Pathologies of the Public Sphere

  • Jeremy Green


Nowhere in the fiction of the 1990s does the figure of the blocked writer appear more vividly than in Don DeLillo’s Mao II.1 Bill Gray, DeLillo’s supremely reclusive novelist, has spent 22 years on a book he finds himself unable to finish. His dissatisfaction with the text over which he has labored so long is only in part aesthetic; something in the culture at large, from which he has done everything possible to insulate himself, undermines his faith in the novel—the particular novel he is trying to complete, and the novel in general. It is not that he lacks readers. Indeed, he supports himself and his two assistants on the royalties from his two earlier novels, now classics. He still receives mail from his readers, and is well aware that the release of portrait photographs will cause a stir throughout the world of letters. Bill Gray’s self-imposed isolation has guaranteed that his fame, rather than diminishing in the years since his last publication, has grown precisely because of the mystique of his reclusive anonymity. Yet, all of this provides Bill Gray with confounding evidence of the writer’s loss of cultural authority. Bill’s fame had its beginnings in his writing. But in the last decade of the century, it derives from his refusal to participate in the media culture he considers entirely dominant. As Bill sardonically observes, “When a writer refuses to show his face, he becomes a local symptom of God’s famous reluctance to appear” (36). His cultural recognition is in inverse proportion to his visibility. This equation tells Bill that the writer’s place is now inextricable from iconicity, from the power of his image—or the absence of his image—as a signifier in the circuits of an all-pervasive commercial culture.


Public Sphere Collective Identity Convenience Store Small Room Serial Killer 
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    In his essay about the Kennedy assassination, “American Blood: A Journey Through the Labyrinth of Dallas and JFK,” Rolling Stone (December 8, 1983): 24, DeLillo makes a similar point about the actions of John Hinckley and the Secret Service men assigned to protect President Reagan: “Hinckley sees the act on television even as he commits it. (As do, conceivably, the Secret Service men, judging by a certain choreography of gesture that day in Washington, a self-conscious flourish of cocked weapons, as though the documentary history of the shooting was already running though the minds of one or two of the men on the scene.)”Google Scholar
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© Jeremy Green 2005

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  • Jeremy Green

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