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A novelist and the terrorists

MAO IIBy Don DeLillo

Viking, $19.95

Reviewed by James Kaufmann

Don DeLillo's novels are shadowy, mysterious, cryptic. Work your way through one of his psychologically arcane confections, and too frequently you have a sudden feeling that you missed a page or a scene or some kind of critical explanation. DeLillo's novels are quirkily plotted, the motivations of his characters insistently vague.

In a book like White Noise, where richly textured neuroses and paranoias fuse to perfection with appropriate forms of cultural malaise, the cryptic and the indeterminate work to form a genuinely great novel. Things do not work out quite so fortuitously, however, in DeLillo's latest novel, Mao II.

What is Mao II about? Well, at the center is a novelist, a famous novelist living in Salinger-esque seclusion, about whom myths swirl. This novelist, Bill Gray, is blocked, unable to write anything of quality, unable to attach meaning to much at all. He has an assistant, a controlling young man who keeps track of correspondence, manuscripts and the like; also living in this house is a young woman who sleeps with both men, and who once participated in a mass marriage at Yankee Stadium.

Into this setting comes Brita Nilsson, a photographer of writers who plans to make a portrait of Gray. Will her imagery find print and re-energize the myth surrounding Gray the writer, or will the portraits be simply another visual acquisition for Nilsson? She is a distinctly Sontagian (out of On Photography) figure.

Hard to say, and it hardly matters. For suddenly Bill Gray is gone, having fled from his seclusion to Beirut with the hope of helping a hostage being held by international terrorists. Gray's writing (and life) are going nowhere; will this dramatic act inject meaning into this artist's empty life?

It wouldn't do to answer these questions here (supposing, of course, that one could answer them), but it is fair to say that Mao II is grimly cryptic, ominous and difficult to follow as DeLillo takes Gray from nothingness into what is perhaps the most frightening arena of international politics _ the world of the terrorist. In this world, as DeLillo puts it, the language of value is "the language of being noticed." But the fact that a plot is murky does not mean that a writer does not, cannot, machine sentences with precision. DeLillo has always been able to turn a phrase. For example:

The signs for Mita, Midori, Kirin, Magno, Suntory _ words that were part of some synthetic mass language, the esperanto of jet lag.

She was thin-boundaried. . . . She carried the virus of the future.

The gashed hillside above Junieh was clustered with balconied buildings that looked red-fleshed in the early light.

This is one of the haunting secrets of our time, that we are willing to eat standing up.

People stood frozen in mid-motion, careful to remain outside the zone of infection.

This is DeLillo at his best, DeLillo on the verge of identifying the ineffable, of capturing the essence of what has been a vague suspicion, of fashioning sentences that themselves seem to contain multitudes. If only the sum of Mao II's parts was equal to the whole.

James Kaufmann teaches writing at the University of Iowa.