Delillo: Always bleak but always interesting

Monday Book Reviews

August 05, 1991|By Diane Winston | Diane Winston,Diane Winston is a reporter for The Sun.

MAO II. By Don Delillo. Viking. $19.95, 241 pages.

MAO II" is less accessible than Don Delillo's last two novels, "White Noise" and "Libra," but it is as dark, provocative and lyrical as the earlier works. It is also as enjoyable -- if that word can describe the intellectual frisson sparked by Delillo's murky mutterings.

In this new offering, Delillo dissects terrorism in the same way he examined ecological disaster and assassination in the earlier lTC books. (Actually terrorism is an old favorite of Delillo's -- it was the DianeWinstontheme of "Players" and "The Names.") In "Mao II," Delillo is as relentless as ever -- employing character, plot and language to investigate the phenomena at the center of his story.

But this very monomania can be unsettling. It drains believability from Delillo's work. His technique is reminiscent of hyper-realism in paintings. There is a reality mirrored in the work which initially evokes a shudder of recognition. But on closer inspection it is too posed, too mannered and too much a product of one neat eye to be real.

This caveat aside, it is always a pleasure to read Delillo.

Delillo does something wonderful with the English language. He strings words together until they make sentences which beg for reading and re-reading. Fat with beauty, rich with meaning, they burst with insight while still moving the story along. But this is not a plot-driven page-turner. Despite the potential for smoke and mirrors, spies and magicians -- Delillo plods along.

"Mao II" is a meditation on modern society and two of its more poignant markers -- the anonymity of the multi-faced crowd and the individuality of the faceless terrorist. Locked like yin and yang, the paradoxes of one rising from many and the many

terrorized by one are explored in the vignettes which make up the story.

The plot's movement -- and perhaps its biggest weakness -- rests on the protagonist Bill Gray. Gray is a novelist not unlike J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. After capturing the public's imagination, he disappears -- unwilling, and perhaps unable, to play cultural guru. Instead he hides out, working on a novel which he finishes, unravels, rewrites. It is an endless, all-night, chain-smoking affair which has rendered him as pallid as his name.

When the book begins, Bill Gray is a string of nervous habits and neurotic ailments. He is his own best, and worst, creation. To the consternation of his handlers, a former Moonie and a wannabe turned manager-major domo, he has agreed to be photographed.

(Photography here has that mystical primitive element of not only recording a moment but capturing a soul.)

This is the heart of the story: these people (Bill, the photographer, the ex-Moonie, the major domo -- each embodies a facet of the modern experience and an attempt to make sense of alienation and the absence of meaning); the events catalyzed by the photography session and their resolution in each life.

Bill Gray seems to be the center of the novel, but he is a weak focal point. He always seems to be about to do or say something interesting. But he never does. Even in his supposed moments of spontaneity, he seems like a cross between Willy Loman and Bartleby the Scrivener.

Gray's passivity may be caused by his recognition that the novelist has been superceded by the terrorist. He is confounded and horrified by the realization that the collective imagination is no longer shaped by the writer's words but by the terrorist's deeds. Delillo indicts the information-overload which makes the public hungry for a bigger tragedy, a worse massacre, a more devastating catastrophe. But he also concedes that it is only these shocks to the system which can penetrate the haze of modern society.

Delillo is always interesting, but he is unremittingly bleak. Love does not conquer, the hero doesn't win, good never triumphs. Instead, things often go from bad to worse and there is really very little satisfaction. As a reader, the harshness of this worldview is worth exploring because so many poignant

questions and arresting ideas are raised in the process.

"Mao II" is awfully good summer reading -- or winter reading for that matter. It is provocative, insightful and well-written. There are the same flaws of plot and characterization which run through almost all of Delillo's work. I think that is because, ultimately, he cares more for the message than the medium. Or maybe the message has become the medium and he's got it right.

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