In which Netty goes into the past to see the future – and why you need to read Don DeLillo’s Mao II right nowOctober 2, 2014
Sometimes I wonder, as I make my way through Don DeLillo’s back catalogue, if the man isn’t half-clairvoyant. His 10th novel Mao II, published in 1992, is so eerily prescient of what is making headlines today – some 22 years later – that reading it feels almost like a warning sign (cue Talking Heads’ David Byrne, all the way back in 1978, singing: “Hear my voice, it’s saying something and it’s not very nice”.)
So, Don, about the numbers for this week’s lotto draw …
But seriously, this is the book they should shoot into space, so that long after we are gone, many, many light years later, some alien life form will stumble upon it and go, “Aha. We get it. That’s why they’re not around any more.”
Mao II – named after American pop artist Andy Warhol’s famous mass-produced silkscreen print of the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, which appears and recurs as a motif throughout the novel – is also a literature teacher’s wet dream. It’s a compact guide to the modern global world, chock-full of contemporary themes and mores, name-checking the major events of the late 20th century, from mass Moonie weddings to the Hillsborough football tragedy to the death and funeral of Iran leader the Ayatollah Khomeini. The book’s prologue ends with the sentence, “The future belongs to crowds”, and it is its overarching theme – from the safety and sanctity of the crowd, to its potential for mayhem and absolute disaster.
The main character is a man who wants nothing whatsoever to do with crowds – and to that end has become a virtual recluse. Bill Gray is a sixtysomething novelist in the Salinger/Pynchon mode – many years ago he wrote a couple of books that became touchstones for a generation, and the fact that he has disappeared off the radar, not releasing any new material since, just makes him more of a magnet for the people he most wishes to eschew.
Scott, the personal assistant who has lived with Bill for eight years, is one such tenacious fan who seeks out his literary hero and manages to secure a position in Bill’s life and home in upstate New York. He lives there with his girlfriend Karen, who, in the book’s prologue, is one of the 13,000 brides being married at Yankee Stadium under the banner of the Unification Church. After being captured and deprogrammed by her family, she escapes and is later found by Scott wandering the streets of a small town in Kansas. While Scott oversees Bill’s archives, deals with his fan mail and proofreads his new work, Karen keeps house and surreptitiously sleeps with Bill – which, bizarrely, seems to receive Scott’s tacit approval.
In anticipation of the release of a new novel, Bill agrees to be photographed by New York snapper Brita Nilsson, who has devoted her life’s work to taking pictures of famous and important writers. It will be the first new photos of Bill published in three decades. Afterwards, Bill goes to New York City to meet with his long-time publisher Charlie Everson, who, in addition to pressing Bill about his new work, tells him about a Swiss UN worker and poet who is being held hostage by a terrorist organisation in Beirut. Charlie, who also chairs a “high-minded committee on free expression”, has concocted a plan where Bill will appear at a press conference in London and read from the poet’s work before he is released. “Your group gets press, their new group gets press, the young man is sprung from his basement room, the journalists get a story,” Bill deadpans.
Without informing Scott, Bill jets off to London for the press conference, but bomb threats – and then an explosion on a London street – delay the event. Charlie and Bill meet with George Haddad, a representative of the Beirut group who later tracks down Bill and talks him into going to Athens, then Beirut, to negotiate the poet’s release without his publisher’s knowledge or intervention. Bill opines that novelists and terrorists are playing “a zero-sum game”. “What terrorists gain, novelists lose,” he says. “The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.”
Bill continues: “Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.” When George chips in that terrorists are “the only possible heroes for our time”, Bill vehemently disagrees: “It’s pure myth, the terrorist as solitary outlaw. These groups are backed by repressive governments … they carry the old wild-eyed vision, total destruction and total order.”
Later, the photographer Brita, working as a freelancer, accepts an assignment in war-torn Beirut to take pictures of the organisation’s leader Abu Rashid, who says to her: “I will tell you why we put Westerners in locked rooms. So we don’t have to look at them. They remind us of the way we tried to mimic the West … which you now see exploded all around you.” And this: “Terror is what we use to give our people their place in the world … terror makes the new world possible.”
Read those words, written in 1992, and tell me you don’t have the chill of recognition. These scenarios, these words, could have been ripped out of yesterday’s newspapers. And, as has been said before, many times throughout the years, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
You need to read this book. Right now. It won’t always be a pleasant experience, and you won’t always enjoy it, but you will come away with the feeling that you can make just a little more sense of this convoluted, fucked-up, loony-toons crazy world we have created and continue to hone.
Wow. Just … wow.