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Mao II

"The future belongs to crowds." So ends the prologue to Don DeLillo's 1991 novel Mao II, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award. Crowds appear in various forms throughout the story: a mass wedding at a baseball stadium in New York, swarms of mourners at the Ayatollah's funeral, throngs of people on the streets of Beirut . . . Meanwhile, the reclusive novelist Bill Gray, in part based on J. D. Salinger, has chosen to hide away from society and refuses to publish his book, which he's been working on for decades. By publishing, he believes, he'll lose his identity, and also sees the role of the novelist as having been supplanted by the role of the terrorist. In other words, art no longer holds sway over the masses compared to the violent work of terrorist groups. In an interview for The New York Times, DeLillo says:

"I do think we can connect novelists and terrorists here. In a repressive society, a writer can be deeply influential, but in a society that's filled with glut and repetition and endless consumption, the act of terror may be the only meaningful act. People who are in power make their arrangements in secret, largely as a way of maintaining and furthering that power. People who are powerless make an open theater of violence. True terror is a language and a vision. There is a deep narrative structure to terrorist acts, and they infiltrate and alter consciousness in ways that writers used to aspire to."

DeLillo explores the idea in Mao II at a time when Salman Rushdie's assassination had been called for by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and he writes about airplanes disintegrating in the sky and buildings crumbling, and eerily personifies the World Trade Center buildings, a decade before they were attacked, writing: ". . . my big complaint is only partly size. The size is deadly. But having two of them is like a comment, it's like a dialogue, only I don't know what they're saying."

I've read a few of DeLillo's novels and find his work almost constantly demands my full attention. A sentence read too quickly or without sufficient consideration can throw you off track. Setting, pace, narrative style, time, characters change at the drop of a dime, and storylines are fragmented in agreement with a postmodernist sensibility. The humor is bone-dry. Truth is obscured and may appear warped. Loose ends remain dangling. And all of it leaves images and ideas and questions that linger for a long time.


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