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Mao II: A Novel Paperback – Deckle Edge, May 1, 1992
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I live in Southern China and find the undercurrent of Maoism in the book to be relevant today, even though the book was written over twenty years ago. The novel has multiple settings: the United States, London, and Cyprus, and this feature along with the Chinese influence gives the book a very worldly feel. We see Mao’s idea of the “People’s War” present when the book deals with terrorism, terrorists are resisting society at large both violently and ideologically, they aim not only to subvert the social order, but to change the culture at large. The iconic image of Mao Zedong hanging in Tiananmen Square is less about Mao’s personal identity, but more about the identity of China as a whole. DeLillo highlights that terror and art are in some kind of binary struggle, where writers, in modern society, are less important when it comes to shaping human consciousness. There is a scene in the book also where Karen is watching the funeral of Ruhollah Khomeini and the shit show that proceeds. Khomeini’s image, and dead corpse, definitively represent modern Iran, and people violate it and touch it because they want to be one with it. The scenes where the hostage in Lebanon, slowly losing his sanity in captivity, also reminded me of China’s transformation during the Cultural Revolution.
I read somewhere that DeLillo took inspiration for Bill Gray from the life of J.D. Salinger. The author, in his recluse, becomes larger than life, and the mystery surrounding such an author gives hope to the masses. It is apparent in the book that Scott is holding Bill hostage in the house, as Scott knows that this effect is a force of good in the world (one that can fight against the terrorists). One also gets the idea that Scott does this because he wants to keep his idea of Bill pure in his own mind, even though this is done against Bill’s will. DeLillo, though he is dealing with a lot of material in this novel, writes with insight and with an imagination that is unmatched. Another segment in the book deals with Karen and her interactions with the homeless denizens of Tompkins Square Park in the early nineties. His description of the camp is nightmarish, hellish, and brutally honest. I highly recommend this book, the only other book from DeLillo that I have read is White Noise, but I can say I like this book a lot more.
I will not dwell on themes, since several reviewers have already discussed them at great length. I will only say his ideas about crowds and the affect of terrorism on our daily lives is brilliant.
I find this novel brilliant, particularly the first scene and the last two or three. Some of the scenes in the middle are slow or even boring, but that is not a problem; he bores us to make a point, and few other novelists have earned it more.
If you are new to Delillo, don't read Mao II. Read End Zone or Running Dog. But if you have already read and loved him, don't miss this one.
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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