Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mao II by Don DeLillo


While characters must act in recognisable and credible ways, it is nonetheless a precarious pastime to criticise a novel based solely on the actions of its protagonists. ‘So and so just wouldn’t have done that,’ is a common enough comment in criticisms of fiction but, it seems to me, the inherent certainty of such a stance leads to the peculiar outcome whereby a reader’s understanding of a character is elevated above that even of the writer who created it. If you have faith in a writer, you must trust him or her in turn to have faith in their creations and let the characters work out their actions for themselves. Character-driven implausibility of plot is therefore a criticism I use rarely. One exception is Cormac McCarthy’s Llewelyn Moss who, at times in No Country For Old Men is self-evidently the most cautious man in the history of the world, but then, when he finds the transponder among the millions of dollars he has just stolen – which must inevitably bring the gangsters steaming towards him – rather than running for cover he sticks the transponder in his bedside cupboard and lies on the bed staring at the ceiling. Surprise, surprise, that nice Mr Chigurh then turns up: plot contrivance or what?

Another such implausibility could be the action of Don DeLillo’s character, Bill Gray, in Mao II. Or perhaps not. In that DeLilloan juncture where postmodernism and tradition meet, nothing is that straightforward. And in Mao II, after all, DeLillo’s focuses are the arts and terror, specifically the diminished and diminishing role of the writer in a world where terror has become an everyday commodity. This link between reality and fiction has long been a source of angst to the writer, of course, with fears that an increasingly perverse world can now offer more and greater madness than any writer can create. Philip Roth, in 1961, complained that ‘the actuality is continually outdoing our talents [as writers].’ (And as Court Merrigan points out on his blog, Roth is still saying the same thing forty-eight years later, presumably on the grounds that if he says it for long enough he’ll eventually be proved right.) Further back, Karl Kraus, the Austrian satirist, also noted the near impossibility of his calling when reality could so easily outstrip the satirist’s imagination. And not only that, but this unhealthy new symbiosis has more malevolent undercurrents: ‘If the reporter has killed our imagination with his truth,’ he wrote in the 1920s, ‘he threatens our life with his lies.’ And so we have reality poisoning our art, but poisoning our lives as well. O arta o mores, one might say, although that is only a partial truth. There is always something cyclical about art and reality, just as mimesis is much more than mere mimicry. And so that cautionary quote of Kraus could easily be countered by another, by Heinrich Boll: ‘Art is always a good hiding-place, not for dynamite, but for intellectual explosives and social time bombs’. So what do we have in Mao II: art being destroyed by reality, or reality getting a kicking from art? The answer, alarmingly, is more the former than the latter.

The facts are these: in a world of crowds, Bill Gray is a recluse, a Salingeresque writer who hasn’t been photographed in forty years and lives in complete isolation, attended only by his obsessive assistant Scott and Scott’s ex-Moonie girlfriend Karen. His writing is blocked, and for years has been drafting and re-drafting and re-redrafting his third novel, which he knows is already complete. As each year of public silence unfolds, his fame grows and in this way, of course, his writer’s block increases proportionately. And then, unexpectedly, Bill agrees to be photographed by an artist, Brita, whose life work is to capture writers of every sort on film. This is not the implausibility I alluded to at the start; it is merely the catalyst for what comes next.

Interspersed with the main narrative are vignettes from late nineties Cosmopolita: a Moonie mass-wedding ceremony; the deaths of Liverpool football fans at Hillsborough; the death and burial of Ayatollah Khomeini; the banality of fundamentalist terrorists. The novel is located, as usual with DeLillo, slightly askew from what we might consider normality, in terms of either traditional narrative or in the narrative structure; DeLillo’s world is not as determinedly surreal as, for example, Paul Auster’s, and it is much more effective for that. Reading a Don DeLillo novel offers the reader the sort of disconnection the new Mrs de Winter must have initially encountered at Manderley: everything seems in order, but nothing quite is. Thus, the scene is set for implausibility.

Prompted by his encounter with Brita, Bill now makes contact with his editor for the first time in many years, an old school publishing man called Charlie Everson. Charlie tells him of a young Swiss writer taken hostage in Beirut, and persuades him to travel to London to speak on his behalf, an old writer coming to the aid of the new generation. The man who has barely been out of his own house in decades agrees to do so. And this is still not the implausibility.

Once in London, caught up in a bombing in a London hotel, Bill comes into contact with George Haddad, a Lebanese Maoist and a shadowy intermediary who seems to know a great deal of what is happening in the dangerous underworld of Beirut where the young Swiss writer is being held. The bombing wasn’t important, George tells him, because no-one was killed. The terrorists and the western media each play the same game: ‘The worse the better’. ‘Get killed,’ George tells Bill, ‘ and maybe they will notice you.’

Later, Charlie warns Bill that he may be in danger. ‘You would be worth a great deal more to the group in Beirut than the hostage they’re now holding,’ he tells him. How could they manipulate him into a hostage situation, Bill asks. ‘Lure you eastward somehow,’ Charlie replies. Two pages later the implausibility arrives, writ large in DeLillo’s hand with the warning: ‘implausibility alert’. George invites Bill to come to Athens with him to meet some of the men behind the Swiss writer’s abduction. Don’t be stupid, the reader shouts, what did Charlie tell you two pages ago? Even George agrees. He tells Bill: ‘Of course I’ve asked myself what you have to gain by traveling to Athens under circumstances that might be called – what do we want to call these circumstances, Bill?’

And Bill, speaking for the reader, replies, ‘Shadowy’. And then, of course, proceeds to go to Athens. Clearly, there is much manipulation at work here, and not just of Bill. The reader, too, is being played with, drawn towards an open trap, expected to fall into shouting ‘rubbish, rubbish, he just wouldn’t do that’. Because he does. This is what Bill Gray does, because he can do no other. That is spelled out in a line that could have come straight from No Country For Old Men: ‘Everything has a shape, a fate, information flowing.’

Thus, while McCarthy employs the tyrannous shape of chance and fate to torture each of his characters, here DeLillo gives us the amorphous jeopardy of modernity, the flow of information, that resource which best defines our current world, news as an ‘apocalyptic force’, with its ‘unremitting mood of catastrophe’. This is the way Bill has to act, because this is the way the story has to unfold. To every event a headline, to every headline a public reaction, to every reaction a new angle, a new story, a new hero, new villain, all crowding in, so that the event creates its own news, sets its own agenda. The story was written, the ending ordained before even the first full stop was placed at the end of the first sentence. Just as Llewlelyn Moss sealed his fate the moment he took the drugs money, Bill Gray was lost to the world when the world wrote its own narrative of the Beirut kidnapping. Is, then, Mao II a cosmopolitanist’s memento mori? A warning to the world of what it is turning itself into? One of the key passages comes early on, when Bill tells Brita:

There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence... 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 of human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.


Novelists and terrorists, he concludes, are playing a zero-sum game. 'What terrorists gain, novelists lose,' he tells George. And George replies: 'the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art.' Fast forward ten years from when DeLillo wrote this, and the World Trade Center towers, described here as ‘standing windowless, two black latex slabs that consumed the available space’, fell. And fast forward a further eight years, and the world of the arts is still formulating a response to that terrorist event which feels meaningful. After all, that just wouldn’t happen.

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