Book 56: Mao II by Don DeLillo, isbn 9780140152746, 241 pages, Penguin, $14.00
Don Delillo is one of those writers I feel like I should have read long before now. Somehow, he did not come up in any of my Lit courses in college, and I have not sought him out since then. Two years ago the owner of my local independent bookstore recommended MAO II. Dave's recommendations have always been spot-on before and as is my habit when recommendations are made while I'm in a bookstore, I immediately purchased the book, put it on a shelf at home, and promptly forgot about it. But lately I've been on a "clean out the bookshelves" binge, and this was one of the books I decided I wanted to read before trading in at the used bookstore.
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.