writer connection kinda offensive but it's still interesting and challenging. Really rare for a little idea like this to be so difficult to process, especially in the midst of a narrative without many other direct comparisons. It's also a little grating b/c it's also one of those clear post-modern meta conversations where the characters become depthless devices for the author to make a point about something instead of characters in a book. The conversation trails off after the portion I've included and never comes back into context."For some time now, I've had the feeling that novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game.""Interesting. How so?""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.""And the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art.""I think the relationship is intimate and precise insofar as such things can be measured.""Very nice indeed.""You think so?""Completely marvelous.""Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.""And it's difficult when they kill and maim because you see them, honestly now, as the only possible heroes for our time.""No," Bill said."The way they live in the shadows, live willingly with death. The way they hate many of the things you hate. Their discipline and cunning. The coherence of their lives. The way they excite, they excite admiration. In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act. There's too much everything, more things and messages and meanings that we can use in ten thousand lifetimes. Inertia-hysteria. Is history possible? Is anyone serious? Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer, the person who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed. The artists is absorbed, the madman in the street is absorbed and processed and incorporated. Give him a dollar, put him in a TV commercial. Only the terrorist stands outside. The culture hasn't figured out how to assimilate him. It's confusing when they kill the innocent. But this is precisely the language of being noticed, the only language the West understands. The way they determine how we see them. The way they dominate the rush of endless streaming images. I said in London, Bill. It's the novelist who understands the secret life, the rage that underlies all obscurity and neglect. You're half-murderers, most of you."


Plot-wise, the back cover tells us MAO II is the story of reclusive author Bill Gray who, stuck for years now on a failed novel, is inspired to leave his reclusive life and become involved in a group's attempts to get a French poet released from hostage captivity in Beirut. Bill's sudden change in attitude is brought on by an encounter with a world-renowned photographer, and his actions leave his obsessive-compulsive assistant Scott and Scott's girlfriend Karen at a loss for what to do while waiting for Bill's return to what they consider normalcy.That's the plot, but the book is "about" something larger. It took me a few days after reading the book to figure out exactly what that larger thing is. Ultimately, I think, the book is about the Cult of Personality. DeLillo litters the book with references to Andy Warhol, to Chairman Mao, to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Anyone who fails to draw at least a surface connection between Bill Gray and J.D. Salinger just isn't paying attention. Scott is concerned that Bill's reputation and reprint rights are based on what people think he is up to in his seclusion, and that if he publishes this latest novel (failed or not, we never really get to see the contents) people will no longer be intrigued. The French poet is held hostage by a Communist terrorist building a following in Beirut, whose followers give up their own identities to be a part of his. Even the photographer, Brita, builds her career around a sort of cult: she travels the world photographing writers almost exclusively.The opening section of the book, which focuses on Karen and takes place at the Mass Wedding lead by the Rev. Moon at Yankees Stadium, almost lost me. DeLillo bounces between at least three (that I could count) distinct points of view, sometimes in mid-paragraph, and the feeling I had by the end of the section was that this work was going to be too pretentious, too arty for me. Had the rest of the book continued in that vein, I might not have been able to finish it. Happily (for me), the remainder of the book is written a bit more traditionally. Actually, it becomes a bit heavy on the dialogue side for a while -- characters jumping on various soap-boxes and rambling, dissembling, reminiscing, pontificating. At first, the penchant for characters to spout non-sequiturs bothered me, but ultimately that's what real conversations are like, aren't they? So DeLillo does capture that aspect of real life, even if some of his diatribes go on a bit long. He also does a nice job of allowing we, the readers, to see where all of the characters ultimately end up even if the characters themselves have lost track of each other.I can't say that MAO II has inspired me to rush out and start reading everything Don DeLillo has ever written, but I am glad I made the effort to read the book.


"What terrorists gain, [us] 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."


I could feel DeLillo grappling with something important as I read this book, trying to deliver something profound, and that feeling made me want to press on, to see where he was going, even though I found most of his narrative a slog.There were astounding moments. The funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini was gorgeous prose. The discussion between Bill and George about the power of the terrorist to affect change was tense and convincing. Karen's time in the homeless shantytown was poetic and always shifting. But nothing in Mao II was easy; DeLillo made us work for every piece of wonder he embedded in his text. And along with these moments of genius was the promise of something profound pushing me on.DeLillo fulfilled his promise to me, but considering the myriad opinions concerning what Mao II was about, I am sure what I found profound is only one possibility.So here's what Mao II was about for me: insignificance. Not the usual evocation of existential nihilism, but a workable insignificance in the face of our search for impossible significance. It wasn't telling us to give up because there is no meaning, but telling us to simply recognize that whatever meaning we find for ourselves is significant for that and nothing else. DeLillo engages with issues and artifacts and concepts that our culture endows with the illusion of significance: architecture, the world trade center, terrorism and terror, belief, love, belief in love, religion, home and homelessness, art, the artist, photography, great men, and writing. Yes, even writing. All of it is insignificant beyond ourselves. And the search for significance in these things is equally insignificant. It's a subtle shift from the nihilist perspective that nothing means anything, but the shift is a profound one (even if DeLillo is only adding to the voices of those who've already spoken about this possibility). It was the pay off I was hoping for. I am only sorry that it wasn't enough to make me love this book. I wanted to love Mao II. But I'll have to cope with simply admiring it and its author. I've been afraid to engage with DeLillo. His reputation is daunting, and so are the issues he tackles. But now that I've begun I am confident that somewhere in his body of work is a book I will love as much as I admire this one. I hope that book is Libra.

Anmol Goel

Mao II: One for the Crowds or Best Left Alone? Mao II, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1992, is Don Delillo’s tenth novel. Readers of previous Don Delillo works, like White Noise, know that Don Delillo is a specialist of unsettling atmospheres. To me, the most unsettling of them all was the dark attic that contained all of the different parts of the books, from chapters of books stowed away in large boxes, and in the lone corner of the room, with a lantern and a typewriter the main character, a famous recluse named Bill Gray, who thinks that he is finished—as a writer. I appreciated the main conflict of this book, the ideas of a terrorist are easier to receive than an author's ideas, but the way Delillo decides to write Mao II leads to some jarring transitions. There are also some similarities between Delillo and Bill. Both use a typewriter and work for hours at a time and then break in between. Delillo also writes in solitude, with a quiet house. His typed drafts pile up around the house, for him to look back at a beastly scrawl at the bottom of a sheet. The first draft of his book, Libra sits in ten manuscript boxes; he likes to discard sentences as much as he finds joy in creating them. Two years prior to the writing of this book, in 1989, New York Post ambushed J.D. Salinger, Delillo used Salinger’s photo and a photo of the Unification Blessing Ceremony and said to Vince Passaro, “I didn’t know it at the time, but these two photos are the extremes of “Mao II,” the arch individualist and the mass mind, from the mind of the terrorist, to the mind of the mass organization. In both cases, it’s the death of the individual that has to be accomplished before their aims can be realized.” The last sentence of the prologue, “The future belongs to the crowds.” reveals a main theme that runs throughout the entire book. One of the main characters Scott believes that if Bill Gray were to release this book to the masses, the “real” Bill Gray would be lost and the book would also lose some meaning. The way that Delillo emphasizes this is by introducing crowds throughout the book. He uses crowds to show how they can corrupt as well as augment someone's personality. In fact, the first scene of the Unification Ceremony in the prologue introduces a major character, Bill's second assistant Karen, as well as some major themes in the book. The thousands stand and chant. Around them in the world, people ride escalators going up and down and sneak secret glances at the faces coming down. People dangle teabags over hot water in white cups... People bind themselves into numbered seats and fly across time zones and high cirrus and deep night, knowing that there is something they've forgotten to do. The future belongs to the crowds (16.)The imagery in this book is absolutely fantastic, it was like I could see these scenes play out in front of me. But there are some bad things about this smorgasbord of imagery. Now while I did enjoy reading this, the spontaneity in which Delillo switches ideas is very unsettling, like the novel itself, and it has led me to reread parts of the book and try and decipher the postmodern code that Delillo wants to write in. Maybe it is because he read comic books as a child, so “[He has] no storytelling drive, a drive to follow a certain kind of narrative rhythm.” Delillo says in an interview.This is not a book that will flatter the reader. Anyone who wants a book that succeeds in over-the-top imagery that will leave the reader questioning reality and whether being famous really is a good thing, should read this book.

Rick Bowen

Icy and brilliant. I recall being dazzled by the opening set piece "At Yankee Stadium." As always in DeLillo novels the ideas run far ahead of the characters. Except for the first part he's not in dark comic mode as he was in White Noise. Nevertheless, a short, insightful work chronicling our collective Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Second string DeLillo is enough to make it one of the best reads of the 90s. Go get it. Before it's too late.

Robby Wouters

Just like Underworld, starts of with an insanely good prologue, but falls flat halfway through. Very unfortunate. Delillo shoots his wad too early, and once his point is made, not much is left..

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