Mao II: A Review
Everyone loves Don DeLillo. Gordon Lish, "The Wickedest Man In Literature" (and the dedicatee of Mao II), called DeLillo "our least nostalgic writer of large importance." Jonathan Franzen cheered up about the state of literature thanks to DeLillo. Martin Amis, who is on record as hating everyone but Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow, called DeLillo a great writer. And even outside the literary world, there's White Noise, which won the National Literary Award and is still a fan-favorite everywhere you go, as long as you never go more than thirty feet from a college campus or coffee shop. You still can't get away from people telling you to read White Noise at parties, backing you into corners, saying "No it's really wonderful it's so true it's so witty it's the wittiest truest most wonderful book in the world," their quiet halitosis gasping past their teeth, invading your cells, eating your mind.

Images of writers dehumanize them

So yes, everyone loves Don DeLillo. But why? What is loveable about the man? Is it the fact that he's probably never actually been in a supermarket, but still convinces people that he understands them? Is it the fact that he doesn't know how people actually talk--a welcome relief for those of us who just don't like people, who wish people would just speak in stilted theoretical parables so that we can ignore who they actually are? Is it the fact that he always explains his themes for you so you can more easily repeat them to your friends? That he does this even when it makes the plot jerk to a halt, even when it flattens whatever empathy you might have had for the characters? That he does not seem to care about his characters, or individual human beings, at all?

Let's assume that that's why people like DeLillo: because he fails to be a novelist. More: he actively fails to be a novelist. He takes all of the complexities of the novel and chucks them, scrapes the meat and marrow from their bones. And from those bones he makes a fun cage for that hipster favorite: ideas!

DeLillo gives up the easy pleasures of inventing characters and situations, of attempting to trace the strange dust tracks of human emotions and irrationality, of attempting to freeze them for a moment so that we can see them. He renounces these pleasures as weak. Instead gives us ideas, real food for thought. Easily digestible food, too, since he doesn't feel the need to work within any established critical tradition or subject his ideas to any critical analysis. As a novelist, he has no time for that. If you're the head of a religion, no one expects you to pay taxes. If you're a novelist, you get to say whatever you want.

And it's even better. If you're the head of a cult, you don't even have to take your religion seriously; you can take your money and run. And if you're Don DeLillo, the same goes for your novels. You can actively try to fuck them up, and for this you can be loved.

You may have guessed that I do not like Don DeLillo's writing. And I don't--except for Mao II.

So why do I like Mao II? Easy. Don DeLillo actively tries to fuck up his novels. But with Mao II--at least for part of it--he's working in territory that's just compelling on a human level. It's a story that can't be fucked up. With every page, you can hear his brain boiling, thinking of how he can make this worse, and he just can't do it.

The book is mostly about the house and life of reclusive novelist Bill Gray, basically J.D. Salinger with less self-willed craziness and more Gothic trappings. He's got the isolated house, the sinister assistant, the ghoulish family dinner, the constant drinking, the pharmaceutical habits, and the presence of now ex-Moonie Karen as a live-in cook, maid, and sex worker. Haunted mansions are always nice to see in literature, and this one delivers.

Yes, this is still a Don DeLillo book. The characters still talk about the meaning of television, photography, images, terrorism, God knows what over dinner and flirtations and baseball metaphors. But there's something horrible about the situation itself--about its textures, about the emotions that you can sense beneath the bad dialogue--something horrible that persists. Something, more, that resists the overanalysis on every page.

White Noise's suburbia was subjected to similar overanalysis. But there it doesn't work, because suburbia isn't in and of itself soul-killing and horrifying. Watching Bill Gray get his meat cut for him by an ex-Moonie is soul-killing and horrifying. Watching his assistant's control over every aspect of his life is soul-killing and horrifying. Watching Bill plead with his assistant to let him take a walk down the road with a girl, even though he hasn't finished his day's work, is soul-killing and horrifying. If you cut out the analysis entirely, Mao II is still a scary, powerful book. If you cut out the analysis entirely, White Noise is light comedy with toxic waste.

From Bill Gray's house, Mao II moves into a bunch of plot contrivances about terrorist leaders, homeless communities, and the meaning of writing in a postmodern world. There are many speeches, a few deaths, and I slowly accepted that these characters were never going to show any humanity ever again. For their part, they accepted that they were just puppets in Don DeLillo's analytic scheme and acted accordingly. I guess we both won in a way.

I don't think that DeLillo is wrong in his analysis of the world by any means. He is probably right about the link between novelists and terrorists, probably right in his arguments about the meaning of images versus human texture. But here's what I do think. It's wrong to sell the idea that the future dehumanizes people by writing books that dehumanize people. It's wrong to embody what you condemn, and it's even more wrong to accept high literary honors for it.

"The future belongs to crowds," DeLillo writes. And it sure does: crowds of DeLillo fans! Here they come, marching into the literary sunlight, repeating the bulk-rate ideas given to them by their favorite writer while their hearts are dying, dying, dead. Here they come, chirping on into the future. And boy, is the future going to be great for Don DeLillo.

Posted by future on Sun, 13 Apr 2008 17:14:46 -0400 -- permanent link

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