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:

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