Oh my oh my oh my

John Lanchester

  • Mao II by Don DeLillo
    Cape, 239 pp, £13.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 224 03152 X
  • Introducing Don DeLillo edited by Frank Lentricchia
    Duke, 221 pp, £28.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 8223 1135 6

In this century there has been, running alongside the motif of the writer as drunk, another motif of the writer as anchorite, as recluse, as invisible man, as absconder from celebrity. The tradition, whose great precursor and prefigurer is Rimbaud, includes such star incogniti as Baron Corvo and B. Traven, but has perhaps never flourished anywhere quite as much as it is flourishing in the United States at the moment, where the reputations of celebrity hermits such as Salinger and Brodkey swell inexorably with every book they fail to publish. Conversely, when Thomas Pynchon finally broke his silence to publish Vineland two years ago, there was a strong sense of anticlimax, of a man having performed an act of vandalism on his own reputation: in going to such lengths to focus our attention exclusively on his work, Pynchon had paradoxically made it very difficult for any novel to compete with the wonderfully satisfying, wonderfully interesting fiction he has made of his life.

Bill Gray, the central character of Mao II, Don DeLillo’s tenth novel, is one of these Pynchon/Salinger recluses: the mysterious power of the image of the writer-cum-herrnit is one of the book’s main concerns. ‘When a writer refuses to show his face,’ Gray muses, ‘he becomes a local symptom of God’s famous reluctance to appear.’ (DeLillo has said that Mao II was prompted in part by that famous picture of a terrified Salinger flinging up an arm to ward off a photographer.) In writing about Gray, DeLillo is, not for the first time, tackling an important contemporary American icon. His career has shown a consistent willingness to write about subjects in the forefront of popular consciousness: American football and nuclear war (End Zone, 1972), pop music (Great Jones Street, 1973), communications from outer space (Ratner’s Star, 1976), clandestine intelligence (Running Dog, 1978), terrorism (The Names, 1982), suburban life and ecological disaster (White Noise, 1985), the assassination of President Kennedy (Libra, 1988).

The centrality of DeLillo’s subject-matter is accompanied by an extreme quirkiness of vision and manner, and by a strange, paranoid, exhilarating comedy unlike that of any other writer now practising in English. His books are written not so much in paragraphs as in riffs, riffs which tend to be halfway between a thesis and an aria, and which more often than not are put into the mouth of one of DeLillo’s characters: the effect is of a Babel of voices talking brilliantly/derangedly. Here, for instance, is James Axton, narrator of The Names:

Tourism is the march of stupidity. You’re expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to the travellers acting stupidly. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don’t know how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat ... Together with thousands, you are granted immunities and broad freedoms. You are an army of fools, wearing bright polyesters, riding camels, taking pictures of each other, haggard, dysentric, thirsty. There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event.

And here is Fenig, a character in Great Jones Street who hopes to make his fortune writing pornography for and about children:

There’s a cruel kind of poetry to the market. The big wheel spins and gyrates and makes firecracker noises, going faster and throwing off anybody who can’t hold on. The market is rejecting me but I’m not blind to the cruel poetry in it. The market is phenomenal, bright as a hundred cities, turning and turning, and there are figures everywhere trying to hold on with one hand but they’re getting thrown off into the surrounding night, the silence, the emptiness, the darkness, the basin, the crater, the pit. But the son of a bitch won’t get rid of me that easily. I’m a tenacious brute for my size.

Jack Gladney, Professor of Hitler Studies at Blacksmith College, in White Noise:

  When the showing ended, someone asked about the plot to kill Hitler. The discussion moved to plots in general. I found myself saying to the assembled heads: ‘All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.’

  Is this true? Why did I say it? What does it all mean?

The brilliance, the paranoia and the provisionality of that are very typical of DeLillo: his characters ride their hobby-horses hard and on a loose rein, apparently indifferent as to whether or not they fall off.

Any writer with DeLillo’s degree of fluency will inevitably risk self-indulgence: a writer who can do anything will sooner or later decide that anything is worth trying to do. To my mind, this self-indulgence shows up in what one might call the middle-period books, from Ratner’s Star (1976) to The Names (1982): the first of those novels is about a 14-year-old Nobel laureate in mathematics, summoned to an unnamed distant country to help decode a strange set of signals emanating from outer space; the second is about a European terrorist organisation which carries out a series of murders of otherwise randomly-selected individuals whose initials correspond with those of the places in which they are killed. Both novels are extremely, almost unreadably, dense, and it isn’t at all clear that the purposes of either book are well served by that density; not that that would necessarily worry DeLillo. ‘There’s a whole class of writers who don’t want to be read,’ he once remarked, sounding a lot like one of his nuttier characters. ‘This to some extent explains their crazed prose ... What you want to express is the violence of your desire not to be read ... If you’re in this class what you have to do is either not publish or make sure your work leaves readers strewn along the margins.’ And: ‘The writer is working against the age and so he feels some satisfaction in not being widely read. He is diminished by an audience.’

Diminished by it or not, DeLillo has now acquired a public: unusually for a 20th-century ‘serious’ writer, he has won his audience with the two books which seem to almost all commentators, myself included, to be his best work. White Noise, his first novel to attract widespread attention, had a plot that had some of the less persuasive features of the middle work – an ecological disaster or ‘airborne toxic event’ whose description was not free of whimsy, an involvement with a top-secret superdrug called Dylar – but it had an extraordinary account of ordinary suburban/campus life, enraptured, tender and panic-stricken in equal proportions. It was also very funny, and opened with a wonderful set-piece description of students returning to the campus for a new academic year, accompanied by their parents: ‘The women crisp and alert, in diet trim, knowing people’s names. The husbands content to measure out the time, accomplished in parenthood, something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage.’

Libra, though, his next novel, is DeLillo’s masterpiece: his feel for ordinary life and ordinary comedy, and his astonishing mimicry, are for the first time in his work given as free a rein as his wilder, theoretical and oneiric side. In a fascinating interview collected in the patchy but useful collection Introducing Don DeLillo, DeLillo recognises that this was in no small part because of the effect on his novel of the Warren Committee report on the Kennedy assassination. He read all of the 26-volume, multi-million-word report, which, as he says, ‘provided an extraordinary window on life in the Fifties and Sixties and, beyond that, gave me a sense of people’s speech patterns, whether they were private detectives from New Orleans or railroad workers from Fort Worth. I’m sure that without those 26 volumes I would have written a very different novel and probably a much less interesting one.’ (In the novel itself he describes the report as ‘the novel James Joyce might have written if he had moved to Iowa City and lived to be 100’.) Lee Harvey Oswald, who could easily have been made into a – yawn – ‘cypher’, is persuasively sketched as a man desperately wishing to merge himself into history, into ‘the struggle, where there is no borderline between one’s own happiness, and the world in general’, as Oswald put it in a letter to his brother. DeLillo’s portrait of Oswald is so persuasive about his inner life that one isn’t surprised to learn that DeLillo, three years older than the assassin, grew up only a few blocks away from him in the Bronx.

The acclaim earnt by Libra was accompanied by some brickbats – brickbats – of an unusual kind. In the middle of the Presidential election in which Bush trounced Dukakis, the Washington Post carried two separate attacks on the novel, one by George Will, a conservative columnist and friend of the Reagans. Will said that DeLillo’s novel, because it did not follow the lone-gunman theory about the Kennedy assassination, was ‘an act of literary vandalism and bad citizenship’, and was ‘valuable ... only as a reminder of the toll that ideological virulence takes on literary talent’. Several of the contributors to Introducing Don DeLillo exercise themselves about Will's remarks, which may have had some effect on DeLillo himself, in turning him towards the concerns which animate Mao II; l’affaire Rushdie, as well as the Salinger photograph, has been acknowledged by DeLillo as an influence on the book.

Mao II’s subject is handily summarised for us by Bill Gray himself. The reclusive writer has just agreed to be photographed for the first time in decades, and is musing on the power of the writer’s image:

There is a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence ... Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness ... We’re giving way to terror, to news of terror, to tape-recorders and cameras, to radios, to bombs stashed in radios. News of disaster is the only narrative people need. The darker the news, the grander the narrative.

That passage not only described the theme of the book, it also more or less gives a précis of the plot. After allowing himself to be photographed, Gray is gradually dragged down into what he calls ‘the image world’: he is approached by an old friend, an editor, who asks him to appear at a press conference to assist the release of a Swiss hostage being held in Beirut. Reluctantly at first, but with an increasingly quixotic momentum, Gray gets involved in the hostage’s dilemma, and heads off for the Lebanon, en route to which he comes to a sticky but accidental end.

Around this rather over-schematic central theme and plot-strand are a variety of characters, each with their own story: Brita Nilsson, the photographer, who specialises in taking pictures of writers; Scott, a young fan of Gray’s who managed to track him down and insinuate himself into his household as his secretary; and Karen, Scott’s girlfriend, a psychologically fragile ex-Moonie, whose presence in the novel provides an alibi for the virtuoso set-piece with which the book opens: a mass wedding at Shea Stadium of 6500 Moonie couples. Several other big scenes in the book involve crowds or the images of crowds: in one of them, Karen watches the Hillsborough disaster on television; in another, she watches the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini. Both accounts are extremely vivid, and rather disruptive of the novel qua novel: the extent to which these passages evoke the events they describe is the precise extent to which they don’t, in fictional terms, ‘work’.

Part of the trouble with the book is that DeLillo, for the duration of writing it, seems to have committed himself to Bill Gray’s ideas, and incorporated them into the very structure of the novel, which tries to force home Gray’s arguments that ‘what terrorists gain, novelists lose’. This, oddly enough, is to do those ideas a disservice, as, in Keats’s famous words, ‘we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us.’ I don’t think I will be the only reader of Mao II to miss DeLillo in his comic vein, the comic vein which hasn’t at all precluded seriousness in his other work; its absence in Mao II is, I’m afraid, likely to have something to do with a vocational self-importance. ‘Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there. On one level this truth is the swing of the sentence, the beat and poise, but down deeper it’s the integrity of the writer as he matches with the language.’ Compare that portentous hokum with the one real moment of comedy in the novel, when Gray goes to lunch with his old editor friend, who has been complaining about how much writers complain:

‘It must be hard for you, dealing with these wretches day after day.’ ‘No, it’s easy. I take them to a major eatery. I say, Pooh pooh pooh. I say, Drinky drinky drinky. I tell them their books are doing splendidly in the chains. I tell them readers are flocking to the malls. I say, Coochy coochy coo. I recommend the roast monkfish with savoy cabbage. I tell them the reprint dealers are howling in the commodity pits. There is mini-series interest, there is audiocassette interest, the White House wants a copy for the den. I say, the publicity people are setting up tours. The Italians love the book completely. The Germans are groping for new levels of rapture. Oh my oh my oh my.’