As readers of White Noise and his other novels know, Don DeLillo is a specialist in disquieting atmospheres, and his new novel, Mao II, is a catalog of what’s available in the disquieting atmosphere market these days. There’s a Moonie mass wedding for 6,500 couples; a makeshift village of deranged and drug-addicted homeless people in a Manhattan park; a New York publisher’s office turned by security measures into a miniature police state; terrorist-haunted London; terrorist-haunted Athens; terrorist-thronged Beirut; and, most disquieting of all, the room containing the unfinishable manuscript by the famous, reclusive novelist who has been working on it for over a decade and who feels finished — not with the book but as a writer.
Here is Tompkins Square Park: ”Huts and shacks…blue plastic sheeting covering the lean-tos and the networks of boxes and shipping containers that people lived in…a few bodies stirring, a lump of inert bedding suddenly wriggling upward and there’s a man on his knees coughing up blood…Stringy blood looping from his mouth.” And here’s the unfinished novel: ”He looked at the sentence, six disconsolate words, and saw the entire book as it took occasional shape in his mind, a neutered near-human dragging through the house, humpbacked, hydrocephalic, with puckered lips and soft skin, dribbling brain fluid from its mouth.” In this novel when a character opens his mouth to vomit, it’s a lyrical interlude.
Bill Gray is not only a famous novelist, he is, after years of unphotographed, uninterviewed, address-unknown isolation, practically worshipped: ”When a writer doesn’t show his face, he becomes a local symptom of God’s famous reluctance to appear.” Scott Martineau, a worshipful young fan, manages to track him down and offers his services as secretary, agent, and guardian of the great man’s privacy. A Moonie named Karen, whom Scott has picked up after she was kidnapped by anti-Moonie deprogrammers, has moved in with them, sharing Scott’s bed and making excursions into Bill’s. It’s the perfect hermetic ménage à trois, except that Bill is tired of it and has given up on his misbegotten novel. He symbolically surrenders by allowing a Swedish photographer to come to his hideout and shoot him. As if the shooting were fatal, he then begins to discard his guarded life and is drawn into a scheme to release a Swiss writer held hostage in Beirut by a Maoist terrorist sect.
One of the ideas that DeLillo toys with here is that there is a cryptic symmetry between novelists and terrorists: ”What terrorists gain, novelists lose,” Bill remarks. ”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.” The plot finally leaves this characteristically melodramatic idea hanging, which is what it deserves. Still, I enjoyed reading this and all the other batty conjectures that swerve and swoop on every page. They’re so resolutely on or over the edge that I had to admire their bravado; it hardly matters that when the assorted characters bounce them off each other, they all deliver them in the same DeLilloesque voice, or that when you grope behind the ideas for some coherent point of view, all you come up with is a vague handful of atmospheric menace, since atmospheric menace seems to be the point.
The weakness in the book is that the motivations of the writer and of the Moonie strains belief, the plot peters out, and the incidental humor of DeLillo’s best work is scarce here. The strength is that it offers a sour enough view of the dedicated writer’s life to scare off all but the most courageous, and courage is also the point: ”There’s a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer’s will to live.” B+