Published in 1991, Mao II
is the tenth novel of author Don DeLillo and the winner of the 1992 PEN/Faulkner Award. The speculative fiction novel follows the story of a reclusive author, Bill Gray, who struggles with his relative fame and a return to public life despite his desire to retreat from society and commit to his work. The novel, which borrows its name from a series of Andy Warhol silkscreens, questions the legacy and primacy of art—particularly writing—as the chief arbiter of social and cultural disturbance in a world that has become increasingly marred by terrorism. The narrative is told in the third person, and the omniscient
point of view is used to convey the perspectives of the four central characters: Bill, Brita, Karen, and Scott.
The book’s prologue opens at Yankee Stadium with a Unification Church mass wedding ceremony officiated by cult leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Thousands of "Moonies" gather for the event. A man is searching for his daughter, Karen, who has gone there as a bride.
As the prologue shifts to the present day and the main body of the novel takes off, a photographer named Brita is on her way to photograph a reclusive writer named Bill Gray who, despite his renown, has chosen to reject public life for the sake of protecting his writing from being muddled by society. Having spent an excessive amount of time and energy on a particular novel, which Brita encourages him to publish, Bill and his live-in assistant Scott lament how the exposure of a piece of writing to the public can corrupt the authenticity of both the work and its creator.
Scott, who at the novel’s start is in a romantic relationship with Karen, strikes up a sexual relationship with Brita after a dinner at Bill’s home. Karen, on the other hand, has apparently been sleeping with Bill without Scott knowing.
When Brita returns to the city, she sends word to Bill that his editor, Charles, needs to meet with him about a matter of serious importance. Bill emerges from his seclusion and leaves Scott and Karen behind without a word.
Once they’re face-to-face, Charles tells Bill that a Swiss poet has been captured by a Maoist terrorist cell in Beirut, and he believes that Bill’s public presence could aid in the poet’s release. Bill travels to London with Charles to hold a press conference about the hostage situation, but the event is bombed before it even starts. Bill comes to realize that his emergence into society is a publicity ploy orchestrated by Charles and the publishing company to create interest in Bill’s new novel, which he ultimately decides not to publish.
Scott and Karen, meanwhile, have not heard from Bill and mount a disillusioned attempt to find out what they can about his departure. Scott continues living and working at Bill’s home, but Karen ventures to New York City to search for him. She immerses herself in the city’s homeless camps and begins teaching them the doctrine of the Unification Church. As things progress, her involvement with the homeless at Tompkins Square Park becomes borderline obsessive. Brita, who has since traveled to Europe for work, returns to New York.
Following the debacle at the press conference, Bill, still in London, meets with a representative of the Maoists named George Haddad. Haddad successfully coaxes Bill to secretly venture to Beirut to meet the group’s leader and potentially negotiate the poet’s release. However, while holding over in Cyprus before making the final stretch of the journey into Lebanon, Bill is struck by a car and, though he survives, receives terminal internal injuries. He doesn’t seek medical attention, and after boarding the ferry for Beirut. he seemingly dies in his sleep. Scott and Karen are left to consider the meaning of a new reality without Bill, though they never receive details about the circumstances of his death and disappearance.
The book’s epilogue follows Brita as she meets the leader of the terrorist group and inquires about the poet, whose fate is left to the reader’s imagination. The book ends with Brita overlooking a wedding procession in the street below the balcony of a bombed-out building. The procession is led by a tank.Mao II
works as a commentary on world culture, and its detached, dark assessment of the evolution of global society predates itself. Written a decade before 9/11, it presents a world marred by organized global terrorism and a culture of fear. Bill relays this concept: “After him [Samuel Beckett], the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”
DeLillo’s primary preoccupation is the tension between literature as the historical medium of social change and terrorism as its replacement. George Haddad conveys this in saying that “in societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act.” The narrative also deals with the strain between individuality and crowd corruption. Bill laments that “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.”