The American Pursuit of Loneliness: Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street and Mao II

by Mark Ireton

The protagonists of Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street and Mao II are famous men who have reached a point of severe tension between their legends and their private lives. In Great Jones Street, rock-star Bucky Wunderlick says, "Americans pursue loneliness in various ways" (19). This is not quite the same thing as pursuing isolation, because loneliness includes both the condition of isolation and an emotional longing to end that condition. To pursue loneliness is thus to look for a way out of society while keeping in mind, and yearning towards, a way to get back in. The characters in these two novels struggle in a world where privacy, and even their lives, are threatened by the invasive forces of greed, violence, bureaucracy, idolatry, and the voracious appetite of the news media. Bill Gray, the writer in Mao II, and Bucky Wunderlick are caught between a private life that does not satisfy and a public life that, although it gives no peace, is an intrinsic part of each man's being.

In an interview, DeLillo has stated that he did not give a sufficient commitment to some of his earlier novels. Instead, he says, "I set out to write because I had become anxious about the amount of time that had passed since I finished my previous book" (DeCurtis 65). If DeLillo did not fully develop Great Jones Street, some of this novel's unfinished ideas could have been carried over into Mao II. This may, then, be a case of rewriting an earlier novel; a new treatise on privacy in the media-world; an inquiry into Bucky's speculation on the aesthetics of the suicide of the famous man in a foreign city; and a new probing into the possibility that someone could "exist . . . nowhere, beyond the maps of language" (Great 12). A problem for the protagonist of each novel is that neither of them can escape the fame that comes from their art because each man has become absorbed into his art.

Because these issues of privacy run through so much of DeLillo's fiction, I will examine Great Jones Street and Mao II in conjunction with one another rather than make a simple compare-and-contrast. The ideas and problems that went into the making of both of these novels have not changed in the twenty years between them so much as they have been reexamined by DeLillo from a new perspective. Mao II is not the work of a writer who has changed his mind or come to a startling new insight, but rather it is a refocusing on the dilemma of choosing between success and simplistic anonymity. Bill Gray is haunted by memories and nightmares that come to him again and again. Perhaps DeLillo has been similarly haunted by this dilemma, and with Mao II he was ready to face it head on again.

Privacy does not always mean a physical removal from society. According to George Simmel, a sociologist during the rapid urbanization of the early twentieth century, isolation "involves the somehow imagined, but then removed, existence of society" (119). Isolation does not necessitate physical boundaries or spacial separation; it may just be a state of mind. For the artist, state of mind can be a powerful force. For the private person, the mind can be a world. And for the characters in Great Jones Street and Mao II, the inner privacy of the mind may be the only escape from the invasive forces at work around them. The seemingly impregnable hideaways in these novels are not perfectly safe: subjected to physical and electronic infiltration, the inhabitant of each retreat eventually abandons it. But for the various groups and individuals in these two novels, the conflict between fame and privacy often complicates their desire for---and even the possibility of---isolation.

Bucky Wunderlick has an elaborate retreat in the mountains, complete with recording studio, that is famously hard to get to. But that is part of the problem: it is famous. The mountain retreat appears in the novel only in flashbacks and in an "interview" for a teen magazine (part of the "Superslick Mind Contracting Media Kit" section) that is held at the mountain home before Bucky abandons the tour. In this interview, it is revealed, through the presence of Bucky's "ever-present aides," a "lady of the hour," an "intruder" breaching security (116), and the reporter herself, that Bucky is, even in his supposedly hidden retreat, always surrounded by people vying for his time, attention, and presence. The mountain has also ceased to be a home for Bucky. As he tells a reporter that shows up at the apartment on Great Jones Street, "It's really a studio-equipped mountain. . . . There is no house as such. There's the facsimile of a house" (24). Bucky's life and home have become dominated by the music industry and his fame. His fans and contract follow him everywhere.

In Mao II, the house of novelist Bill Gray is even more hidden than Bucky's mountain. "You're supposed to appreciate the maze aspects" (64) of the approach to the house, Bill says. Bill has never revealed the location of the house to anyone, not even his family and friends. The isolation is broken when Scott (an obsessed fan who afterwards becomes Bill's assistant) tracks Bill down after a long, ingenious search. And a few years after this, Scott, returning from a trip, brings home with him Karen, a young woman who is described as "a character out of Bill's fiction" (80). All during Bill's stay in this house, it becomes not just filled but actually overflowing into sheds with the literal incarnations of his fiction: all the editions of Bill's novels; books and articles about Bill and his novels; fan mail; and the boxes and boxes of the pages of Bill's never-to-be-finished third novel. Bill fears the outside world where he would be recognized, but his private life is filled with reminders of the reason for this fear.

Scott and Karen believe that, while living with and doing chores for Bill, they are helping him to do his work of writing. But it is also possible, considering that the only two novels Bill has published were written before the arrival of Scott and Karen, that their presence has actually restricted Bill's ability to write. If this is the case, it is probably not so much that their presence has interrupted Bill's isolation, but rather that they are, through their household roles, part of the entrapment of Bill into some of the various stereotypes of a reclusive writer who is suffering writer's block. Bill is nearly buried in the boxes of manuscript pages, an image implying that there is no escaping his novel and its failure. Charles Everson, Bill's friend and once-editor, even observes that, for the first time in his life, Bill looks like a "writer." Since Bill no longer needs to leave the house at all, he has less need to overcome the fear of exposure that keeps him inside, and so his entrapment deepens. Scott even limits Bill's choices in freeing himself by ordering him to go to his room to "do your work" (63). Scott and Karen want the third novel, as it is, to remain unpublished; but by voicing any opinion on the matter, and by being fans of his first two novels, they serve as reminders that there is an expectation for a novelist to publish. But the invasion that may be troubling Bill most is that of Scott into Bill's mind: it is assumed among all three housemates that Scott knows what Bill is thinking. The invasion into the mind is an assault upon the ultimate level of privacy. Bill does not reveal if he takes any pleasure in duping Scott with his unexpected disappearance, but Scott, definitely disturbed by it, says, "It's been a long time since he was a step ahead of me. Bastard" (117). As Bill becomes absorbed into his work and seclusion, Scott is absorbed into Bill's personality and ways of life. If Scott has become the more outgoing double of Bill's character, then when Bill leaves his home to travel, he no longer needs Scott, and their roles are reversed: Bill travels free and unknown while Scott stays home to guard the manuscript and the legend.

Bucky claims to be doing nothing at Great Jones Street, but The Happy Valley Farm Commune, an "earth-family" whose goal is "to return the idea of privacy to American life" (16) even if through violent and intrusive means, thinks that his nothing is "really something" (17). But this is not surprising to Bucky because he already assumes that his fans will think his disappearance from the tour to be not merely a withdrawal, but rather "a period of waiting. Either I'd return with a new language for them to speak or they'd seek a divine silence attendant to my own" (3). Unfortunately, Bucky becomes caught between the many groups and powers who expect something from him, and Bucky loses the power to choose his fate. Bucky is avoiding the music industry more than he is avoiding his fans, who, he says, "would come closer to understanding my disappearance than anyone else" (3). Not that Bucky feels any less of a threat from the public than does Bill, but Bucky feels that the threat is not about an attack by a crazed individual (as Bill does), but rather the fulfillment of an expectation implicit in Bucky's view of the audience-icon relationship: "Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame," he says, "is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide" (1). According to Bucky, the famous man "is sure to be destroyed by the public's contempt for survivors" (1). Bucky refers often to "facsimiles" and doubles; his audience can come close to understanding his withdrawal if they can see it as part of Bucky's art, as a facsimile of a suicide. But the impact of disappearance has a lesser effect than the effect of suicide: it is "not quite as total as the act they needed" (3). And so his audience and admirers follow Bucky in hopes of getting more.

Bucky escapes from the tour because, he says, "it became apparent that our audience wanted more than music, more even than its own reduplicated noise" (2). The fan-icon relationship had reached a point where not Bucky himself, but rather his fame, had become the object of fan attraction. "The true artist makes people move," says Bucky. "I make people move" (105). But Bucky the private man was becoming distanced from this: "The more I make people move, the closer I get to personal inertness. . . . I myself am kind of tired of all the movement and would like to flatten myself against a wall and become inert" (105-6). However, Bucky's "sound lifts them right off their ass" (105) and creates uncontrollable movement. Bill's situation, just before leaving his house, is remarkabley similar to Bucky's feeling of personal inertness and of culture having reached "a point of severe tension" (Great 2): Bill complains of being "trapped in his own massive stillness" (45), and of feeling the increasing pressure to make an appearance, in whatever form. Bill's blatant disregard for his health that leads up to his death in the Middle-East, although not exactly suicide, is somewhat of a fulfillment of Bucky's belief that his own suicide would be most instructive and authentic if it were done "in a foreign city" (2).

Fans of artists and performers like Bill and Bucky hunger for the release of new material and/or performances; but they also become interested in the artist--not necessarily personally, but just because the artist is the creator and thereby a part of the artistic product. As Bucky explains, while sitting inertly at the center of a party in his apartment, "I had little to say but was sure no one would mind. They already knew my voice. It was my presence they were eager to record, the simple picture of man-in-chair" (72). There is an obsession that attaches to art that can be transferred to the artist, thus absorbing the artist into their own art until the two are indistinguishable. DeLillo's choice of the word "record" in the above quote underscores the increasing lack of boundaries between Bucky's music and the rest of his life. An irony of the novel's ending is that after Bucky is silenced, his "presence" is no longer enough: visitors become rare. Bill also notices that he is being absorbed into his writing, but it angers him, and perhaps it even makes him jealous that his books should be doing better than he is. In response to Charles Everson's assurance that his new book would be printed on acid-free paper, the hypochondriac Bill says, "I'd just as soon have my books rot when I do. Why should they outlive me? They're the reason I'm dying before my time" (128).

A reason why fame can lead to suicide is found in the opening lines of Great Jones Street: "Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon" (1). These novels are less about excess itself and more about the human and cultural waste-products of this devouring neon. Almost every participant in the deals and maneuvering for the drug known as the Product in Great Jones Street comes from the world of entertainment, business, or both. The "edge of every void" and "extreme regions" (Great 1) are the domain of fame, where Bucky and Bill have both lived. The only way to escape from this "edge" is either by backing down or by going beyond that edge and entering the void itself. The struggle for privacy can be a struggle for survival, and death is sometimes the only means of survival. But to complicate matters, a celebrity's fame almost always increases dramatically upon his/her death. Death might free the famous man from his legend, but Bill's desire "to be forgotten" (216) is not so simple.

The pull towards fame and privacy are almost of equal force for Bucky. Towards the end of the novel, Bucky sits in his small room, expecting both a limousine to take him back to the tour, and an escort to Happy Valley. Despite knowing that Happy Valley intends to either silence him, via the Product, revealed by now to be a drug that destroys the speech-creating portions of the brain, or to kill him, Bucky does not flee. He waits to see who will arrive first. This inability to choose his own fate, and his inertness throughout most of the novel, could be the result of having been devoured by the neon of fame, and/or playing slave to his fame for so long that Bucky no longer is his own master. But when the silencing effect of the Product unexpectedly wears off, Bucky suffers what he calls a "double defeat, first a chance not taken to reappear in the midst of people and forces made to my design and then a second enterprise denied" (264). This second enterprise is the purity of wordlessness, "where all sound is silken and nothing erodes" (265), unlike his own life which is so "half-rotten with plague" that he is "not innocent enough for suicide" (244).

Bill's dilemma is either to follow the expectations of a writer and publish his third novel, or to resist these expectations and let the book be forever unfinished. The time for Bill to publish, like Bucky's time to return to music, is perfect: he is at the height of his fame, and he has been asked to make an internationally televised poetry reading, which would be an excellent promotional opportunity. And like Bucky sitting in his room waiting for the first arrival, Bill leaves the fate of his art in the hands of others by abandoning the manuscript at home and then leaving (and dying) without having left behind a will, written instructions, or anything to make it clear who has authority to determine the fate of the manuscript. As Scott puts it, "The night of the lawyers is approaching" (223). Bill's flight from the confinement of home is perhaps DeLillo's exploration into what might have happened if Bucky had fled. As it turns out, both novels end rather similarly: Bucky's babbling and child-like sounds, and Bill's hand-written pages about the hostage, are the private musings, never to be heard nor seen, of great artists.

In the beginning of Great Jones Street, Bucky chooses to retreat to Opel's apartment, rather than his mountain retreat, because the Great Jones Street room, which is barren and not a personal possession of his, better fits his credo "Least is best" (5), a key lyric from his most recent album. Bucky is mostly inert in his room. He has no musical instruments, does not write songs. He occasionally listens to a radio that gets poor reception. His unplugged-refrigerator is filled with albums instead of food, and he envisions his money sitting comfortably in a vault. But Bucky is pursued at Great Jones Street by fans, fellow musicians, reporters, and he is drawn into the underground world of dangerous dealings for the Product. Bucky sends away offers of sex and drugs, refuses to even look at music contracts, and is rather passive to the rest of the world. But, proving that it is impossible to completely ignore the outside world, Bucky's passivity in response to requests for action, by Hanes and Dr. Pepper, results in their revenge against Bucky and his subsequent capture by Happy Valley. Bucky's inability to escape from the music industry is also made apparent when he discovers that the building in which he is staying has recently been purchased by Transparanoia, his music publishing and investment conglomerate.

Bucky's downstairs neighbors are the Micklewhites, and woman and her deformed, mute, almost vegetative son. The Micklewhite boy is able to drive away the savage thugs known as the "dog-boys" from the apartment without making any action: his repulsive, disturbing appearance is enough. Bucky is both afraid of and feels "an unsettling lunar pull" (162) towards the boy. The attraction seems to be due in part to Bucky's desire--which is Micklewhite's natural ability--to drive away instead of attract others. And the "embryonic beauty" (161) of Micklewhite, whose dreaming somehow creates strange sounds, is the speechless but not soundless condition towards which Bucky moves throughout the novel.

"A telephone that's disconnected, deprived of its sources, becomes in time an intriguing piece of sculpture" (31), observes Bucky, in one of his philosophical chapter openings, sounding less like a rock-star and more like the guru-on-the-mountain that his visitors to Great Jones Street think him to be. Like the disconnected phone in his room, Bucky is becoming "an object rather than an instrument" (31) by withdrawing from his audience and music. Bucky is enraged when his manager, Globke, has the phone turned back on. Globke of course wants to reconnect Bucky's sources, to make him a musical and money-making "instrument" again. But to the Happy Valley Farm Commune, Bucky has become their ultimate symbol, even legend, of privacy: the famous man who, at least as far as Happy Valley is concerned, has left his fame behind. Accordingly, when Bucky decides to return to the world of his fame, Happy Valley stops him.

Withdrawal from the world has made Bill somewhat abstract: known more by reputation than first-hand contact, Bill is more a man of his letters than just a man. Scott frequently punctuates his own dialog with the phrase, "Quoting Bill," as if "Bill" were a text. To his daughter, Bill is "the Mythical Father" (113). To Charles Everson, chairman of a new committee on free expression, and Abu Rashid, head of a new terrorist organization that has kidnapped a poet, Bill has become the ideal promotional tool for these new organizations. Both groups want to hold a press conference in which Bill will read some of the hostage's poems, and the organizers will announce the freeing of the poet. But the main concern of both groups is self-promotion, and Bill's role is to be much like that of the retired celebrity who pitches a product in a television commercial: nobody wants his thoughts, just the aura of his fame while he reads somebody else's words. Everson even tells Bill, "There's an excitement that attaches to your name" (99). Perhaps the reason why Bill, after a break-down occurs in negotiating a site for the talks, continues on his own quest to personally find the poet and the captors can be summed up in a statement by Bohack, the main enforcer of Happy Valley, in discussing with Bucky how they are going to kill him: "You have to teach by example, Bucky. Otherwise you're just a salesman" (244).

In an article referred to in Mao II, Tom LeClair writes, "There are dangers in not talking, paradoxes of reclusiveness. Revulsion for publicity creates publicity" ("Missing" 52). Bill and Bucky certainly suffer from this. According to an ABC reporter trying to interview Bucky, "The less you say, the more you are" (128). And as Scott puts it, "Bill gets bigger as his distance from the scene deepens" (128). With this increasing distance comes increasing pressure to appear, and increasing paranoia that the followers will eventually catch up. "Fleeing public life," according to LeClair, "the writer may be unable to imagine it except as a source of paranoia" ("Missing" 52). Bill even refuses to read his fan mail except for the letters from "jerk-water towns and junctions, wide places in the road" (184), because he believes that his fiction can only be truly appreciated by those individuals who might understand reclusiveness.

Followers of a famous person may see, in the withdrawal of that person, a challenge to follow. Bill used to dread that because of his seclusion in his house, "some lonely young man might see a mission here. There were the camera-toters and the gun-wavers and Bill saw barely a glimmer of difference" (197). Scott was not the assassin or reporter Bill had been expecting, but he did track Bill down, and he was enjoying the challenge of it: upon finally discovering the approximate whereabouts of Bill, Scott "was not necessarily relieved to learn that Bill was only hours from New York" (59).

One of George Simmel's explanations for the attraction of secrecy is that "the strongly emphasized exclusion of all outsiders makes for a correspondingly strong feeling of possession" (332). This may account for the strong sense of pride Scott feels in being the caretaker of Bill's unpublished novel and in "keeping the secret of [Bill's] name" (185): Bill Gray's original name is Willard Skansey. Even this change to a less conspicuous name reflects upon Bill's reclusive nature: a more common first name, and a last name that is the color of non-color, of non-being. Inspiration for Bill's last name may even have come from Great Jones Street, in which Fred Chess, the resident scientist of Happy Valley, explaining to Bucky that true privacy is "an inner state," says, "We're painting this whole floor of the building a dark gray" (252-3). And, as Bill explains, his mystique even has the quality of religious devotion: "The writer who won't show his face is encroaching on holy turf. He's playing God's own trick" (37). Charles Everson refers to his own silence to the media about Bill over the years as "keep[ing] the faith" (117).

Bill and Bucky are both victims of fan and media interrogations. They are expectated to reveal details of their personal and professional lives. An ABC reporter tells Bucky that the media "make demands on you not because we're media leeches of whatever media but frankly because proportionate demands are being made on us. People want words and images" (128). Because part of the attraction of fame is the desire to possess someone else's secrets, be they meaningless or not, visitors ask Bucky to comment on rumors that, in light of being in his presence at the time, are obviously false (e.g. that Bucky is dead or in another city). What these visitors want is to know Bucky's own secrets, not secrets or thoughts about him. Karen's rebuttal to the frenzy for secondary output from artists is, in response to photographer Brita Nilsson's confession that she is more interested in writers than photography, "why don't you stay home and read?" (56). Ironically, Scott and Karen have benefitted from Scott's pursuit of his hero outside the realm of his novels: they are the only two "fans" to have had the chance to read Bill's third novel.

Using Simmel's terminology, Bill increases his possession of secrets by leaving behind more and more people while journeying to Beirut: fewer and fewer people know where he is, what he is doing, or even who he is. Bill and Bucky are securing the secrets of their art and lives, while simultaneously withdrawing from their fame by removing themselves from the attention of fans and media. Charles Everson is extremely interested in Bill's unfinished third novel, but Bill's new writing project, describing the situation of the poet, is Bill's secret. This secret intact, one of Bill's dying thoughts is that he wants "devoutly to be forgotten" (216). He is not forgotten, but the unknown manuscript is lost. This is perhaps a dying joke, even a victory, for Bill: the public wants the man and the myth, but Bill's final writing, which is what matters most to Bill, remains as unknown as Bill would have liked himself to have been.

Telecommunications technologies have the power to link distant places, breaking the isolation imposed by physical separation without making any physical contact. There is a contradiction in this sort of feigned connection, and particularly so with the answering machine, which further distances telephone conversation by reducing it to a one-way transaction with both time and spatial separation between sender and receiver. Bill describes talking to Brita's answering machine as, "a new kind of loneliness . . . the loneliness of knowing I won't be heard for hours or days. . . . Home is a failed idea. People are no longer home or not home. They're either picking up or not picking up" (91-2). This is true: Brita is home while Bill is leaving this message--until the "machine cut him off" (93). The relationship between novelist and reader is also a one-way, delayed transmission of words. Shortly after making this realization about the "loneliness" of answering machines, Bill leaves the solitude of his house, and his third novel, for good. And when he is gone, his communications are entirely person-to-person. His refusal to let anyone know exactly where he is staying may not be because he fears being followed or confronted, but rather it could be a way to make it impossible for anyone to reach him by phone. Bill's daughter, upon his unannounced visit, wonders why he didn't call first.

Another form of isolation, according to Simmel, is "an interruption or periodic occurrence in a given relationship between two or more persons" (119). Artistically, Bill interracts with the public whenever they pick up and read one of his novels. Bill calls talking to an answering machine "a new kind of loneliness" (91), but it is really just a freer form of the periodic relationship of novelist-to-reader: Bill is able to select his audience individually and when he wants, and he has the freedom to ramble and change topics rather than create a cohesive narrative. While leaving his message, Bill four times says, "but that's not why I'm calling" (91-2). He also knows that his message will soon be "buried under many new messages" (92) and lost, unlike his books. Because Bill's novels will last longer than he will, they have gained a greater importance than Bill, as is evident in the greater concern shown by Scott and Karen for the fate of the unfinished manuscript than about Bill's safety after his disappearance. Scott's thoughts about Bill have mainly to do with Scott's projected role for himself in the triumphant return he assumes Bill will make.

Bill says, while and about talking to an answering machine, "there's no sense of a listener, not even the silences a listener creates, a dozen different kinds, dense and expectant and bored and angry" (92). Bucky communicates to his listeners through his albums in the same one-way manner as the novelist to reader, and the speaker to an answering machine. But in concert, there is an exchange between performers and audience, the silences of the perfomers being filled by the reaction of the crowd. When Bucky foresees a time when his concert-audiences will stop making noise, and instead just pantomime, he is seeing a time when the concert is the same as the album: no real listener, no exchange. LeClair writes, "in the communications loop, even silence is a message, the message that there is no message" (In the Loop 102-3). The silence of the audience would show that they have no message for Bucky who, although he flees his public life, is to the end addicted to fame. And so he derails his course to prevent a time when no one would want to communicate with him. Bucky tries to block the influx of communications for a while, but he knows that many people still want to get through to him. Perhaps Bucky and Bill leave their communications loops, of which each man is the source, before their audience cuts them from the loop. This leaving could be, in terms of the opening paragraph of Great Jones Street, the best form of survival: an escape from the "devouring neon" of fame or the pathetic fate of "waning statesmen or chinless kings" (1).

Charles Everson tells Bill, "You're not the hermit, the woodsman-writer. . . . You're the hunted man" (102). Bill's escape into cities provides him with the advantage of not being in the same place long enough for the "hunters" to find him, as well as of often being where no one would think to look for him at all. But even Bill's quest for anonymity in foreign lands, an unexplored avenue of thought begun in Great Jones Street, is complicated as he becomes a target for Rashid's terrorist group, who believe they could do better with a writer that is more famous than the Swiss poet they already have. This contradictory nature of Bill's journey---travelling, in hopes of escape from fame, towards the terrorist who would love to hold Bill hostage and use him as an international bargaining chip---is reflected in Bill's writings about the poet, which Bill thinks "showed an element of conflict . . . and he realized in the end he wasn't thinking about the prisoner" (215), but instead Bill was thinking about himself.

George Simmel claims that the "feeling of isolation is rarely as decisive and intense when one actually finds oneself physically alone, as when one is a stranger . . . among many physically close persons" (119). An immediate hint at this in Great Jones Street is Bucky's reference to the audiences at his shows as "Our followers, in their isolation" (2). When Bucky arrives in New York City at the start of the novel, he is looking (as much as he has any intentions) for the kind of isolation that will allow him to be able to conserve himself "for some unknown ordeal to come" (19). But perhaps he cannot get it because his situation only fits half of Simmel's formula: he is surrounded by people in New York City, but he is not a stranger to them. People recognize him when he goes shopping, and his neighbors know who he is before he meets them. Another problem for Bucky is that the apartment itself, like the mountain retreat, is just another form of spatial isolation: a known, fixed location, in which Bucky spends enough time that rarely does a visitor need to wait to find him there. The only essential differences between the mountain and the apartment are that the apartment is much easier to get to and, lacking the security guards, into, than the mountain house. Bucky even advises visitors to kick in the door if nobody answers their knock.

At the end of Great Jones Street, Bucky says that he is "living among traceless men and women, those whose only peace was in shouting ever more loudly. Nothing tempted them more than voicelessness. But they shouted" (263). He contrasts this to those who commute out to "the bourns and orchards, there to be educated in false innocence, in the rites of isolation," where they live in a "dreamless sleep, [and have] no need to fear the dare to be exceptional" (262). As a performer, Bucky must accept this dare. According to Chess, this isolation of the suburbs is "the wrong kind of privacy, the old privacy, never again to be found" (252). Bucky longs for innocence and privacy, but all his options are wrong. A better option for Bucky would be for his life to not be exceptional. The much-traveled Opel says, "too much travel simply isolates people. It narrows them. It makes them boring" (55). It could be that this idea from Great Jones Street was carried over into Mao II when Bill travels to escape from his fame. Bill is isolated in his travels, and a "boring" person does not attract the attention that an "exceptional" person, like Bucky or Bill, does. Bill's corpse is treated as just another dead traveller. Travelling creates a nowhere existence for Hanes, the Transparanoia office boy and "Wunderlick-in-exile" (42) who, after travelling for months, says, "I've been through so many time zones I'm almost bodiless" (210). Bucky is not able to find this transparency, perhaps because Bucky is the maker of music, whereas Opel and Hanes are only listeners. The music itself can exist without Bucky, but Bucky cannot exist without the music.

In urban crowdedness, individuals have attained techniques for keeping privacy that before were only attainable through spatial isolation (Simmel 337). There is a need for increasingly complex and effective means of achieving privacy in order to outmatch the greater challenges to privacy in the nearly constant human contact of urban sprawl. But the city also provides some of these methods through the confusing and numbing effects of so much human contact. In describing the ability of a New York City office worker to partially change her clothing while sitting on a busy sidewalk, Molly O'Neill claims that bystanders "have learned not to look," and that the individuals performing in public these "private" acts are able to "spin a chrysalis of privacy around themselves. It's an aura. It's an attitude. If properly assumed, a bubble of privacy allows one to perform brazen acts politely." The inner-privacy that Chess promotes in Great Jones Street, combined with changing standards of etiquette, turn an act of would-be individuality into "Just another New York moment" (Mao 20), such as when browsers in a New York City bookstore carefully keep their "eyes averted" (20) from a derelict who has wandered in.

DeLillo, LeClair writes, "guards his private life, not to withdraw from the world, but to move transparently within it" ("Missing" 51). This is the essence of the privacy gained through being lost in the crowd: having complete freedom of movement and, at the same time, anonymity. Dr. Pepper is a master of disguise, and in disguise he even interacts twice with Bucky before they officially meet. The drawback to using disguise to gain transparency is that Pepper gains a reputation for it, thus becoming famously elusive in the same vein that isolated retreats can be famously hard to get to. Perhaps it is the same feeling of challenge and intrigue that draws fans to seek out famous recluses that makes Bucky briefly suspect that Chess is actually Pepper-in-disguise, despite the irreconcilable differences in appearance and circumstance between Pepper and Chess.

Bill and Bucky both seem to have obtained this transparent freedom at the end of each novel: Bill wanders where almost nobody knows that he is famous; and Bucky (as far as anyone knows) has lost the voice that was his claim to fame. The derelict in the bookstore at the beginning of Mao II foreshadows Bill's anonymous end by claiming to be a famous author, and by having the filthy and torn clothes, and the retched and bruised body, which closely matches the appearance of Bill Gray's corpse. Another foreshadowing of Bill's death occurs in New York when the guard at Everson's publishing house must convince Scott that Bill is not "lying dead in the elevator. Eternally riding. A warning to us all" (116): riding up and down like the motion of the waves while he is on the boat, and the "warning" being akin to the "successful piece of instruction" (Great 2) that Bucky thinks suicide can be. Bill's successful disappearance into the anonymity of urban crowds is so complete that after his death, a looter has no interest in "the things in the bag" (217), which includes Bill's final manuscript. Instead, the looter only wants Bill's "passport and other forms of identification . . . which he could sell" (217). Bill's name still has market value, but it is not exceptional.

Until star-status or some act of notoriety has been achieved, nearly all people have this transparency of movement whether they want it or not. Star-status is not even necessarily based directly upon accomplishment, as evidenced by Eddie Fenig who, in his first meeting with Bucky, says that, despite having "been published and/or produced" in nearly every form, "nobody knows me from shit" (19). The initial impact of Bill Gray's two thin novels was slight; "It's the years since that have made him big," Scott says. "Bill gained celebrity by doing nothing" (52).

Weddings in literature often have meanings of social and cultural unions, beyond just two lovers. DeLillo frames Mao II with two weddings that provide opposite meanings. The mass marriage of Moonies in Yankee Stadium, which opens the novel, is a scene of fascist assimilation of individuals, and individualism, into a unified whole; literally, "From a series of linked couples they become one continuous wave" (3). But the wedding at the end of the novel in Beirut, where there is supposed to be nothing in anyone's thoughts but Beirut itself, is a transcendence of individuals in the harsh face of the assimilation brought on by war. Douglas Keesey writes, "In Mao II, Bill Gray fought to preserve his memory of baseball as an emblem of individual freedom within community" (200). This failure of individualism in Yankee Stadium is redeemed in Beirut: a graffiti-covered tank performs "a smutty honeymoon joke" (240) and escorts a party of defiant revelers, individuals of a renegade community within a larger community, in a city that seems to be otherwise enslaved by war.

The piece-by-piece introduction of Happy Valley into the novel is from the outside of the group inwards. The closer the narrative gets to the center of Happy Valley, the more the group is revealed to center not around inner-privacy, but actually around chaos. Skippy, the child-like dealer, is Bucky's first contact with Happy Valley and the Product. Bucky's reunion with her at the end of the novel, and his reeducation in speech by "stud[ying] words" (263) like a child would do, is a return to the simplicity and innocence that he might have had at Great Jones Street if he had not been a center of attention. After all, Bucky's early description of the room is that its "tensions were suitable to few enterprises besides my own, that of testing the depths of silence. Or one's willingness to be silent. Or one's fear of this willingness" (25). But Bucky's fame made those enterprises highly unlikely, even impossible. Bill, in reminiscing about his younger days in New York City before going into seclusion, says, "Remember literature, Charlie? It involved getting drunk and getting laid" (122). Bill's last night alive, an "episodic course of a long night among strangers in a distant city" (211), is spent getting drunk and seducing a woman: a return to the simple pleasures of his younger days. Each protagonist attempts to move back in time to before they were famous; to preempt their fame.

The overall movements of the protagonists of Great Jones Street and Mao II are from close interaction with followers and strangers in urban settings, to secluded isolation, and then finally back to crowds, but this time in attempted anonymity. The journey to fame, like the subways to "false innocence" (262) at the end of Great Jones Street, is one-way and not easily controlled. Bucky and Bill are put on that trip. Having half-heartedly acquiesced to going back out on tour, Bucky sums up his despair by saying, "I'm tired of my body. I want to be a dream, their [the fans'] dream." To which retired Rock-star Watney responds, "You have to die first" (231). Watney recommends suicide, but in his explanation of the required guidelines to a proper and effective suicide, he gives Bucky reasons not to do it: "You have to die all at once," Watney says. "None of this gradual wasting away of the middle classes" (231). Here, Bucky, as an artist who adheres to esthetics at all times, has already failed because he has been wasting away since before he arrived at Great Jones Street. Watney also tells him that suicide "means little unless it reverberates to the sound of power" (231). Here, Watney not only tells Bucky that he has no real power, but he also gives Bucky a way to finally separate himself from his fame without creating more fame in the process: if Bucky removes himself from fame and at the same time removes his sound, the withdrawal will lack meaning and so will not attract attention.

Albert Camus, writing about how the famous person has two characters, his own and the one society thinks he has, describes the suicide of a certain famous man as that man having "hanged himself twice, once for himself because he was unhappy, and a second time for his legend, which now helps some people to live" (156). Suicide may be the "final inward plunge" (Great 243), but the legend does not necessarily go down with the life. What Bucky wants to be able to do is escape his hounding fame without dying for it. He is "interested in endings, in how to survive a dead idea" (3-4), such as his life has become: the point of his existence is no longer his living so much as it is the perpetuation of his fame which seems to no longer need him. When Bohack is plotting Bucky's "suicide" he plays right into what will further Bucky's fame. Bohack says, "The perfect suicide is when people know you're dead on one level but refuse to accept it on a deeper level" (243). Bucky convinces him that suicide is "not the best" (243) answer. The best answer is silence via the Product, which silences the man and the legend. Happy Valley wants a hero who is willing to walk away from his legend. A silenced Bucky would be a man who ripped the legend right out of himself, thereby not having so great an impact in helping some people to live, as is evidenced by the drop-off in visitors to Great Jones Street. Bohack says that a suicide in a foreign city always leaves some doubt, and doubt leads to greater interest as journalists and people-in-the-know scurry for answers and details. DeLillo chooses to end Mao II with the lingering doubt of Bill's death to fuel the interest in the third novel. But Mao II also ends with a fan moving beyond the legend of an artist: once chided for her secondary interest in writers, Brita Nilsson stands on a balcony toasting the wedding party, noting the flash of a camera in the distance without touching a camera herself, and with no mention of Bill.

At the end of Great Jones Street, Bucky states, "At the edge of every disaster, people collect in affable groups to whisper away the newsless moments and wait for a messenger from the front" (254). Disaster has an appeal similar to that of fame, but it is also something into which even the interested observers tend to not want to venture. Beirut is filled with violence and death, but it is pointed out that New York City, with its construction-dynamiting that appears in both Great Jones Street and Mao II, can be "just like Beirut" (Mao 173). And so with the shedding of the vehicles of their fame--voice and typewriter--and the immersion into the chaos of crowds and explosions, Bucky and Bill, although they are not able to eliminate their legends, are able to elude them and find the privacy of not being noticed. But because of the ambiguities of the endings of both novels, in which Bucky ponders an eventual return to the world of fame, and in which Bill dies but his third novel, which perhaps was left behind as a distraction to cover his escape, is coveted for release, it seems that even after the twenty years between the two novels, DeLillo is still not convinced of any one solution to the quest for the combination of fame and privacy, if a solution does exist.


Works Cited

Camus, Albert. "The Enigma." 1950. Trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy. Lyrical and Critical Essays. New York: Vintage, 1970. 154-161.

DeCurtis, Anthony. "'An Outsider in This Society': An Interview with Don DeLillo." Introducing Don DeLillo. Ed. Frank Lentricchia. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. 43-66.

DeLillo, Don. Great Jones Street. New York: Penguin, 1973.

---. Mao II. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Keesey, Douglas. Don DeLillo. New York: Twayne, 1993.

LeClair, Tom. In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

---. "Missing Authors." Horizon Oct. 1981: 48-52.

O'Neill, Molly. "No Peeking Zone." The New York Times Magazine 14 Nov. 1993: 65.

Simmel, George. The Sociology of George Simmel. 1908. Trans. Kurt H. Wolff. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1950.

Back to DeLillo's America

Last updated: 03-MAR-98