• U.S.

Men Who Work Underground

5 minute read
Paul Gray

MAO II by Don DeLillo; Viking; 241 pages; $19.95

What do authors and terrorists have in common? That is one of the many questions raised in this novel, Don DeLillo’s 10th, and it seems a snap to answer without even reading the book. Authors and terrorists have nothing — zip, zero — in common. One class creates, the other destroys; one competes in the marketplace for attention, the other commands it at gunpoint. Case closed. Those who are satisfied with such commonsense certainties, though, should probably halt their progress through Mao II, which bristles with unsettled and unsettling impressions: “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.”

The speaker is not DeLillo but his main character, Bill Gray, 63, a famously reclusive writer a la Salinger, Pynchon or B. Traven who lives in a rural hideaway somewhere within a 200-mile radius of New York City. Bill’s household also includes Scott, his devoted fan, secretary, factotum and nanny; and ; Karen, a refugee from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church who once took part in an arranged group marriage of 6,500 couples.

Karen’s former immersion in mass behavior, which left her “immunized against the language of self,” gives her a preternatural sensitivity to mob scenes that flicker on TV. Watching pictures of the frenzied mourners at the funeral of the Ayatullah Khomeini, she is both appalled and enraptured and wonders how people, after seeing such a spectacle, can go on living in the same old ways: “Why is nothing changed, where are the local crowds, why do we still have names and addresses and car keys?” Bill, who has made a fetish of his own individuality and remoteness from others, looks at Karen and says, “You come from the future.”

Which is the place, it turns out, that Bill would like to explore. His long- awaited third novel remains only that; Scott terms the book a “master collapse” and does not want it published at all, on the theory that “Bill gets bigger as his distance from the scene deepens.” Suddenly, Bill does something wildly out of character. He allows himself to be photographed by Brita, a Swedish woman whose obsession is flying about the globe and taking pictures of every writer she can find. Why, she asks him, while the shooting session is in progress, surrender his privacy now? “To break down the monolith I’ve built,” he says. “I’m afraid to go anywhere, even the seedy diner in the nearest little crossroads town. I’m convinced the serious trackers are moving in with their mobile phones and zoom lenses.”

Despite this careful, elaborate buildup, Mao II is not really about the paranoia of a writer who has lost touch with his talent. DeLillo uses Bill Gray as one extreme in a taut, fully dramatized dialectic about the future. Opposed to Bill are the forces epitomized in the novel by the image of Mao Zedong, all those who argue that the world has grown too crowded for the individual and that the only salvation lies in the dissolution of personalities into the single-headed throng. Even Scott, who genuinely admires Bill and his work, sees the attraction of a new world order based on the crowd. “Bill doesn’t understand how people need to blend in, lose themselves in something larger,” he says. “Think of the future and see how depressed you get. All the news is bad. We can’t survive by needing more, wanting more, standing out, grabbing all we can.”

This debate cannot be resolved, and in any case the shape the future will – assume remains unknowable. But DeLillo convincingly shows how abstract ideas take on physical dimensions, impinging on the behavior of his characters and, in some instances, on their fates as well. Bill’s decision to be photographed, to touch base with the outside world, leads to an unexpected complication, precisely the sort of thing he previously feared and avoided. A former editor and friend implores him to appear at a press conference calling attention to the plight of a Swiss poet who has been taken hostage by a terrorist group in Beirut. The appeal is persuasive. Bill’s presence, after so many years in hiding, will cause an international sensation and perhaps bring useful pressure to bear on other men who work underground.

Bill’s willingness to go along with this plan, indeed to push it still further, would seem implausible were all the steps leading up to his decision not so meticulously portrayed. DeLillo’s gifts — terse, electric dialogue, descriptive passages of insidious beauty — have never been more apparent or put to better use. As it races toward several shattering conclusions, Mao II triumphs as a thriller of ideas.

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