Don DeLillo on the novelist and the terrorist

In Don DeLillo’s Mao II (1991), a novelist named Bill Gray is talking to a Maoist named George Haddad, who likens novelists to terrorists and revolutionaries like Mao Zedong. George claims that terrorists/revolutionaries and novelists both live outside mainstream society; he says that terrorists and novelists both “understand the secret life, the rage that underlies all obscurity and neglect.” In an increasing complex world, people seek order and coherent narratives (which accounts for endless conspiracy theories and cults), and novelists and revolutionaries offer it to them. But Bill Gray, who may be speaking for Don DeLillo at this point, rejects this argument. He says,

“Even if I could see the need for absolute authority, my work would draw me away. The experience of my own consciousness tells me how autocracy fails, how total control wrecks the spirit, how my characters deny my efforts to own them completely, how I need internal dissent, self-argument, how the world squashes me the minute I think it’s mine.”

Don DeLillo (1991). Mao II, p. 159

In other words, Bill Gray’s characters develop a sense of autonomy; once a fictional character is created and fleshed out, the author loses some control. The narrative gains a sense of direction or trajectory, and the novelist has to respect that sense of form.

Mikhail Bakhtin introduced the concept of heteroglossia–the diversity if languages within a single language or text. Serious novels have many voices interacting in a “carnivalesque” manner. The carnivalesque subverts traditional hierarchy and autocracy. The novelist cannot take full ownership of the narrative. The author doesn’t have absolute authority.

Bill Gray also argues that

“novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game. . . . What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.

[George replies] “And the more clearly we see terror, the less we feel from art.”

“Becket is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

[George:] “In societies reduced to blur and gut, terror is the only meaningful act. . . . Is anyone serious? Who do we take seriously. Only the lethal believer, the person who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed. The artist is absorbed, the madman in the street is absorbed and processed and and incorporated. Give him a dollar, put him in a TV commercial. Only the terrorist stands outside. The culture hasn’t figured out how to assimilate him.

pages 156-57

DeLillo explores a kind of post-literary world that is governed by images and simulacra. It is a world where few people read serious literature. Novelists no longer shape the way people think and see. Philip Roth said something similar–that the book cannot complete with the screen, and (in a 1960 essay) that American life had become stranger or more outrageous than fiction can ever be. When literature is no longer compelling, reading or viewing the daily news takes over–the realm of disaster and terrorism. But in Mao II, as the conversation go on, Bill says to George,

“Do you know why I believe in the novel. It’s a democratic shout. Anybody can write a great novel, one great novel, almost any amateur off the street. I believe this, George. Some nameless drudge, some desperado with a barely nurtured dream can sit down and find his voice and luck out and do it. Something so angelic it makes your jaw hang open. The spray of talent, the spray of ideas. One thing unlike another, one voice unlike the next. Ambiguities, contradictions, whispers, hints. And this is what you want to destroy.”

p. 159

Here is the Bakhtin’s heteroglossia–“One thing unlike another, one voice unlike the next . . .”

The novel as a serious art form cannot develop or exist in a totalitarian state or society founded on slavery; such a state or form of government will not allow it to exist. In such a society, there is no functionally differentiated art system.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.