I can’t remember why I first picked up The Body Artist. I don’t think I’d ever heard of Don Delillo before – at least not that I was consciously aware of, I’m sure I’d seen his name before somewhere or other. That book, it must be said, hit me hard. I’ve since learned that it’s generally regarded as one of Delillo’s lesser works, but to me it was a perfect little unexpected treasure, and I began at once exploring the back catalog of this idiosyncratic American writer. I’ve only read a handful of his books, Underworld and Libra being the most significant. I found both of those novels to absolutely magnificent, yet lacking in some slight way. They contain some of the greatest writing I’ve ever seen, and yet…
Delillo is clearly a master of his craft, but none of the books quite seemed like the masterpiece he was so obviously capable of producing. I was sure, however, that if I kept reading his stuff, I would find it.
And now I have.
Mao II is a novel of startling power and transcendent vision. I’m not even quite sure how to talk about it. Reading it only once seems hardly enough to wrap my head around this magisterial construction. Like all of Delillo’s books, it feels like a novel meant to be studied and flipped back through over and over again. Unlike those other works of his, however, Mao II actually makes me want to read it again right away. It is a book which goes not from beginning to end but around and around in an endless circle; I felt compelled – feel it even now – to pick it up again and keep reading.
The story opens and closes with weddings, the first a mass cult nuptial in Yankee Stadium and the second a militarized shamble through terror-scarred Beirut. The journey between these two events is dense and circuitous and slippery. Our main character, and the connective tissue at the center of things, is a writer named Bill Gray, an author as famous as he is reclusive. He is a JD Salinger or a Thomas Pynchon, hidden away, insulated from the public eye as he bashes helplessly away at his shambling wreck of a novel. The opening event of the narrative proper concerns Bill Gray’s decision to allow a women to take his photograph. She comes to his house and takes pictures of him. They talk. She leaves. Yeah, it’s that kind of novel.
Mao II, and really all of Delillo’s work, is not terribly concerned with event. He is a ruminative sort of writer, far more interested with the deep down inner workings than the simple plot. In some of his books, this leaves the reader feeling a bit adrift. Not so here. Mao II is one of those ever-so-special books which is thrilling and exhilarating in its sheer power and in the scope and depth of its ideas. Most of the time the sort of book we’d call a “page-turner” is powered by the question what happens next? This one, however, is driven by something far more difficult to pinpoint. It’s more about how things happen.
Like I said, it’s difficult to talk about. The novel rushes from idea to idea, burning with a passion for discovery and awareness that seems almost too intense to bear. Images explode of the page, burning in the mind long after, like turning away from a bright light and seeing it still, seared into your eyes. It’s a book about novelists and terrorists, about connection, about commerce, about the world of western capitalism and it’s impact on the psyche of the human race, it’s a book about people, it’s a book about ideas.
I can’t recommend it to everybody. It’s not going to connect with you all the same way it connected with me. That said, if any of this catches your attention, you should read it. Don’t just borrow it, buy it, own it, study it. This is a special novel, it will come alive and speak to you if you let it.