Terror, like an airborne toxic event, floats across the deceptively shiny surfaces of Don DeLillo's fiction, turning the reassuring rituals of even suburban life—filling up at the self-service pump, or playing golf—into desperate acts. The intersecting planes of that world, even at its glossiest, always include nameless dread, the possibility that the banal will erupt into violence, the clichés of the tabloid come to life. Not surprisingly, terrorists, cult murderers, assassins, and hit men have always been at home in that world, but Mao II (1991) marks a new phase as DeLillo's first extended exploration of the relationship between terrorists and writers. In this novel DeLillo moves away from an older view, found in James and Conrad, of the terrorist as the writer's alter ego, to a view of the terrorist as the writer's antagonist, the perhaps victorious author of a new narrative that writes out the small part left for the romantic idea of the novelist.
Whatever other influences may be at play in Mao II, since February 14, 1989, when the Ayatollah issued his fatwa, it has been impossible to think about terrorists and writers without thinking of [End Page 229] the Rushdie Affair, that enormous political and media event that threatens to swallow up the actual Salman Rushdie, the actual Satanic Verses. Although Mao II contains no direct references to it, the questions the Affair raises about the enmeshment of contemporary writers with electronic journalism, fundamentalism, and terrorism provide DeLillo's novel with its most pressing themes. It seems helpful, then, to recall Rushdie's novel and its author's fate as an inescapable context for reading Mao II.
The Satanic Verses begins with Rushdie's characteristic mixture of documentary realism, literary allusion, and magic: two Indian actors, who will come to share the interchangeable identities of the angel Gabriel and Satan, fall into the English Channel from a jet exploding at precisely 29,002 feet, the height of Mount Everest. Victims of a terrorist bombing modeled on the blowing-up of an Air India Boeing 747 off the coast of Ireland in 1985, they survive miraculously to undergo more fantastic sufferings: one metamorphoses into a horned and hoofed Beelzebub, while the other, increasingly haunted by nightmares and pathological jealousy, is diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and commits suicide. To those familiar with postmodern art, the novel's subsequent juxtapositions of Othello allusions with advertising jingles, or of fantasies about medieval Arabia with quasi-journalistic exposés of police brutality in contemporary England, scarcely seem surprising. Blurring history and fiction to make the historical appear fantastic is the stock in trade of such books. The 1983 Hawkes Bay incident, for example, in which a Pakistani woman, Naseem Fatima, led thirty-eight Shi'a pilgrims to their deaths in the sea out of the mistaken belief that it would part to allow them to pass safely to the holy city of Kerbala, needs little fictional transformation to fit into the phantasmagoric world of Gibreel Farishta's unwelcome dreams.1 Similarly, to imagine the possibility, which lurks in an apocryphal tradition, that the Qu'ran might be an edited text, that Muhammed might briefly have allowed into it a few verses of satanic origin, seems harmless enough; re-telling stories in new registers is, to those schooled on Ulysses, unastonishing.2 Could we read the novel innocent of all knowledge about book-burnings and murdered translators, we would turn to leisurely explications—of its debts to James Joyce and The Thousand and One Nights, or its diversion of Our [End Page 230] Mutual Friend into a musical called Friend!, or "The Chums, as it was known in the business" (421).
This perspective, however, has largely been denied us. Operating in the best postmodern manner, history has violated the boundaries of this fiction. The Ayatollah Khomeini, mentioned once by name in the text and travestied in an extended episode as an exiled Imam who returns to his homeland to stop time and wreak apocalyptic damage on his people, seemed to rise from its pages to condemn the author to death. And as he did so, as the...