Don DeLillo’s 1991 novel Mao II is undoubtedly an example of postmodernist writing. The novel exhibits frequent references to television news, advertisements, and other elements of popular culture; it features an antihero in protagonist Bill Gray; and it makes an existentialist statement about free will through constant references to Mao Zedong, crowd imagery, and the cult mentality.
The novel is grounded in a context of popular culture. DeLillo uses Bill, Scott, Karen, and Brita to express his views on the writer as commodity, the pervasive influence of images, and the overwhelming presence of crowds and groupthink throughout the world. Bill expounds several times on his view of the cult of writers, and he tells Brita that he is nothing more than “‘someone’s material'” (43). This belief rings true when the reader comes face to face with the evidence: cabinets full of “articles about Bill’s work and about his disappearance, his concealment, his retirement, his alleged change of identity, his rumored suicide, his return to work, his work-in-progress, his death, his rumored return” (31). Writers, Bill says, have been replaced in their role of “‘mak[ing] raids on human consciousness'” by terrorists (41), and true narrative is no longer interesting to people because “‘News of disaster is the only narrative people need'” (42). Brita further explains that information overload has numbed us to all but the most shocking images (157).
The images presented on television news are a source of fascination for Karen, whose own status as a former Moonie explains why she sits transfixed before the repetitive images of crowds on television, especially this one that forms after the Ayatolla Khomeini’s death: “The camera could not absorb the full breadth of the crowd. The camera kept panning but could not inch all the way out to the edge of the anguished mass. On the screen the crowd had no edge or limit and kept on spreading” (188). Karen and the other characters are often overwhelmed by the continual influx of images, from the paintings of Andy Warhol to the omnipresence of billboards and advertisements; DeLillo makes a nod to the reader’s own familiarity with these images by occasionally reciting a list of brand names without further explanation and letting the reader provide the images from memory (27, 148). With some irony, Karen notes even the most holy of rituals was image-based, as she was matched with her “husband-for-eternity” on the basis of a photograph: “I have an Instamatic husband” (183). DeLillo, in the voice of Bill, states, “‘In our world we sleep and eat the image and pray to it and wear it too'” (36).
Bill Gray is a typical antihero. He has, at least at the beginning, a somewhat romantic view of his quirks, yet also has a low opinion of his work and himself. Scott describes him as being like “great leaders who regenerate their power by dropping out of sight and staging messianic returns,” as did Chairman Mao (141). Bill has attempted at one point to recreate himself, as shown by the evidence that he has changed his name. He thinks of his life as a long progression of excretory functions: “This is what he did for a living, sit and hawk, mucus and flatus” (136). Even more revealing is that he regards his writing as “the blood sneeze, the daily pale secretion, the bits of human tissue sticking to the page” (28).
Bill states that writing is democratic and that any lucky amateur could produce one great novel (159); since he himself has managed only to publish two books and has labored over the third for years, it is evident that Bill does not hold his own writing in high regard. By choosing to become reclusive, Bill attains (somewhat intentionally) a mystical status in the eyes of the public; he explains, “The writer who won’t show his face is encroaching on holy turf. He’s playing God’s own trick” (36). The reader can find some explanation of Bill’s paranoid behavior in Omar’s observation about street people: “‘These people have one thing they can talk about or think about and that’s the little shithole they live in. The littler the shithole, the more it takes up your life'” (152). Bill’s “little shithole” is the secluded life he has embraced and the novel he has rewritten again and again, neither of which he is ready to relinquish until a later point in the novel.
Mao II has existential overtones. Its characters continually seek to impose order in their lives. Bill does this by revising the same piece of writing for 23 years on end, Scott by making lists and lists of lists, Karen by her unwillingness to admit that she had been a pawn of Reverend Moon and instead finding comfort in her lack of individuality. But no character is truly satisfied with these efforts: Bill becomes restless and abandons both his housemates and his manuscript; Scott acknowledges that his listmaking is merely a distraction with no value in itself; Karen remembers how creepy it had felt “wearing someone else’s socks and another person’s underwear” (77). It is fitting that the novel begins with the overpowering image of thousands of cult members taking part in a mass marriage in Yankee Stadium, which represents people’s “need to blend in, lose themselves in something larger” (89). Like the thousands of wedding couples wearing matching clothes, the boys who work for the terrorist Abu Rashid wear hoods in order to avoid distinguishing their features or personalities from that of their leader, and their sameness symbolizes their sacrifice of the self to a greater power (234). When, in a spontaneous act of defiance, Brita suddenly removes the hood of one boy and snaps his picture, it makes no ultimate difference because she cannot forcibly replace the stolen identity of the boy.
DeLillo weaves together concepts of culthood, imagery, and art in Mao II to make a statement about the existential nature of society, in which a person must choose either complete sublimation to a greater power or an anguished life alone with no moral guidance. The presence of Bill Gray as the antihero who suffers from this lack of guidance and Karen as a cult member who never entirely breaks free underscores this point.
Work Cited DeLillo, Don. Mao II. New York: Viking, 1991.