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

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."

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.

Adam Cherson

I rate this book a 3.53 on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being best. Written sometime around 1990, this book looks tame in comparison to subsequent history. Nevertheless the elements present today are all there: the alienated individualists, the cultists, the idolators, the extremists, the capitalists, the observers, and the hedonists, all melding together to paint a picture of dimness. This is my second DeLillo (Underworld) and my sense is of a writer holding himself back, perhaps for commercial purposes. There are many fine observations in this book, but there is also much narrative for narrative's sake. The best passages describe the art and practice of writing: "Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there...There's a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer's will to live.""The withheld work of art is the only eloquence left.""For some time now I've had the feeling that novelists and terrorists are playing 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. And the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art...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."


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...


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.


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.


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.


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."


Mao II is second book I have read of Don DeLillo's after White Noise. As with WN, most of the characters are rather impenetrible, larger-than-life characters who are all fascinating in their own rights. They serve to evoke thematic imagery and aver sweeping socio-political statements rather than to generate sympathy, and to this end, serve the plot well for this is a book of grand ideas: being seen and hiding, the formation and sublimation of identity, public consciousness, Mao-esque con-formity, terrorism, and religious cults. From a composition standpoint, many passages and sections are brilliant and riviting, but the dialogue between the icy characters is often over-blown, awkward, and sometimes unintentionally laughable. Thankfully, aside from one stunningly long conversation between self-sequestered novelist Bill Gray and photographer Brita, these are kept to a minimum. The plot is eliptical and occilates between spheres of the inner and outer worlds of persona. Mao II leaves you a little breathless and is worth reading slowly to tease out the nuances of DeLillo's provocative social critique.


"...but all the bursts are in one spot and there is no sound."

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.


Mao II tells the very postmodern story of a postmodern writer, his postmodern assistant who keeps the old man afloat, and the very postmodern pyschoward who lives with both the men and once got hitched in a mass-marriage ceremony while a member of the Unification Church.Bill, the writer, is a recluse; did I mention that? Yea, he’s like your Thomas Pynchon/Salinger type writer who loves being far away from anyone and everyone. Well one day Bill is photographed by a photojournalist named Brita. And well, you know, stuff happens from there. This whole plot is spliced with musings on idolization of world leaders, the horde mentality, writing, death (lots of death), and themes in DeLillo’s transcendent prose.Don’t be mislead by the flippancy; I really enjoyed this novel. I really enjoyed the writing style, the characters and trying to figure out just what in the heck DeLillo is getting at here, and I really like DeLillo (it’s no Underworld though). I know the preceding sentence seemed like a paragraph from a high school lit-term paper, but I don’t apologize cuz I read the book


I had pretty high expectations before starting it, as I have seen some extremely appreciative articles about him and his books. I expected a novel in the style of contemporary realism. Instead I got a novel full of interminable descriptions, lack of actual events and also centered on characters thoughts. Just the type of literature that I don't like.The premise is hard to find. DeLillo probably wanted to write this novel in order to draw attention to several events from contemporary history that are unrelated. Taken together, the author thought that they may stand up for something, but I was unable to understand what was that. Especially as the characters seem not to be affected in any way by these events. This is why I will give it a 1.Regarding the form, I liked three descriptions: the opening scene of a mass marriage of several thousands people from a religious group held on Yankee Stadium, the scenes from Beirut during Lebanese Civil War and the Tienanmen protests. But the rest of the novel was not at all interesting for me. Especially the dialogues were extremely poor as all characters spoke alike and it was pretty hard to follow it. I will rate it with another 1 for form, as I cannot ignore the important flaws for the sake of the couple good written pages.In terms of originality, without being totally new, I believe the novel was pretty original, in terms of the 3 main events described and in terms of the approach used to incorporate these unrelated events in a story with minimal connections to these events themselves. Even though it had some originality, I do not think that in this context this was a good thing. This is why I will give it a 3 for the level of originality.In terms of characters, I believe they are all just voices of the author, without too many distinguishable features. So I will rate it with a 1.Regarding the complexity and difficulty, I must acknowledge that this novel was probably pretty difficult to write. And perhaps it ended up being so complex that I am unable to understand it thoroughly. So I will rate it with a 3 for complexity and difficulty, thinking that perhaps there is more hidden under the surface that I was not able to reach to.In terms of credibility, there aren't too many debatable things in this novel. The 3 historical events I already mentioned are basically described journalistic like. Besides them there is only the Bill Gray story. As described in the synopsis he is a writer that has published only two novels severla years back from the present time, and works now on his third novel for few decades without managing to finish it. His story contains few facts but out of them, his self imposed isolation seems the least credible. Taking all into account my rating for credibility is 4.The last criteria is edition. I enjoyed this little book published back in 1997 that I was still able to find in bookshops last year when I bought it. The paper was slightly too grey and it started to smell like some of my older books. Aside from that, I also was not able to understand the cover connection with the content. This are the reasons why I will rate it with a 2.To summarize, I could not relate the story of Bill Gray (that anyhow has no actual conflict closure) with the 3 historical events I already mentioned are also present in the novel. Maybe just the point that contemporary literature ignores important contemporary events, but I don't believe it at all. All in all, my final rating for the novel is 2.14, which I will round it to a 2 on Goodreads system.+--------------------------+-----------------+| Criteria | Rating |+--------------------------+-----------------+|Premise | 1 |+--------------------------+-----------------+|Form | 1 |+--------------------------+-----------------+|Originality | 3 |+--------------------------+-----------------+|Characters | 1 |+--------------------------+-----------------+|Difficulty/Complexity | 3 |+--------------------------+-----------------+|Credibility | 4 |+--------------------------+-----------------+|Edition | 2 |+--------------------------+-----------------+|Total | 2.14 |+--------------------------+-----------------+For more details on how I rated and reviewed this novel, please read these guidelines.

Lara Messersmith-Glavin

I feel very safe when I read Delillo. I know I am going somewhere worthwhile, and I know that I can trust him to get me there smoothly and gently, that the time will pass and the journey and destination and details will all be taken care of. This novel is, by turns, deeply real and entirely metaphysical, an eloquent portrait of a small collection of individuals and individual drives and pains, and an entirely artificial means for Delillo to explore principles of art and meaning-making within the frame of larger political realities. It is a meditation on charismatic power and the function of literature in contemporary society, among other things.I have heard that Delillo flirts with radical ideologies but rarely espouses them directly, preferring instead to allow their language and intentions to creep from the mouths of characters here and there. I was fascinated by those elements in this book - so potentially (falsely?) autobiographical at times. It is always dangerous to write about a writer, as all readers will secretly assume they see into the author him/herself. I think it is more likely, more useful, to see all characters, all situations, as products of the writer's mind, but not necessarily theses, not direct representations of belief or conviction, but merely maps of where that mind has been, seen in reflections and echoes and opposites.Delillo's writer, Bill Gray - a character struggling with the nearly stereotypical writerly miseries of solipsism, doubt, and hatred of one's own work - has internalized the idea that writers are obsolete in the contemporary world. He decides that writers no longer hold the power to alter society's consciousness, cannot speak loudly enough or radically enough to create or catalyze change. Instead, the role of true belief and action has been taken over by the political concept of terror. Terrorists have become the only genuine voices of conviction and ideals that the world will listen to.This idea is played out through a series of lucid and unlikely events that take on the glow and enchantment of one-act plays. Each is firmly rooted in the ground of the text, but has a meditative and inevitable quality that brings the reader in and out of the plot, rising and sinking along a fine line of abstraction and solidity. The writing is beautiful and familiar, the characters recognizable and strange, set against a backdrop of late 1980s and early 90s political iconography, and a thin running thread of Mao.

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