"Me and Mao II"

A lecture given in March, 1993 by Tom LeClair at Case Western Reserve's annual "Discussion Day," when all the students in Continuing Education gather to discuss and hear a lecture about a single book.

"The future belongs to crowds."

That's the secret revealed in the prologue to Mao II.

What better secret: the future.

So the future belongs to you--a crowd. A small crowd as crowds in Mao II go, but still a crowd gathered in this public place.

There are different kinds of crowds in Mao II. At Yankee Stadium there are thousands on the field looking up to Rev. Moon and thousands in the seats, some looking down, some taking pictures, some at the edge throwing firecrackers. There are the crowds of mourners at Khomeni's funeral that Karen sees on TV, and there are the crowds of homeless she walks among in New York. Crowds follow Mao and crowds are killed in Tianamin Square. Three of the four photos in the novel are of crowds: people crushed against a fence at a soccer game, the spiritual Master Moon and his flock, Khomeni's giant photograph and his followers.

It's fair to say Mao II is crowded with crowds. They make me wonder what kind of crowd you are.

You're seated and silent, attentive, looking up, no one's throwing firecrackers. Not yet, anyway. I guess you've come to see and hear a Master. I've published two critical books: one on DeLillo's fiction, one subtitled "Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction." One epigraph of the latter is from DeLillo's novel Libra: "It is necessary to master the data."

The historical masters in Mao II are mysterious figures from afar. Mao withdrew to the North and made the Long March to prove himself. Khomeni came back from exile in France to lead the Islamic revolution. Rev. Moon was imprisoned in Korea before he became a Master in America. All had a powerful vision of the future.

To make Cincinnati seem far away, I drove here alone in a 20-year-old Volkswagen without a heater or a radio.

To make myself seem strange, I've shed my usual paisley tie and Harris tweed jacket for this work shirt and deck shoes.

A couple of nights ago I dreamed there would be 3,000 people here.

I'm not really the Master here.

My wife and I took the 40-minute flight from Cincinnati to Cleveland.

I'm just the Master's interpreter. In Mao II there are different kinds of interpreters, just as there are different kinds of crowds. The Masters were interpreters, Mao of Marx, Khomeni of Mohammed, Moon of Christ. Their data were texts, The Communist Manifesto, the Koran and Bible. We have Mao II.

In the novel there are public professionals and private confidants. Bill has Everson in New York, his caretaker Scott in his retreat. The Maoist Rashid has Haddad in Athens, his translator near him in Beirut. The outer circle paraphrases. The inner circle quotes and explains. "Quoting Bill," as Scott often says.

The title of my book on DeLillo is In the Loop. I did the first interview DeLillo gave. It was l979 and he was living in Athens at the time. I managed to get there and he handed me an engraved card that said "I Don't Want to Talk About It." But he talked. Some of what he said about the writer remaking himself in prose appears on page 48 of Mao II.

Not long after the interview, I wrote an essay for Horizon magazine on J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, and DeLillo, at the time all reclusive writers. The title of the essay was "Missing Writers." That phrase appears on page 99 of Mao II. My book was the first on DeLillo's fiction. It's probably only a coincidence that Bill Gray's caretaker has, like me, a French last name.

Since there's something of me in Mao II, I should be able to tell you something that you want to know about this book. But it's hard to know what a crowd wants, even a crowd of readers. I probably shouldn't think of readers as a crowd. You've read this book in solitude. You're all individuals, all with different experiences and different responses to Mao II. But the fact is, here you are together, a crowd.

Like crowds and Masters and interpreters, there are readers in Mao II. There is the crowd of Bill's fans, the letter-writers whose correspondence Scott organizes. Haddad is a reader who gets a chance to talk fiction and terrorism with Bill. Scott reads Bill's books, pursues him, and lives with him. Brita is a reader who gets her photos of Bill's innermost being, but even a person as sensitive as Brita checks her impressions with Scott the interpreter. And later she asks Rashid's interpreter a question. Brita likes to be sure of things, have matters resolved.

You don't need me to tell you the stories in Mao II are resolved. Bill Gray dies and his documents and texts survive. Karen and Scott are back together poring over the surviving photographs. Brita gets her picture and flash of illumination. It's only the hostage we're not certain about. Rashid's interpreter says he's been sold to the fundamentalists. Rashid is silent on the matter. So I suppose the text does have a secret.

Not even I can tell the future of the hostage.

If DeLillo were here, he could tell you. But he turned down your invitation. He doesn't make many public appearances. I can't tell you what he'd say about the hostage, but I can bare some secrets about this guy behind the books, behind the photo on the back flap. We were neighbors in Athens for some months. I accidentally rented an apartment on the same block. From my rear window I could look onto his back balcony. Around one o'clock in the afternoon, he would sit inside his apartment and stick his bare legs out into the sun. I could tell you other things but I'm a little nervous about rear windows. Two years ago I was living again in Athens and this time writing fiction. "The interviewers are writing novels" Everson says on page 101. Someone put a bullet through my back window. I wrote DeLillo about the incident. He said it was because I was writing a novel. I was a dangerous guy. He used the anecdote but not my name in the profile the New York Times Magazine did on him when Mao II came out. The profile was called "Dangerous Don DeLillo."

When DeLillo was writng Mao II, he asked me to go to Beirut with him. I wasn't interested, and he never went to Beirut.

Does that surprise you?

The crowd seems to be breaking up, nodding different opinions.

Does it make a difference where the author has been? Doesn't Mao II imply that we all have access to a glut of images, moving pictures and still photos. They're in the text.

Another thing: DeLillo has never been in Athens.

I see confusion now, uncertainty, consternation. I hear mumbling. I'm looking for firecrackers.

I said I interviewed him there, that we were neighbors.

What did I say about myself in Athens? That I had a bullet hole in my window, that I was writing fiction, and that DeLillo said I was dangerous.

Novelists are liars. Liars have secrets.

Would one fiction writer tell the secrets of another fiction writer to a crowd?

Would a lecturer pretend to tell secrets to a crowd?

Would a lecturer pretend to pretend to tell secrets to a crowd?

Can you imagine why?


I sure hope I get paid for this.

Now I'll tell you my secret.

These are the clothes I wear every day.

Now I'll tell you your secret.

You wanted to believe. You wanted to believe I might be a master with a message, could be an interpreter with a key, and was a confidant with a secret. Even when I admitted lying to you, you continued to believe.

It's not all your fault of course. DeLillo has set you up. It's a trick Philip Roth has used for years. When a novelist writes about the secret life of a novelist, the reader is primed for revelations. DeLillo doesn't deliver. Bill Gray dies before reaching his secret double Rashid.

Now I'll tell you why I've replicated the deception. Continuing education is a grand idea, the only kind of education. Discussion day is the perfect method, small crowds of discussants, many voices, the unresolved groups. But your gathering here to listen to a single authoritative voice speak about Mao II seemed to me to be inconsistent with what Mao II is and is about. You were ready to be hoodwinked, have the hood put over your head, hear a voice tell you what to think and do, be spoon fed. You wanted to be a crowd of hostages, a captive audience.

Now that you are no longer captive but a collection of voices speaking to yourselves your responses to this fiction you've been put in, you are like the fiction writer. Write down and collect and organize and revise your voices and you are like the novel.

Me, in comparison, standing here alone with only my one voice--I'm like the figure Bill Gray says his work in progress has become, "a neutered near-human dragging through the house, humpbacked, hydrocephalic, with puckered lips and soft skin, dribbling brain fluid from its mouth." (p. 55)

What I'll say in the future we have left is no secret. What I'll offer are some speculations based on reading Mao II a number of times. Of course, I can't forget DeLillo's other books. Mao II is his first about a novelist and is a kind of epilogue to his first nine novels, which I recommend to you. And I can't wholly ignore what DeLillo has said about fiction. But what I'll be saying you can and should test against your reading, your discussions, and, perhaps, your future readings of Mao II.

Near the end of his life, Bill Gray says the novel is a "democratic shout." I think he means two things by that phrase. One is that any individual in a democracy has the right to raise his or her voice. The other is that a novel is a collection of voices, not a chant or even a chorale but a discussion group, a small crowd of differences.

Bill has believed the novel should alter the consciousness of its time, should master readers. He complains that terrorists and television have usurped the novelist's power. But after Bill leaves his self-imposed isolation, hears others quoting him, and hears the voices of new people, he begins to change. He attempts to imagine the hostage and starts to write about this man from whom mind and voice are draining. Bill then redefines what the novel should do. The novel's function is not to achieve power but, quoting Bill, to put a character and meaning into the world, more voices. Bill's body fails him. He does not write a book about the captive Swiss poet.

I'd like to suggest that Mao II is the kind of book Bill has learned to write, a book of voices in which no single voice has dominance. The voices argue terrorism, the image, art, and other subjects without resolving them. Like other DeLillo novels, Mao II is circular in structure, looped. The marriage at the end in Beirut sends readers back around to the marriage that begins the novel.

Bill has claimed that novels should absorb our terror. Rereading, rehearing the voices, refocusing on crowds, masters, and interpreters, giving up our desire for some single revelation, we are not absorbed in some resolute quest as Bill is in his trip toward Beirut. We are not absorbed as crowds are by their master or their own passion. What I think is absorbed in this ambiguous text is the readers' terror of uncertainty. The text is uncertain. The novelist is uncertain. The secret of this text is that there is no secret that will dispel our uncertainty.

I said before that, as a crowd, you were like the novel and the novelist, multi-voiced. Now I want to claim that the novel and novelist are like each of us as individuals. According to cognitive scientists, consciousness is a crowd.

I'm speaking like an authority now. It may be time to get suspicious.

Check out Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. I've brought the cover in case you didn't believe there was a book with such a confident title. Dennett is a very prominent cognitive researcher at MIT. I don't have the time or understanding to explain much of what Dennett says, but his theory and those of other cognitive scientists are based upon the ways in which the brain simultaneously processes information.

He says there's no self, no central processor inside our heads. Our mental life is like changing coalitions in a crowd, like personal computers connected in a parallel processing network. One term for this collective selfhood is "pandemonium." It sounds like Beirut, doesn't it?

Dennett also calls his model the "Multiple Drafts" metaphor of consciousness. The human mind is like a novelist balancing and rebalancing the voices of his characters but disappearing in the process. Our minds work the way Bill Gray works on what he calls his "endless" work in progress. We might even think of him in his retreat as the action of consciousness served by two adjuncts: perception in the person of Karen, who imitates and thus reports voices from outside and memory in the person of Scott, who organizes and conserves Bill's drafts. Bill's problem is sealing himself inside, depriving himself of new voices for his work. When Brita tells him Everson wants to talk and when Brita reminds Bill of his body's desires, he bolts his retreat, and attempts to imagine the hostage.

Time out. Just in case you think all this stuff about balanced voices, number games, and brains is too wooly, I'd like you to know that DeLillo's ninth novel, Libra, takes its title from the astrological sign of scales, that his fourth novel, Ratner's Star, is based on the history of mathematics, and this his eighth novel, White Noise, is about brain research.

If Mao II is an epilogue, the novelist reprising his novels, then the text may be larger than you thought, even more uncertain than it seems.

But before you run off to buy all those other books, we've still got the problem of the hostage. We still don't know what happened to the hostage. We don't even know what he looks like.

The hostage thinks, when he still has mind to think early in the novel, that he has been abandoned by his government and his family but his name has become immortal in the loop of worldwide communication.

Bill thinks the hostage has been reduced to a body without a mind because the hostage has no way to write out the terror in his mind.

It's possible that the hostage has been reduced to a dead body and a photo of that body, yet to be released. We've seen photos like that. I remember a man blindfolded, hanging, some writing on his chest. I wondered why I was seeing that photo of a dead individual. I also wonder why we see the photo of a dead crowd in Mao II.

I think there's entirely too much seeing in this novel.

Bill reads the hostage's poems, sees himself in the hostage, and creates the hostage in his, the author's, image. This is what happened to Bill: Scott read his books, saw himself in them, and created Bill in his, the reader's, image.

Who is hostage to whom?

Brita talks to Bill a few minutes, shoots a bunch of photos, and thinks that she has captured some deep secret of his internal life. She goes to Beirut, takes the hood off Rashid's son, and steals his picture. What does she know about him now that she has captured him with her camera?

I've told you that I hear some of my words and some of the words DeLillo spoke to me in the novel, but I don't see myself there. Scott is a much younger man. I assume you don't see yourselves in the book.

But do you see the characters? Do you have an image of Bill Gray?

When I ask my students this question, most say yes. They can't believe me when I tell them I never picture characters, not even settings.

If you do, I'd like to suggest that whatever image you have of Bill Gray, for example, is based on very few words in the text. What you're probably visualizing is some composite figure built of your own perceptions and memories. So, in fact, you are seeing yourselves in the novel.

Seeing is believing.

In this case, seeing is believing you're not projecting yourselves.

If I'm right about this, the question arises: why do readers want to see themselves in books? Why do readers make up bodies that don't exist in books?

I think it's to hide from ourselves, hide from the voices in our minds and hide from our bodies. The multiple voices that crowd our minds and make us uncertain are hostages in a single body crowded with organs vulnerable to external violence, disease, decay, and accident. Our body has a future we can be certain about. This future is an open secret we attempt to conceal from ourselves.

Bill says totalitarian governments succeed if they can hide the bodies of their victims. But it's not just political groups who hide bodies. Individuals are maoists too.

Bill has changed his name from Willard Skansey, a bare-chested fighter. Bill has neglected wives and children to give total attention to his work. Now that it is exhausted, he thinks of it as a body. He says his biography will be the story of his body, the small changes he attempts to cover up with alcohol and drugs. Having given his life to his small body of work and a new book that he calls dead, Bill wants to surrender his body to Rashid.

Bill is not the first DeLillo protagonist to move toward self-destruction. A rock singer does it in Great Jones Street, a football player in End Zone, a spy in Running Dog, an archaeologist in The Names. Their withdrawals usually end ironically. Bill is hit by a car while looking the wrong way and dies of an ailment diagnosed by veterinarians, specialists in bodies without minds. When Bill is a corpse, no one will know who he is because the man cleaning the ship has taken his identifying documents.

Scott finds safety from his own mind and city life by becoming Bill's bodyguard.

Karen gives her body to Master Moon and her absentee husband, then to Scott, and then to Bill.

To soothe her own fear of flying, Brita tells herself she will die of a long degenerative disease. She says she wants to keep her body a childhood secret.

The real secret, though, belongs to crowds. Bodies gather together to become one powerful body reciting one powerful idea that will let them forget their uncertainty and their individual bodies. Millions of Maoists create a revolution. Thousands of Moonies chant the end of time. The Islamic revolution unites politics and religion. The crowds at Khomeni's funeral mourn the passing of a body. The Iranians beat their own bodies to keep the body of their Master from leaving. And then in their religious and political passion they expose the body of their leader. Even Masters have skinny legs.

Not all crowds achieve the power of certainty and forgetting for themselves. Not the homeless in New York. They are a true band of hostages, pure uncertainty about tomorrow's home, pure body in the layers of clothes they wear. They are the crowd we want to forget, not just because they indict our social and political and economic system but because they are bodies that cannot hide from themselves. Like us, they are readers but what they read, says Omar, is their own small space. They see themselves in themselves.

Are they homeless because they are crazy?

Or are they crazy because they are cannot get away from themselves?

They have the drugs Omar sells for temporary relief from themselves.

We readers have multiple means for almost permanent relief from ourselves.

In his first novel, Americana, DeLillo has a would-be novelist say he wants to be like a drug that bursts inside.

Mao II can do that to a crowd.

Or maybe it's just me.

One last secret about me. I never really dreamed I would speak to 3,000 cheering people.

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Last updated: 14-NOV-96