Images, both static and moving have been a recurrent motif with Don DeLillo. (In many of his works you have a character seeing the grainy images on TV with the volume turned down in a dark room) .In 'Mao II', he combines them with the themes of cults, crowds and creates a disturbing and unsettling work. Bill Gray, author of 2 acclaimed books has been living as a recluse for the last 20 odd years. Working on a uncompleted novel the whole time, never satisfied with his output, living in a secluded place in anonymity, a place haunted by words, Bill himself is possessed by words that occupy his entire existence but seem to elude him the more he tries to grasp them to make sense of his novel and indeed his life. One of his pet peeves about the position of novelists in society is
There's a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists.Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.
Living with him are Scott his assistant who was a restless wanderer until he read Bill's works and managed to track him down and Karen, a former member of a religious cult, now deprogrammed. All 3 of them are restless in their own way and have formed a curious bond that enables them to live together in anonymity. This spell is broken when Brita a photographer whose mission to photograph as much writers as possible, is allowed to take photos of Bill. During the photo session she passes on a message from Bill's old friend which sets of a train of events which results in the unraveling of their lives, including Brita.
DeLillo's works are as much about ideas as they are about the characters and their motivations, indeed in some cases the ideas are what drive the novel. Here he brings together visuals, crowds and cults which may seem disparate at first glance but are actually linked closely together. When one talks of cult whether it is religious, terrorists, or sports based, they are all recognized by a leader. What better way to imprint the leader into the consciousnesses of the cult members other than photos or television images. Once the images are imprinted, the cult swells and becomes a crowd and there is a loss of individualism.
DeLillo shows us searing images of huge crowds, whether it be in the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, or at Tienanmen square, the mass wedding in the prologue or the thousands of homeless at a park that Karen sees each of them has the power to shift our perspectives. An to prove the power of visuals, the crowds at the Khomeini funeral and Tienanmen square are see in the television, but they still have the power to move you and as Karen wonders
..if millions watched, if these millions matched the number on the Iranian plain, doesn't it mean we share something with the mourners, know an anguish, feel something pass between us, hear the sigh of some historic grief?"
These words published in 1992, makes even more sense now when we feel a pain shared with the mourners of school shooting thousands of miles away from where we are.
In novels like these where ideas play a predominant role, it is easy for the novelist to go overboard and the entire book and it's characters to become a playground for his rants and pet peeves, but Delillo avoids these pitfalls. Make no mistake, you can sense his voice throughout his novel, but not in a way that puts you off the book and that's because he gives his characters enough emotional heft to be visible to us and make us feel for them as much as we feel for their (Delillo) ideas. Whether it be the restlessness of Bill, his anger at the downgrading of the importance of novelists (as he sees it), his doubts about own work, afraid where the work is leading him to are all as important as his ideas. Like when Bill feels
"He had a foreboding, the little clinging tightness in the throat that he knew so well from his work, the times he was afraid and hemmed in by doubt, knowing there was something up ahead he didn't want to face, a character, a life he thought he could not handle."
we get an idea of the fear that a writer feels when he thinks that the book or a character is getting away from his control and taking a life of it's own, wanting to live on it's own terms rather than that of the creator. And when Bill goes off on a dangerous attempt into a hostage situation it makes sense in view of his earlier comparison about novelists and terrorists and hence it doesn't come across as something that has been put in the book just for effect. Similarly we empathize and understand (or try to) Scott binding himself with Bill, his obsession with organizing everything to make Bill's work as easy as possible so that he can concentrate on his writing alone. That's why when Scott stays alone in their house after Bill and Karen leave, working on meaningless organization of the house and papers is as poignant as the experiences of Karen where there is a whole chapter devoted to the homeless community living in a New York park, a multitude of crowds living in destitute, an old lady even living under plastic covers.
DeLillo's writing is nuanced and it's not just the imagery that he conjures that takes our breath. He can also take a mostly ignored fleeting moment and give it a concrete form, like when Bill is waiting for Brita and Scott to come, the house is completely silent and
"When they got out and walked to the porch steps he went to the door of his workroom and listened to them stamp their feet on the mat and come in downstairs, mingled voices, the ruffle of people entering a house, shaking of coats, making all the incidental noises of transition, the sigh of the full body, homeyness and deep relief, the way it seemed a danger and a lie."
All of us have experienced this moment, when we open the door and enter a silent house, the murmur of voices and the manner in which the house seems to wake up after a deep slumber. But it takes a DeLillo to point it out to us. A line or a phrase to elevate a thought and realms that we never thought was possible or even existed. Take what Britta says about New York
"Sick and dying people with nowhere to live and there are bigger and bigger towers all the time, fantastic buildings with miles of rentable space."
Now this is a standard line where one points out the inequality in society. I am not disputing the validity of the statement but it's something most people could write. Now read the same paragraph with the line that follows.
Sick and dying people with nowhere to live and there are bigger and bigger towers all the time, fantastic buildings with miles of rentable space. All the space is inside.
The last line throws a googly at a us and creates a seeming paradox. Theoretically there is space everywhere, it is infinite and we occupy space, but DeLillo says that all the space is inside. Which is true when we take space to only refer to a standard human habitat suitable for living and not 'space' as a concept. From that point of view, we see that millions are homeless (i.e) without space while the space for living is all inside the homes.
The novel ends with Brita travelling to Beirut to take picture of Rashid, a revolutionary leader there, but it's like the novel is starting again. Rashid a leader of people (cult, crowds) is to be photographed (maybe after a long time just like Bill) and this photo would perpetuate and imprint his memory into the minds of his followers (cult, crowds), even if he is no more. This novel requires your patience, to make sense of the imagery, the characters, the prose which is subtle enough to be ignored if we are distracted for even a bit. At no point does the novel opens up to us from the readability point of view, there is no concession given to us and we have to be relentless in forging ahead keeping our eyes (and ears) open for what DeLillo will tell us next. This is not your ideal first DeLillo book, that would be Americana. This book is to read when you have an idea of his works and motifs so you have an idea of what to expect.