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What is a Terrorist? Contemporary Authorship, the Unabomber, and Mao II

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 45, Number 3, Fall 1999
pp. 675-695 | 10.1353/mfs.1999.0056

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Modern Fiction Studies 45.3 (1999) 675-695

II. Postmodern Art and Authorship
"You're not the hermit, the woodsman-writer, you're not the crank with a native vision. You're the hunted man."

--Don DeLillo, Mao II

Authorship, as it appears in Don DeLillo's rumination on the topic in Mao II, resembles strongly another of the novel's main concerns, terrorism. "Terrorism," Douglas S. Derrer writes in We Are All the Target (subtitled A Handbook of Terrorist Avoidance and Hostage Survival) "is a powerful tool for the powerless" (108). DeLillo, in Mao II, attempts to contend with this increasingly unavoidable form of cultural power and also raises the question: can writing, once itself a powerful tool for the powerless, hold on to this function, at least partially? Or has the former role of the author necessarily been ceded to the terrorist, whose impact, as David E. Long points out, "is more psychological than physical," since a very small proportion of people are ever directly influenced by terrorist acts (1). This essay will examine how DeLillo's effort to come to terms with authorship in Mao II has been echoed, since its publication, by the cultural reception of the United States terrorist who has come closest to being treated as an author: the "Unabomber."

Like authorship, terrorism is more closely defined by the way certain actions are interpreted than by the nature of the actions themselves. In Mao II, DeLillo not only shows himself to be highly perceptive about such actions and such interpretations, but also appears to anticipate, remarkably, an event that became very real to Americans five years after the novel was published: the capture of Theodore Kaczynski, the man later convicted of being the Unabomber. Obviously, I do not mean to suggest that DeLillo literally predicted the future when writing Mao II, but the degree to which the events that unfolded in the media after Kaczynski's apprehension correspond to ideas discussed in DeLillo's novel is remarkable. As this paper will outline, DeLillo was deeply engaged with currents of thought and action that (in many cases) only became fully exposed when the Unabomber became associated with a face and a name. In other words, the story DeLillo wrote as Mao II and the way in which the Kaczynski story was presented to the public touch upon many of the same trends and points of thought. By investigating the connection between these two stories, we can observe a phenomenon related not only to the expanding presence of terrorism upon the American cultural mindset, but also to the way that the idea of "authorship" in the United States has become complicated by factors that both DeLillo's characters and commentators upon the Unabomber case associate with terrorism.

The first bombing associated with the figure now known as the Unabomber occurred in 1979, but the Unabomber only became really famous when he attempted to get published. The demand of "FC" (the terrorist "group" that claimed responsibility for the Unabomb attacks) that a 35,000-word article appear in a national publication captured the attention of Americans often too jaded to follow other news. The article, titled "Industrial Society and Its Future" but almost always referred to as the "Unabomber Manifesto," may not have gotten many careful readers, but it did attain widespread dissemination in 1995 in the Washington Post, then on the Internet and, soon after, in various book editions. As we will see, the author of the article managed to get published, but he certainly did not achieve a positive or even neutral forum in which his critique of industry and technology could be heard. The frustrated pursuit of a receptive readership is what most directly connects the story of the Unabomber and the events portrayed in DeLillo's novel. DeLillo's Mao II, as Douglas Keesey writes, "expresses its author's mid-career doubts about the effectiveness of fiction in a world largely given over to the electronic media" (177). The protagonist of Mao II, Bill Gray, worries that the traditional role of authors is giving way to that of terrorists. With the appearance of the "Unabomber Manifesto," readers of Mao II may be left...


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