Mao II by Don DeLillo

“The future belongs to crowds.”

If you’ve tried DeLillo and didn’t get on with him this probably isn’t going to change your mind. All the familiar Delillo hallmarks are present and correct – every character speaking in an identical voice, every character as intelligent and eloquent as the author; dramatic tension is hewn into the sentences rather than the plot; and it’s primarily cerebral in its appeal as opposed to emotionally engaging.

There are five players in Mao II. Bill is a famous reclusive writer. The more he disdains any public persona the more attention he receives – there’s a poignant dramatisation of the Elena Ferrante situation here.  You could say he’s held hostage by his reluctance to assimilate himself to the demands of celebrity. He is stalked to his remote hideaway by a fanatical fan, Scott.  Scott ingratiates himself and becomes his personal assistant. Scott eventually picks himself up a lover, a waif he finds lost in a local beat up town. Karen is running from a religious cult she joined as a nineteen year old, she is also running from her family. The theme of the individual attempting to flee crowd mentality is reinforced through Karen. Then there’s Brita, a photographer, who is allowed to photograph Bill and taken to his hideaway in the dark, much as a journalist might be escorted to the burrow of a group of insurgents. Lastly there’s the French poet who has been taken hostage by a terrorist group in Lebanon and is kept in a tiny room with a hood over his head. Bill has come to believe the writer has been usurped by the terrorist as the prime forger of world narrative. And that they have achieved this by means of replacing the word with the mass produced image as the collective focus of debate. When Bill flies to London to take part in a reading of the French poet’s work the suggestion is made that he might be able to facilitate the release of the hostage if he meets with the terrorist group.

As usual with DeLillo’s books, Mao II was ahead of its time. This was written in 1990 when barely anyone had heard of Osama Bin Laden. Also, as is usually the case, DeLillo’s sentence writing achieves a more thrilling transcendence than any other living writer I know. I don’t think any novelist has made me think about and understand our modern world to the extent DeLillo has. He writes about the present as if with the eerie razor sharp lucidity of hindsight. What happens in his novels on a small scale invariably starts happening in the real world on a large scale years later.

 

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