Saturday, January 9, 2010

Don DeLillo's Postmodern Rebel

Heaving masses of humanity play a big part in "Mao II." And part of DeLillo's "Ultimate Message" of said novel seems to be that heaving masses play a big, homogeneous role in just about everything, when you're talking strictly in terms of human existence throughout the ages. But it's not simply that they play a role, I suppose. They are the players who want to be played. Or, to put it in kinder terms: they want to believe in something greater than themselves.

They are always hunting for someone or something to venerate, to prop up as the next big savior of all mankind. And of course I say "they" but what I really mean is "me and everybody else who isn't one of the 'chosen few.'" Because there's a place in "Mao II" -- as in life -- for those of us lucky (said quasi-sarcastically) enough to have been made idols. It's the dichotomous relationship between man and superman (although with meaning differing slightly from Nietzschean parlance, i.e. intended to avoid implications of the rightness of such terms in a question-begging sort of way). Also, sometimes a "superman" is a superwoman, which Nietzsche made no accommodation for this to be true of women as far as I know. I am.

I'm wary of thinking of DeLillo's central character in "Mao II," Bill Gray, in terms of his generic moniker -- which eventually it becomes clear is a pseudonym or, more accurately, an alias. But because of the emphasis DeLillo seems to put on his character's name (i.e., it's made clear it is not his birth name, as said), I don't think there's any use avoiding the symbolism inherent to it. Bill Gray is gray, for all intents and purposes. He is a writer of some renown, a literary figure. He is not a vivacious character, but he's also not particularly melancholic or phlegmatic, either. He's not detachedly disinterested in the fate of man, but he seems incredulous as to what power man possesses (and indeed someone of his writerly significance) to make the world a more livable, equanimous place.

Bill has his own small following (a man and a woman) who venerate him but who also come to live with him and know him as a human being, and not simply as the "man behind the curtain" writer everyone else is awed by. For instance, the man (Scott) becomes Gray's personal assistant and envoy, and has grown so intimately close that he can be candid and point out that the sprawling, directionless novel Gray is working on is not equal to his other works and in fact is so bad that it might do harm to his reputation, calling into question all works that preceded it. Gray, Scott says, already intuitively understands this to be true, but Scott's criticism provides him the fear-affirming validation he desires.

"Mao II" isn't the sort of novel you sum up. This is in part because it reads more like classic Greek dialectical philosophy and less as a novel reliant on its plot. It's got a number of really excellent dialogues pitting the different ideologies represented against each other. More specifically and, in my opinion, most interesting is a dialogue that takes place between Gray and George Haddad, after Haddad has isolated Gray from his publisher and feels more open to speak candidly on the subject of terrorism and capturing the hearts / minds, imagination, or inspiring fear in the masses of humanity, along with the larger idea of a centrifugal entity for the masses to turn towards and embrace. The spirit of said dialogue is captured nicely, I think, in the following from pages 158-9:

It's an idea. It's a picture of Lebanon without the Syrians, Palestinians and Israelis, without the Iranian volunteers, the religious wars. We need a model that transcends all the bitter history. Something enormous and commanding. A figure of absolute being. This is crucial, Bill. In societies struggling to remake themselves, total politics, total authority, total being.

Even if I could see the need for absolute authority, my work would draw me away. The experience of my own consciousness tells me how autocracy fails, how total control wrecks the spirit, how my characters deny my efforts to own them completely, how I need internal dissent, self-argument, how the world squashes me the minute I think it's mine.
DeLillo seems not to resort to any absurd, contrived plot device that would have his characters literally display the kind of revolt that he has Gray describe as being for himself and his own work evidence of the ineffectuality of absolute authority. (There's no consensus to be reached amongst the voices he puts on paper.) When revolt occurs, it occurs tastefully and subtly. Gray becomes injured for instance, and eventually after consulting (of all people) some veterinarians, he understands that he must seek medical attention -- but still he does not. Against all advice he travels to Beirut with uncertain intentions, or intentions that are [SPOILER ALERT] never revealed as passing successfully. The ending is as ambiguous as the viability of the modes of living that history and masses of humanity and their keepers have fated for us all. That's one idea about "Mao II" I've had.

Plus, the not-intended-to-be-sly (DeLillo more or less mentions it in the last pages of the story) association of Mao to a brand with the Coke II allusion is golden, I think -- if it is also, uh huh, dripping with Postmodernity.

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