241 pages. $19.95. "Mao II" is spiritual kin to two other Don DeLillo productions, the introspective suspense thriller "Players" (1977) and the claustrophobic "Great Jones Street" (1972). Like the former, "Mao II" has something to do with terrorists, and like the latter it takes a reclusive pop-culture icon as its protagonist. In "Great Jones Street" it was a Dylanesque rock star; in "Mao II" it's a Salingersque novelist named Bill Gray.
Blocked on his latest opus, restless after too many years spent in rustic seclusion, Gray is hungry to renew some kind of useful connection with the world. His editor coaxes him to London to give a reading on behalf of a Swiss poet held hostage in Beirut.
Once in England, Gray becomes obsessed with the hostage's plight. He finds himself negotiating passage to Lebanon to meet with the captors and work out a deal for the poet's release -- a deal that likely will require Gray's captivity in exchange for the hostage's. In the name of artistic freedom, the famous literary hermit makes ready to trade his self-imposed prison for another, altogether more real one.
The plot hinges on a pair of intellectual conceits. One is the spiritual affinity between the social functions of the terrorist and the novelist. "For some time now I've had the feeling that novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum," Gray muses. "What terrorists gain, novelists lose. 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." According to Gray, terrorists are the last true artists. While interesting enough on its own terms, this observation feels a bit secondhand, perhaps because Mr. DeLillo has expressed similar sentiments in earlier works, particularly "Players."
The other, more resonant theme concerns the increasing odds against one person's ability to make a dent on the world. The fierce individualism of Bill Gray is contrasted with the character of Karen Janney, one of his assistants and a former member of the Unification Church.
The novel opens with a brilliant set piece depicting the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's mass wedding at Yankee Stadium, in which Karen is one of the brides. "They all feel the same, young people from fifty countries, immunized against the language of self. They're forgetting who they are under their clothes, leaving behind all the small banes and body woes, the daylong list of sore gums and sweaty nape and need to pee, ancient rumbles in the gut, momentary chills and tics, the fungoid dampness between the toes, the deep spasm near the shoulder blade that's charged with mortal reckoning. All gone now. They stand and chant, fortified by the blood of numbers."
Later, the TV news shows footage of huge surges of humanity: the Sheffield soccer riots, the chaos surrounding the funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini. "The future," Karen thinks, "belongs to crowds."
"Mao II" takes its title from an Andy Warhol drawing owned by one of the characters. It's a fitting emblem: the charismatic engineer of mass political conformity rendered by the charismatic genius of mass-produced art. Here in a nutshell is the culture the Bill Grays of the world must contend with. How is it possible, Mr. DeLillo asks, to reassert the primacy of the individual when political and religious leaders concentrate their energies on the manipulation of mass psychology and meaningful historical events seem to consist solely of the emotions of groups?
One way, according to Bill Gray, is to write a novel. "It's a democratic shout," he says. "Anybody can write a great novel, one great desperado with barely a nurtured dream can sit down and find his voice and luck out and do it. Something so angelic it makes your jaw hang open. The spray of talent, the spray of ideas. One thing unlike another, once voice unlike the next."
A parallel message formed the heart of Mr. DeLillo's last novel, "Libra," which, in mustering a courageous sympathy for the troubled character of Lee Harvey Oswald, revealed the uselessness of such generic labels as "assassin." "Mao II," however, doesn't risk the dark depths to which "Libra" descended. Too often it stays on the surface, merely stating its themes rather than effectively dramatizing them.
Mr. DeLillo remains relentlessly fascinated by the political undercurrents of modern life, but in this instance his power to transform his obsessions into a compelling narrative falters somewhat. Still, at a time when many artists have abdicated their position as messengers to the world, "Mao II" is a welcome dispatch from one of our best writers.