The Terrorist and the Novelist

Zachary Ngin, Book Critic

For decades now, Don DeLillo’s fictions have foretold all manner of disaster.

  In “Players” (1977), a character gazing upon the World Trade Center makes a stray remark: “That plane looks like it’s going to hit.” In “White Noise” (1985), a tabloid newspaper predicts, “members of an air-crash cult will hijack a jumbo jet and crash it into the White House.” On the cover of “Underworld” (1997), a lone bird flies in silhouette near the fog-shrouded Twin Towers.

  DeLillo has probed toxic waste, the nuclear specter, consumerism, financial collapse, political violence, and death itself. As Mark Binelli points out in Guernica, the adjectives once attached to his work are alienated or paranoid. Now, prophetic has taken their place.

 As we mark the 15th anniversary of 9/11, it’s an apt time to revisit “Mao II” (1991), which considers the connection between art and terror.

The book’s main character, a reclusive novelist named Bill Gray, is a prisoner of his own silence. After decades of seclusion, his public image swollen to godlike proportions, Bill allows a photographer to visit his house in the suburbs.

  “Sitting for a picture is morbid business. A portrait doesn’t begin to mean anything until the subject is dead,” Bill tells Brita, the photographer, who only shoots writers. “But you’re smart enough to trap us in your camera before we disappear.”

  Bill continues, “I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory.”

  Brita’s visit lures Bill from anonymity, eastward, towards the civil war in Lebanon. There, a terrorist group has taken a Swiss poet prisoner. Both writers are held hostage by our image-saturated world, one literally, one not.

  As the unnamed prisoner is held in a room, tortured intermittently, detached from all chronology, he yearns for language: “Only writing could soak up his loneliness and pain. Written words could tell him who he was.” But Bill Gray cannot bring himself to finish his latest book in a culture where “the withheld work of art is the only eloquence left.” As writers lament the death of the novel, DeLillo suggests that terrorists have taken their place as arch-individualists, the people who stand outside the culture’s mass mind.

 Crowds are the other great force in “Mao II. A homeless encampment, Khomeini’s funeral, the bustle of New York City. The fragmented crowd in front of TV screens, watching the news. DeLillo’s soaring language captures the near-spiritual dimension of these scenes. Here, a character observes a “Moonie” mass wedding: They’re forgetting who they are under their clothes, leaving behind all the small banes and body woes, the daylong list of sore gums and sweaty nape and need to pee, ancient rumbles in the gut, momentary chills and tics, the fungoid dampness between the toes, the deep spasm near the shoulder blade that’s charged with mortal reckoning. All gone now. The stand and chant, fortified by the blood of numbers.

  DeLillo asks, “when the Old God leaves the world, what happens to all the unexpended faith?.” His answer is the image, sustained by the ever-growing crowd of virtual onlookers. Mao II anticipates the digital age, when “nothing happens until it’s consumed.” At one point, a character is shocked to see “the dumbest details of her private thoughts” plastered on postcards and billboards.

 The power to influence mass consciousness once belonged to artists. Now, “only the terrorists stand outside,” DeLillo writes. “It’s confusing when they kill the innocent. But this is precisely the language of being noticed, the only language the West understands. … The way they dominate the rush of endless streaming images.”

 By the end of “Mao II,” Bill Gray has fled his life for Lebanon, and Brita is photographing terrorists instead of writers.

 It is easy to label DeLillo’s work as pro-violence or anti-American. A conservative columnist, George Will, described “Libra” (1988) as “an act of literary vandalism and bad citizenship.” But the new religion of terror that DeLillo so vividly depicts is strikingly similar to modern day.

  American culture glorifies terrorists and their victims. Gunmen and hijackers embody pure evil, a primal and immortal force. Their victims become martyrs on the altar of democracy. Both notions distort the human fact of all people. The war against terrorist organizations becomes a war between Good and Evil – a struggle without end.

  Don DeLillo’s language glorifies violence – as does the American obsession with terrorist attacks, natural disasters, foreign war. As DeLillo writes, “News of disaster is the only narrative people need.” Just turn on the TV.

 “Mao II” illuminates the inhumanity of anti-terror righteousness, the cruelty of our image obsession. And if the War on Terror is a war against images, we have reason to fear it will never be won.