When Don DeLillo was asked in 1979 why he withholds information about himself, he answered, “Silence, exile, cunning, and so on” (qtd. in LeClair 20). His response, of course, echoes Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man proclaims that he will use silence, exile, and cunning as the “only arms” with which to defend his art from the “nets” of politics, family, and religion (247). DeLillo’s fiction obsessively treats the press of publicity on privacy, the fetishization of celebrity, and the commodification of art, but his 1991 novel Mao II for the first time directly addresses the position of the writer in postmodern culture through the character of reclusive novelist Bill Gray, who exemplifies the Romantic or Dedalian model of authorship in its death throes.
Since publishing two slim novels thirty years previously, Gray has exiled himself from the public, cunningly hiding his whereabouts and refusing to speak about his work. Until recently, DeLillo has cultivated a similar anonymity, shunning interviews and television appearances and rarely giving readings. Indeed, the parallels between the two seem almost too obvious: DeLillo used to tell friends that he was going to “change my name to Bill Gray and disappear” (qtd. in Passaro 38). Critics of Mao II [End Page 643] have thus argued that Gray is DeLillo’s mouthpiece (Edmundson 123) for an “argument about the future” (qtd. in Begley 296) that pits “the arch individualist” against the “mass mind” (qtd. in Passaro 76) in a battle for the “imagination of the world” (qtd. in Begley 296), and have claimed that DeLillo too clearly favors Gray over the characters—photographer Brita Nilsson, bewildered would-be mystic Karen Janney, terrorist leader Abu Rashid—who represent the future. 1 I want to argue here the contrary proposition that Mao II demonstrates the inadequacies of Gray’s Joycean model of authorship by dramatizing how it does not elude the “nets” of politics and celebrity, but actually makes Gray more exploitable by what Guy Debord famously calls the “society of the spectacle.” More broadly, Mao II announces—with mixed emotions—the end of the grand narrative of modernist authority and its replacement by what I am calling, after Jennifer Wicke, spectacular authorship: the power to use photographic or televised images to manufacture, as if by magic, spectacular events that profoundly shape public consciousness. 2
The second part of Bill’s (and allegedly, DeLillo’s) argument consists of the charge that terrorists have supplanted novelists as the shapers of culture and consciousness. The second part of this essay challenges this claim as well by showing how terrorism—itself a form of spectacular authorship—is irretrievably mediated by the journalistic and photographic gatekeepers who record and comment upon terrorist actions. But if Mao II shows, as Joseph Tabbi claims, the “impossibility of achieving a wholly literary opposition” to mass culture (173), it also suggests the potential for a more viable form, represented not by Gray but by Brita Nilsson. Indeed, in this novel DeLillo employs photography, Brita’s creative medium, in order at once to criticize more sharply the culture that gives rise to spectacular discourse and to acknowledge his own inevitable incorporation within such discourse. Here, as in virtually all of his work, DeLillo imitates the discourses he aims to deconstruct and thereby generates a dialogue with those cultural forms that both criticizes their consequences and appropriates their advantages. In short, DeLillo’s critique emerges not from Dedalian exile but more cunningly from within the culture itself. [End Page 644]
A reader first opening Mao II must immediately be struck by the book’s physical format: Andy Warhol’s famous Mao silk screens decorate the cover, and a series of interpolated photographs (a rally in Tiananmen Square; a Unification church mass wedding; the Sheffield soccer disaster; a crowd of Iranians in front of an enormous poster of Khomeini; three boys in a bunker, one aiming a camera or a gun) demarcate its sections. These “circumtextual” framing devices (Reid 44) immediately suggest the novel’s concern with the nature of mimesis. Because it is not only...