Friday, February 8, 2013

Chains Of Thought: Don DeLillo and "Mao II"


I'm trying to keep on top of writings about my readings, and there are still a handful of 2012 readings that I plan to review/explore in the coming weeks. While it's frustrating that I didn't have time to do immediate write-ups, therefore creating one of my rare backlogs, it's a blessing in disguise that I've had time to let certain works really sink in and take shape. When I was deciding on my second book essay to start February, I had a few choices and found myself constantly thinking about Don DeLillo's 1991 novel Mao II. Admittedly, I'm still very behind on the majority of DeLillo's bibliography, but the few novels I've read have been profound experiences. Mao II was no different, but I was struck by two different realizations. One, the novel's main protagonist is a reclusive novelist, and I generally find books or stories with novelists or writers as main characters to be tiresome. For example, I've never read any Stephen King books, but I remember reading an article expressing dismay over his constant use of blocked or troubled writers as protagonists. Two, the novel is almost scary in its timelessness, a word I try to avoid as much as possible. Twenty-two years later, DeLillo's story of creativity, political violence, and the necessity/diminished returns of art in an increasingly changing landscape feels like it was recently written. There are so many other themes and ideas presented in its pages, so forgive me if I don't touch upon all of them. This is a rare novel that manages to be entertaining, intellectually stimulating, original, AND tied into themes that might be more relevant today than when it was originally published. These statements might seem like they border on hyperbole, but I carefully chose my above description: this is a rare example. Before reading Mao II, I would have cited Underworld as DeLillo's shining example of an expression of artistic philosophy in the contemporary world. While that novel still holds up as one of my favorites, I believe Mao II achieves this almost perfectly.

The novelist Bill Gray lives an isolated, rural life and has agreed to be photographed by Brita, a photographer brought to the house by Scott, Gray's faithful assistant. Scott is involved with Karen who, in the novel's prologue, is married to a Korean man in a mass Unification Church ceremony at Yankee Stadium. Underworld also had a prologue set in a baseball stadium (the Polo Grounds in 1951), and in Mao II, DeLillo engages in some deft cultural upheaval. Yankee Stadium is packed with spectators in a venue designed for a distinctly American game, yet this time it's showcasing a surreal act of mass marriage by a cult leader. However, some of the crowd observations wouldn't be out of place at a regular baseball game.

"Master leads the chant, Mansei, ten thousand years of victory. The blessed couples move their lips in unison, matching the echo of his amplified voice. There is stark awareness in their faces, a near pain of rapt adoration. He is Lord of the Second Advent, the unriddling of many ills. His voices leads them out past love and joy, past the beauty of their mission, out past miracles and surrendered self. There is something in the chant, the fact of chanting, the being-one, that transports tem with its power. Their voices grow in intensity. They are carried on the sound, the soar and fall. The chant becomes the boundaries of the world. They see their Master frozen in his whiteness against the patches and shadows, the towering sweep of the stadium. He raises his arms and the chant grows louder and the young arms rise. He leads them out past religion and history, thousands weeping now, all arms high. They are gripped by the force of a longing. They know at once, they feel it, all of them together, a longing deep in time, running in the earthly blood. This is what people have wanted since consciousness became corrupt (DeLillo 15-16)."

The photo session with Brita leads to a layered conversation between her and Bill about the nature of photography, image, and the act of writing. The dialogue is philosophical and sets down a foundation for the looming themes. That's not to say that the conversation foreshadows anything specific, but DeLillo starts slowly, outlining Bill's beliefs before larger actions and developments arise. As I mentioned before, fictional writing about writing can be dangerous--it can veer into a sort of lecture or wink at the reader. But in DeLillo's case, Bill's thoughts are fascinating. He reveals a lot about his character while avoiding concrete details. He's working on his latest, most complex work, and the question of whether or not it will be published is raised.

"He swiveled his head until the cigarette at the corner of his mouth came into contact with the flame.

'The more books they publish, the weaker we become. The secret force that drives the industry is the compulsion to make writers harmless.'

'You like being a little bit fanatical. I know the feeling, believe me. But what is more harmless than the pure game of making up? You want to do baseball in your room. Maybe it's just a metaphor, and innocence, but isn't this what makes your books popular? You call it a lost game that you've been trying to recover as a writer. Maybe it's not so lost. What you say you're writing toward, isn't this what people see in your work?'

'I only know what I see. Or what I don' see.'

'Tell me what that means.'

He dropped the match in an ashtray on the desk. 'Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there. On one level this truth is the swing of the sentence, the beat and poise, but down deeper it's the integrity of the writer as he matches with the language. I've always seen myself in sentences. I begin to recognize myself, word by word, as I work through a sentence. The language of my books has shaped me as a man. There's a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer's will to live. The deeper I become entangled in the process of getting a sentence right in it syllables and rhythms, the more I learn about myself. I've worked the sentences of this book long and hard but not long and hard enough because I no longer see myself in the language. The running picture is gone, the code of being that pushed me on and made me trust the world...(DeLillo 47-48).'"

This is followed by a series of quick developments. There are flashbacks to Karen's harrowing life in the Unification Church, as well as a depiction of her sexual relationship with Bill. A fierce argument at the dinner table after the photography session breaks everyone up: Brita heads back out on assignments, and Karen looks after her apartment in New York City. Bill and Scott head into the city so Bill can meet with Charlie, his publisher. Charlie explains that he's now the "chairman of a high-minded committee on free expression," and reveals that a poet has been taken hostage in Beirut by a Maoist terror organization. The hope is that Bill will do even more traveling, to head to London and do a reading on behalf of the hostage. This idea turns even more complicated, and Charlie's explanation of the logic is a sharp critique of how art is used for "feel-good purposes" that don't reflect its true power for change and upheaval.

"'If I hadn't run into Brita that evening, you wouldn't fit in at all. But when she said she was taking your picture, bells went off in my head. If you're willing to be photographed after all these years, why not take it one step further? Do something that will help us show who we are as an organization and how important it is for writers to take a public stand. Frankly I'm hoping to create a happy sensation. I want you to show up in London and briefly read from the poet's work, a selection of five or six poems. That's all (DeLillo 99).'"


Bill ends up opting for more daring solution. But as he ruminates about the hostage, lines become blurred. Art and writing are natural, necessary responses to grim situations, but Bill realizes his actions need to speak louder. But the nature of the situation (a writer being held hostage because of his work) brings about a sort of existential crisis. For as much as Bill is committed to helping free the hostage, the notion of dealing with the situation by writing is never lost.

"But he tried to write about the hostage. It was the only way he knew to think deeply in a subject. He missed his typewriter for the first time since leaving home. It was the hand tool of memory and patient thought, the mark-making thing that contained his life experience. He could see the words better in type, construct sentences that entered the character-world at once, free of his own disfiguring hand. He had to settle for pencil and pad, working in his hotel room through the long mornings, slowly building chains of thought, letting the words lead him into that basement room.

Find the places where you converge with him.

Read his poems again.

See his face and hands in words (DeLillo 160)."

Karen's stay in New York City also turns into a strange internal battle. She finds herself wandering around homeless parks and seedy areas, slumming and immersing herself in an unknown world. Like Bill's struggle between writing and doing, Karen could be commended for seeing firsthand what most people avoid, but since she has her own safe world, is she really doing anything beneficial? She's constantly haunted by her memories from the Unification Church and used to find herself in dire, poverty-like scenarios. Does she know true empathy? Or is she so separated from that life that she's pandering? DeLillo rarely offers concrete answers to these questions--cases can be made for both sides.

"Omar told her, 'Once you live in the street, there's nothing but the street. Know what I'm saying. These people have one thing they can talk about or think about and that's the little shithole they live in. The littler the shithole, the more it takes up your life. Know what I'm saying. You live in a fuckin' ass mansion you got to think about it two times a month for like ten seconds total. Live in a shithole, it takes up your day. They cut the shithole in half, you got to go twice as hard to keep it so it's livable. I'm telling you something I observe.'

She imagined the encrumpled bodies in the lean-tos and tents, sort of formless as to male or female, asleep in sodden clothes on a strip of cardboard or some dragged-in mattress stained with the waste of the ages (DeLillo 152)."

Today, DeLillo's ideas still ring true. How does art truly engage a world best by violence and terrorism? In a widening gap between wealth and poverty, what constitutes empathy and true understanding? In reference to my opening paragraph, I now realize that it was essential for Bill to be a writer in this novel. DeLillo has consistently been a phenomenal explorer of the American psyche and philosophy, and while I don't take Bill to be an autobiographical character, I believe that DeLillo and most writers grapple with the same problems. Critics can go in circles over the question of what makes for true social fiction. By pure coincidence, Mao II is one of the great social novels. Last year, I remarked on the writing, music, and imagery that came out of the fears and landscapes of 9/11. The act of creation is a natural response to the idea of loss and uncertainty. But in DeLillo's world, nothing is black and white. For all that art can accomplish, it needs to be balanced with action. This novel is going to stay with me for awhile. It's not just a collection of eerie descriptions of terror acts and political hostages. It's a landscape that has taken on all too real significance today, and comes amazingly close to defining what social and political writing can and should do.

Work Cited:
DeLillo, Don. Mao II. Copyright 1991 by Don DeLillo.

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