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on May 20, 2004
Don DeLillo is a master craftsman. The volubility of his words which seem to stream off the pages with such cadence and careful consideration is, in my humble opinion, unparalleled. Most books strive to keep the reader's attention by either constructing interesting plot or breathtaking prose, and in Mao II, DeLillo succeeds on both levels flawlessly. The story follows Bill Gray, an elusive writer who has been living in recluse for years, along with his dedicated assistant Scott and a former cult member named Karen, working on his never-ending, long-awaited new novel. Then an opportunity arises for Bill to break through his shell of personal entrapment and head to Beirut to help save a captive poet from terrorists, an excursion which proves as edifying for the reader as it does these bemused and inquisitve characters themselves. DeLillo knows how to paint his situations vividly, and has created here a magnum opus teeming with philosophical dogmas that he is more than entitled to pontificate. Read this and appreciate the sheer beauty and luster of a classic Don DeLillo novel; then go out and read everything else this man has ever written.
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on May 6, 2004
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.
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on November 20, 2003
This is a younger, cooler DeLillo than his more recent work. Personally I think it is his best book. It is in my mind the most creative of his work. It is incredible to see such a unique approach to writing. It is like reading a poem with its lyrical riffs but it has a plot that matters.
The weakest facet of the book is that the dialogue often sounds false. Hearing DeLillo characters speak to each other is like listening to jazz -- not about exploring the realistic mind but the deeper surrealistic mind. These characters are bigger than reality. These particular people in this book have a charm that I don't think DeLillo ever again captured. This book is beautiful and about something that actually matters. While Creative Writing degrees muddle the pool of talent in much the same way that expansion teams in baseball lessened the overall talent on each MLB team, writing about something that matters to the world is quite an act of courage. It is wonderful to see a book that creates its own artistic terms and abides by them while sizzling the senses with creativity and wit. Also, what is superior about this book -- if you are considering which DeLillo book to read -- is that it is not that long. It is as self-indulgent as Underworld in style but it is more tightly woven and thus, in my opinion, a much better book. Simply, it is a quicker read.
At this time in our history this book is useful to understand the emotional side to terror, the conformist mind, power, politics and self-respect. DeLillo was way ahead of his time this way.
While many Americans blindly support the war on terror you have a thoughtful analysis of why terror exists at all, written way before Bin Laden turned against the US.
Mao II is a great introduction to DeLillo.
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on August 8, 2003
I confess: I only recently discovered DeLillo,having read White Noise earlier this year. My loss. A decade or so ago Tom Wolfe complained (in Harper's?) that modern literature had turned excessively inward, and had largely avoided the larger social issues that occupy modern readers. There were exceptions, in his view, but not many. Mao II resonantes at a level that is quite simply eerie. Listen to the reclusive Bill Gray lament the sagging influence of modern literature while being photographed (as an historical artifact?) by the globe-trotting Brita: "Writers are giving way to terror, to tape recorders and cameras, to radios, to bombs stashed in radios. News of disaster is the only narrative people need. The darker the news, the grander the narrative." DeLillo's modernity is housed in one of two camps -- caught in cults (and habits of being) that destroy individuality, or absorbed in following them. DeLillo finds in all this the obsessiveness of the patient -- " they (those who suffer a rare diseasse) learn every inch of material they can find... phone-up doctors on three continents and hunt day and night for people with the same awful thing." Reading Mao II is to enter the post 9/11 American mind (he has a chilling passage on the World Trade Center); he is watching dispassionately as the mass -- the "hive-mind" -- absorbs its adherents, and how they in turn create a movement of observant- obsessives, watching their every move, at once dominated by movements they can't understand and seeking to re-gain dominion. This is not as deeply absorbing as White Noise. But here we run the danger of comparing DeLillo against himself. There are too few writers like DeLillo. Reading Mao II resonates on a larger, public plane. If you sincerely can't get enough of the alcoholic/former University instructor/abused child/co-dependent/jaded/human wreck -- you might look elsewhere. DeLillo has the modern world squarely in focus, now than ever pertinent.
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on October 15, 2002
DeLillo's opening scene of Mao II starts us out with a mass marriage of Korean men to American Women all under the random whim of Reverend Moon. The book dives off from there and explores themes, the insularity of the writer's life, self-imposed imprisonment, breaking free from said imprisonment, and the losing of the self to a selfless and ominous collective. DeLillo, as always, captures whatever he turns his ingenious eye towards with intellectual banter, probing literary probity, and beautiful language.
For what this book lacks on plot and characterization, it makes up for it on ideals and writing style. I marvel at the words this man comes up with. With that said, by now, you may have deduced I'm a fan. And though I'd admire the writing of this book, I would also add that this one has been my least favorite of his book to date (though I'm only halfway through "The Body Artist" and I fully expect that to take bottom billing). I would point you toward "White Noise", "Underworld", or "Libra" if you are new to DeLillo's works and are itching to dig in. Though if you are a fan of what can be done with language and don't need a novel driven by plot, don't short "Mao II."
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on September 4, 2001
The felt power of DeLillo's prose, the bass of the storm, the intensely concentrated recognition-scenes in the corridors of Third World terror, the null domains of Manhattan and Beirut, two cities ravaged by their own modes of iniquity, blight, and cultural devastation, from the faux-iconic pop-artifacts of Warhol's Factory to the scorched earth policies of Middle East cabals. *Mao II* has, strangely, been shuffled aside in the DeLillo corpus, treated as an aberration, a minor work, an off-day, an ill-advised experiment. As in *The Body Artist*, the author seems especially to have written it for himself -- like his writer-surrogate Bill Gray, aloof in his tightly-caulked safehouse, gnarled, diehard, a true artist experimenting till the end, perceiving it all anew.
And DeLillo is an expert spectator. He knows how to jumpstart the reader's eye with each sentence, record the synaptic dissonance of individuals at the edge of disquiet, in transitory spaces, in windows of departure, like a snooping harrier throwing its falcon-shadow onto the tower block, a soul built and weathered by the preceding century.
And let's face it, *Mao II* is strange territory. The author is pushing hard to bridge the nighted gulf of Third World angst, analyze and dissolve the force-fed media fictions, the sound-bites and simulations, the BBC monotone, the petty moralizing. But throughout, his troubled and troubling characters hold it all together, headstrong, witty, brilliantly in thrall to the chemical lift of DeLillo's lyrical drug (the first 15 pages of this novel, describing a young woman's sojourn into the Sun Moon cult and her subsequent de-programming, is perhaps my favorite of all this author's writing).
Chockfull of ambition and in full career, DeLillo narrates what is left for us to consider....
Somewhere between the plastic tautologies of a silkscreened Mao Zedong (c/o Andy Warhol) and the wakening streets of bomb-scarred Beirut, *Mao II* reads like a speculative op-ed piece on the secret life of Thomas Pynchon (who contributes a jacket blurb), but deepens in perspective to encompass the loneliness of all writers, playing games with themselves and their public, addicted to secrecy, manic with espionage, racked by self-doubt -- a vampire in excelsior -- feeling the old virtuosity slip away.... DeLillo's writer-protagonist, Bill Gray, hamstrung by a 20-year work-in-progress that he will never publish, finds himself seeking new paradigms in the hostage-trading black market of Middle East factionalism, in a last-ditch attempt to put his war-machine back on track.
Confused? Just read the novel.
But *Mao II* was also written in response to the Tom Clancys of the world, using Middle East terrorism as a backdrop for paramilitary potboilers, the suffering and confusion of endangered peoples set against the insipid "patriot games" of Harrison Ford as NATO super-sleuth. DeLillo provides a tactile photomural of the way things "really are," in the tortured banalities of the interrogation-room, the tainted business of shelling and skirmishes and kidnappings, the child-soldier in soccer jersey and face-mask, phasing into the distant Western mythologizing of these scurvy kill-holes....
The central objection to *Mao II* (and most of his early novels) turns on the issue of characterization. By themselves, in roving solitude, DeLillo's creatures are intense and fascinating, providing a unique and often riveting outlook on our dazed and pretzelled epoch. But once they start to congregate, to cluster in twos and threes, the dialogue becomes surreal, histrionic, and overwritten, top-heavy with artifice and authorial intervention. Suddenly these sparkling personalities become little more than flamboyant glove-puppets soliloquizing the author's rhythmic prose-poetry (read his play, *Valparaiso*, for an undistilled example of this). Rather than speak *to* each other, they seem to drift into parallel monologues, each telepathically prescient of what the other is saying, *becoming* each other, finishing each other's thoughts, paring down images and ideas like Socratic counterparts speaking via satellite. Now, granted, dialogue like this may *occasionally* transpire in real life, and since it is the novelist's job to *select* momentous vectors in the history of the world for perfection and representation, we might see fit to fold our hands and suspend our pedestrian disbelief, but.... BUT....
I feel underqualified to defend the author's willful, er, "plasticity" here. I recognize it, it makes me uncomfortably aware of the text qua text, but with the exception of his earlier work I'm not prepared to denounce it as frailty or weakness. Sure, the characters in *White Noise*, *Libra*, and *Mao II* are often elaborate cartoons, postmodern scribbles, jerry-rigged nonentities, but somehow the strength of these novels has never abated for me. The text still hits me hard. Either DeLillo has become bored with point-blank mimesis, or else is attempting a strange and benighted agon with the Platonic dialogue, giving us unreal (or superreal), abstract characters whose words spiral up into the fiber-optic acumen of the Zeitgeist.
Bill, Scott, Karen, Brita, George, and the rest. Are they avatars of world-history or corpses wired for sound? Representative (wo)men or literary wallpaper? Concentrations of world-history or animatronic meat puppets? The text is out there -- the jury must decide for themselves.
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on June 10, 2001
This's the third and supposedly not the last delillo 4 me to read, it's somewhat molded impression (seem to be conducted intentionally) leaves me depraved of the bulkness I've previously obeserved. Yet, as self-mockery it works donly machine-like, Bill the wanna-be deranged, ousting himself of every autobiographical assence while cracking fearful jokes at strangers. His character occasionally arouse crazed contemption while I was nibbling the acutly convulsive segments devouted to his Grayness. Delillo's prematuring of himself or whosoever author it was stamped frailness in Bill's facade- the 63y/o long mentally darned man. The obscurity He manipulatevly veils on the nature, context, density and craving of his soon-to-be-published book- so as the uncertain air surrounding his made-an-idol-outta-him former innumerated works of god knows what- makes The opened-book person a top secret for his acquintances when it comes down to his "sanguine" lettering. How much of himself does the "selfless" Bill put into the ever overtaking chaps, ladies and trees who graple his dreamy days? what place does Delillo take in the frame. Is Brita's framing of Bill, his consent for being framed, is some sort of a photographed will that he deludes himself with?
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on June 4, 2001
I think I was spoiled by Underworld, which I read recently and which was my introduction to DeLillo. There is more artistry, beauty, complexity, poetry, and thought in the first 50 pages of Underworld than in all 241 of Mao II. Mao II is only an "intellectual novel" in the sense that the plot is formulaic, the characterizations poor, and most of the dialogues speeches from the author. DeLillo's ideas of images and culture and identity would be more provocative if they were not ladled out in such self-gratifying, stultifying dialogue. The protagonist's photo shoot is particularly insufferable and the whole novel seemed to be one massive stroking of the author's ego. There are, it is true, some great passages, the most remarkable, for my money, being an exchange between the protagonist and his publisher. But overall this seems to be a lazy work; too much is taken for granted and not enough strived for -- all of the novel's propositions are played out either in monotonous speeches or the most contrived plot development. Again, perhaps I have been spoiled by the unremitting genius and power of Underworld and nothing else will compare.
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on May 7, 2001
These reviews are for people who are not familiar with DeLillo, because anyone who is familiar with his work only reads these to affirm their own opinion.
Having said that, I will say that we are placed under great pressure to READ DeLillo, owing mainly to the fact that he wins awards and is worshipped by the literary establishment. Some people buy DeLillo in the same way they buy wine; too bad bookstores don't have bags that read, DELILLO INSIDE.
Mao II is full of beautiful aphorisms and phrases and literary terms that one might as well call hooks, or licks, or riffs. They're on every page, and they keep me reading, but it's understood that I'm reading them just to see the words on the page.
The fact is that DeLillo writes about situations and themes with considerable intellectual weight, and he uses his characters' dialogue as a vehicle (sidecar?) for his own narrative. Consequently, DeLillo will introduce you to characters who are totally indistinguishable from one another, and who speak dialogue that no human has ever spoken or will ever speak. This will annoy readers of other authors who are capable of conveying a sense of weight and consequence in their writing, while developing distinct characterizations.
Reviewers of writers like DeLillo love to insult people who do not like his books - they try to paint such people as unsophisticated rubes who are better off reading Grisham. I say, stick to your instincts. If you like books about characters who do things to cause the narrative adapt to them, do not buy DeLillo. If you don't mind characters whose verbosity would annoy even the guy waiting on the movie line with Woody Allen in Annie Hall, buy DeLillo.
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on March 2, 2001
"Mao II" (1991), by Don DeLillo (b. 1936), is the story of Bill Gray, a reclusive novelist. He lives off royalties, supporting Scott, a live-in secretary, and Karen, a young lady with whom both men have a comfortable relationship. Bill is a hermit, supposedly working on a new book, but never appears in public or contacts anyone. Scott is his household helper, but also cajoles him when he gets lazy. Karen is a credulous and sensitive person who was a Moonie in the past, and finds individual life difficult.
Bill's agent tells him he has been asked to meet a terrorist group in Beirut, which has taken a hostage. He is to read a statement of support, at a London press conference, and the hostage will be released. He goes to London, but after some difficulties, steals away to Cyprus, unbeknownst to his agent, or to Scott and Karen. He accompanies a sympathizer of the Maoist group, hoping to meet the leader himself, perhaps in Beirut.
Will he make it to Beirut? Will he return to America? Will he meet the terrorists? Will he free the hostage, or will he be taken hostage himself? The book will answer these questions eventually, but more interesting are the deeper challenges DeLillo poses. He makes much of Chairman Mao throughout the book. In London and Cyprus, Bill speaks at length with the terror group's sympathizer, arguing over the nature of terrorism, socialism, totalitarianism, and other such matters. DeLillo discusses such organizations as the Shining Path, such world leaders as Khomeini (who died in 1989), and such events as the Tiananmen Square massacres (which occured in 1989).
DeLillo seems to ask, what makes a leader? What makes a follower? Why is Karen so credulous? Will she get caught by another cult? Is Scott a leader, perhaps a frustrated one? Why is Bill interested in these matters? Why is a terrorist leader interested in him? Does Bill remain an outsider just so he won't get inadvertently influenced by society's inevitable groupings?
Like a contemporary artist, DeLillo doesn't provide a didactic guide, but a curious exploration. He studies crowd behavior and credulity, as well as those (always men?) who manipulate others, or perhaps only superficially attempt it. Most remarkable that he addressed an issue in 1989 which is so relevant today, post-9/11, before Saddam Hussein, another manipulator, became such a household name. DeLillo remains artistically neutral, but seems to have more sympathy for freedom and individuality than group behavior, even though he understands the reasons for the latter. The reader may decide for themself.
The prose is lively. The dialog is interesting and idiomatic, if awkward at times, but most often clever. The tone is hustling and bustling, scrambled and chaotic, and contrasted with the literary seclusion of the countryside. This book is recommended for anyone who enjoys contemporary American fiction, or wants to reflect on the nature of crowd behavior, manipulative leaders, or terrorism. It will engage the curious reader and provoke them to thought.
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