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  • The Terrorist as Interpreter: Mao II in Postmodern Context
  • Peter Baker

Through the issues it raises, the kind of writing style it employs, and coming as it does in a series of other novels by Don DeLillo, Mao II demands to be treated seriously in the context of postmodern work and theory. Rather than spend time developing that theory explicitly, hooking in to the arguments presented by, say, Fredric Jameson and Jean-Francois Lyotard, Brian McHale and Linda Hutcheon, I want to develop a series of themes and meditations through a comparison of Mao II with two other texts that are roughly contemporary, Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland and Neil Jordan’s film, The Crying Game (1992). That is, rather than attempt to define “postmodernism,” I will take as a given that all three of these works are postmodern and explore what this might mean. The comparison of DeLillo to Pynchon has become rather widespread, but Mao IIspecifically presents the character of a hyper-reclusive novelist, Bill Gray, who may interestingly be compared to the real-life figure of Pynchon, whether or not we want to argue that Gray is “based” on Pynchon.1 The comparison with Jordan’s film rests principally on the way The Crying Game stages an encounter between a “terrorist” and a hostage that is not dissimilar from some of DeLillo’s meditations on this theme. As novelist Bill Gray travels, first to London, and finally to Lebanon, he seeks to engage the relationship he has theorized between novel-writing and “terrorism” through his own person. I want to argue that Gray (and maybe DeLillo as well) is fundamentally—and in Gray’s case, at least, fatally—mistaken in his view that equates the role of the novelist with that of the “terrorist.” As Jordan’s film carries this theme out, I think it becomes clear that the “terrorist” occupies a role more like that of the interpreter, and moreover, that this has something to do with our “postmodern condition.”

There is beginning to emerge a critical consensus that Thomas Pynchon “is perhaps the preeminent practitioner” of English-language postmodern fiction (McHale 1992: 83). I want to argue briefly in this context that this is at least in part due to the fact that Pynchon’s work deals with historical materials exactly defining the parameters of the rise of the United States to the status of the world’s only superpower, roughly that period from the end of World War II to the Persian Gulf War known from “our” point of view as the Cold War. Edward Said’s recent epoch-making work, Culture and Imperialism, argues for an ongoing reinterpretation of the canonical works of the modern European/American tradition based on an examination of the relationship between imperialism and culture. Twenty or thirty years from now, anyone’s first reaction to hearing the phrase “the Western tradition” will not be “Great Books” or whatever catchphrase is currently being pushed by the pundits in The New Criterion and elsewhere; it’s going to be (and for many of us already is): imperialism.2 Said’s approach is not to reject the works of the western tradition, but to reexamine them in light of these geopolitical realities for how they reveal “a structure of attitude and reference” (62). Whereas Said’s primary cultural analysis concerns texts produced at the height of colonial experience, Verdi’s Aida, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kipling’s Kim, I would argue that the same kind of analysis could be used to examine works by such “preeminent” figures as Pynchon and DeLillo for what they say about U.S. imperialism and its deep and intricate relations to American culture. Such an analysis, to be adequate to Said’s complexity, would clearly have to go beyond assigning terms implying value judgments, such as “progressive” or “pessimistic.”3 I want to begin to explore some of the outlines for such a discussion with regard to the work of Pynchon, especially Vineland, before examining how some of these same issues are worked out by DeLillo in Mao II.

Pynchon’s “big” book, Gravity’s Rainbow, principally concerns the time frame at the end of...

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