Mao II is a reasonably short book that is by turns about a reclusive writer struggling with a book he knows that will never be finished and the people around him, and the struggles of terrorism and the middle east, cults and brain-washing. At times, this book written in 1991 is strangely prophetic of the September 11 events, and as in the other Delillo book I have read, New York city is a prominent location, the World Trade Centres ominous characters, prescient in their apparent eternity.
Bill is a writer who has been working on his third novel for decades. It has been finished, years ago, he now obsessively edits and reviews each and every page, never being completely satisfied with the results. In a lot of ways he enjoys being the faded recluse, enjoys being a writer who is not a commodity. Two other people live with him, Karen - a previous cult member - and Scott, once just a fan of Bill's but now a friend who helps tend to his affairs. In addition to this, Karen provides Bill with physical satisfaction, but the reasons for this are never really discussed or some into the story, in fact, I'm not entirely sure why that particularly subplot even existed.
A photographer, Brita, enters the cosy world the three have setup, and Bill allows her the first photos of him since he was a young man. They hit off, but more importantly, Bill's awareness of his place in the world is sparked once more. Soon he is meeting with his old editor and events take an odd and not exactly satisfactory turn, becoming more focused on the middle east and terrorism, and less on the life of a writer who is unhappy with himself.
From here, the novel deteriorates. While remaining technically enjoyable to read, I was much more interested in Bill's life than I was with Middle Eastern politics. The ending was unsatisfactory, and answered no questions - but then, what questions were raised? The plot involving Bill's redemption was dropped, and a subsequent development with a Swiss poet captured by terrorists in a bid to help raise the profile of the newly formed terror group and a literary community was not developed enough. Even Karen's cult background wasn't fully used.
Delillo's strengths are his prologues and his dialogue. The prologue was tight, forceful, and ended with a perfect sentence. It would have made a fantastic short story, and I felt that, once it was finished, I was in for an amazing ride. Dialogue is authentic, flows just like a real conversation, and contains many of the unfinished sentences and stray ramblings that people use when they talk. Both the prologue and the dialogues throughout felt as though they had been worked on, again and again, to get it right, while long stretches of plot or of description felt almost like an after-thought.
To conclude, I greatly enjoyed the first hundred and twenty pages or so. I didn't like the shift of focus, but a premise was built up that look promising, then that, too, was dropped. The result is an unfortunately hollow book. But perhaps I am missing something. It has received a lot of praise, and won awards, and I can't understand why. While written well, it just couldn't live up to the amazing prologue.