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Mao II

What role does the novel play in a world where electronic information is everywhere and immediately available? Have the constant images of disaster and terrorism in the news changed the way people relate to information, imagination, and each other? Don DeLillo's Mao II (1991) asks these questions. It pays particular attention to the role of the novelist in a world that is saturated with messages and images of catastrophe and destruction.

Mao II Summary

As DeLillo's tenth novel, Mao II (1991) extends the themes from his previous work on the media and violence. He considers the ways that individual identity has changed with growing political instability. The novel has four sections: a prologue titled "At Yankee Stadium," Part One, Part Two, and an epilogue titled "In Beirut."

"At Yankee Stadium"

Mao II, A photograph of the Holy Marriage Blessing Ceremony, StudySmarterThe Holy Marriage Blessing Ceremony, July 15, 1982. Wikimedia.

Mao II opens with a mass wedding in New York City's Yankee Stadium among members of the Unification Church. 21-year-old Karen Janney walks among the procession of 6,500 couples who are getting married in the Blessing Ceremony, which is officiated by the group's charismatic leader, Sun Myung Moon. Karen’s groom is a Korean man, named Kim Jo Pak, who speaks no English, and had only met Karen a few days before the ceremony with the help of an interpreter.

Sun Myung Moon is a real-life figure and leader of the Korean Christian group known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (also called the Unification Church). After moving to the United States in the early 1970s, Moon achieved international notoriety as a charismatic leader of an international group, and he claimed to be the second coming of the messiah. He dictated the details of the daily lives of his followers, choosing his follower's marriage partners by photograph, and marrying them in mass wedding ceremonies, called Holy Marriage Blessing Ceremonies. The Unification Church members are referred to as "moonies."

All of the members in the mass wedding appear in a trance under Moon's presence, and Karen's parents, Rodge and Maureen, look on in horror as their daughter is caught in a cult-like network of belief that is obsessed with the end of the world. Rodge scans the crowd of 13,000 brides and grooms for Karen through a pair of binoculars. He is unable to locate her, as the ceremony has emptied each person of their individuality.

They know [Master Moon] at the molecular level. He lives in them like chains of matter that determine who they are. This is a man of chunky build who saw Jesus on a mountainside." (Prologue)

The prologue ends with Mao II’s most quoted line, setting up the novel’s primary theme: crowds.

The future belongs to crowds." (Prologue)

Mao II, Sun Myung Moon circa 1995, StudySmarterSun Myung Moon c. 1995, Leader of the Unification Church. Wikimedia.

Part One

Mao II’s second section concerns the aging writer Bill Gray's decision to stop writing novels and pursue a more active role in world politics. Bill has only written two novels—both of which have reached immense popularity––and he is a well-known recluse. He is more of a myth than an actual person.

Bill Gray’s reclusiveness, low writing output, and his mythic persona are deliberate references to the generation of writers that directly preceded DeLillo in the late-Modernist and early post-WWII era. In a documentary, DeLillo claimed that one of the original inspirations for Mao II was a photograph of J. D. Salinger—a reclusive writer of the same period—who is most famous for The Catcher in the Rye (1951).1

In the West, modernism is a well-known cultural and philosophical movement of the first half of the 20th century. The precise meaning of the term is highly contested among critics and historians, but in literature, modernism is the name given to a group of writers from roughly 1900-1950 who were interested in industrialization, urbanization, and the increasing speed at which the world seemed to be moving.

It was meant to represent the language of thought and attention. Modernist artists and critics focused on the sharp division between high art (which was considered challenging, educational, spiritually valuable, and morally redemptive) and mass culture, often called "pop culture" (which was considered base, corrupting, and in the service of money). Popular modernist writers were T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett.

Bill is being photographed by the photographer Brita Nelson, a vaguely foreign photographer who has been developing a series on writers—specifically focusing on writers who attempt to maintain privacy. While being photographed, Bill speaks to Brita about how the culture has changed, and why he is having a crisis of faith in his work as a novelist. He believes that novels no longer carry the cultural weight that they once did, and that novelists no longer have the ability to change the culture because the news media carries the urgency that novels once had.

Bill claims that the terrorist has now replaced the novelist as the lone figure who stands outside of the culture, assaulting it from an external point.

The novel used to feed our search for meaning...But our desperation has led us toward something larger and darker. So we turn to the news, which provides an unremitting mood of catastrophe. This is where we find emotional experience not available elsewhere." (Chapter 5)

Bill is stalled on his current novel and trying to complete it; all of his notes and drafts have piled up in boxes in his home. His assistant, Scott Martineau, chaperones the drafts and manages Bill's day-to-day affairs. Scott has taken Karen Janney, the bride from the prologue who has now fled the religious group, under his wing and has an ongoing relationship with her.

In the final chapter of Part One, Bill is called to a meeting with his old friend and editor, Charles Everson, who tells Bill that he wants the novel to be ready for publication as soon as possible, despite Bill's protests that the work is still being "polished" (Chapter 7). Charles also asks Bill for a favor that involves making a profound public appearance, which startles Bill as he is used to isolation.

A terrorist organization has kidnapped a Swiss political writer (who is also a poet) and is keeping him "chained to a wall in a bear room in Beirut" (Chapter 7). When the terrorist group found out he was a poet, they contacted a Western "high-minded committee on free expression,"—Charles is the chairman of this committee. The committee has organized a press event in London to announce the situation and publicly call for the writer's safe return. Charlie asks Bill to participate in this event by flying to London and reading some of the writer's poems, to help "show who we are as an organization and how important it is for writers to take a public stand." The attendees will be members of the press and photographers. Bill does not understand why Charles is asking him, but Charles retorts by saying that Bill's fame and his reclusiveness make him the perfect candidate.

I want one missing writer to read the work of another. I want the famous novelist to address the suffering of the unknown poet." (Charles, Chapter 7)

Earlier, Charles had run into Brita, who told him that she was photographing Bill. Charles believed that if Bill was violating his seclusion by being photographed, then it would just be one step further to make this political appearance.

Part Two

The third section of Mao II opens with the nameless Swiss political writer as a prisoner of war. Captured by a terrorist group in Beirut, Lebanon, he is being tortured in a bunker with a bag over his head. He notes that the group has sought him out by the traces he has left behind through media.

He was a digital mosaic in the processing grid, lines of ghostly type on microfilm. They were putting him together, storing his data in starfish satellites, bouncing his image off the moon." (Chapter 8)

The group has left him in a bunker alone with a boy watching him, both have seemingly been forgotten. The cause of the upheaval in Lebanon remains unclear.

Bill arrives in London and learns that the press event has to be relocated from the library chamber at St. Paul's Cathedral to the Chesterfield hotel because of anonymous bomb threats. He meets Charles near the Chesterfield, but suddenly a bomb is detonated somewhere nearby. Unharmed, Bill and Charles eat a meal in the Chesterfield dining room, while being watching by a mysterious man. The man approaches and introduces himself as George Haddad––a scholar and the point of contact between the Lebanese militant group and Charles' committee. They speak about writing and terrorism, and George tells Bill and Charles that the terrorist group is really just the early beginnings of a movement, signaling to the world that "not every weapon in Lebanon has to be marked Muslim, Christian, or Zionist" (Chapter 9)

The next day Charles tells Bill that the terrorist group could now be targeting Bill. They might try to "lure [him] Eastwards" because as a hostage, Bill would be worth more than the Swiss writer. Soon afterward, George shows up at Bill's hotel room and tells him that the event in London has failed. Since George is stationed in Athens, he encourages Bill to travel to Athens so they can talk. The public relations event no longer promises the release or protection of the Swiss writer due to the organizational powers and constant police presence, but George says that he could arrange for Bill to meet a person in Beirut who can "open the basement door and let the hostage go" (Chapter 9).

Back in the US, tension builds among Karen and Scott because Bill had left without any warning and did not say where he was going, nor how long he would be gone. Scott continues to manage Bill's personal affairs, and Karen watches television. Brita visits a gallery that shows the art of Andy Warhol. She had photographed him years earlier, and her photograph is on display somewhere on Madison Avenue (Chapter 10).

Mao II, Andy Warhol holding Archie his pet dachsund, StudySmarterAndy Warhol is one of the most famous American visual artists of the 20th century. His work features reprints of photographs in a process called silkscreen printing. He is also a pioneer in the movement called "Pop Art," which attempts to represent the reproduction of popular culture. Wikimedia.

Looking for Bill, Karen travels to New York and stays with Brita. Karen begins visiting the city's homeless sites at Tompkins Square Park, spreading the word of the Unification Church. One evening, she watches the 1989 funeral of Ayotolla Khomeini on the television with Brita.

Mao II, A portrait of Ayotolla Khomeini in 1981, StudySmarterRuholla Khomeini was the Ayotolla (supreme leader) of Iran. He was also the leader of the Iranian revolution in 1979, and he was a popular charismatic figure in the region, helping the Islamic revival. He attempted to establish fruitful relations between the Shias and Sunnis. Wikimedia.

Karen watches the footage of the mass of mourners throwing themselves on the coffin and body of their leader, gnashing their teeth and crying in the streets. With fingers pressed to her head, Karen experiences a crisis of faith, noting, "It could not be real if others watched" (Chapter 12). When Karen emerges from the living room after seeing the footage, she "had Master's total voice ready in her head" (Chapter 12).

If others saw these pictures, why is nothing changed, where are the local crowds, why do we still have names and addresses and car keys?" (Chapter 12)

Bill meets George in Cyprus on the way to Beirut, discussing options and continuing their previous conversation about terrorism, art, and the media.

In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act. There’s too much everything...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 incorporated." (Chapter 11)

While in Cyprus, Bill gets struck by a car on his way to Beirut. He does not seek medical attention and leaves his internal wounds to themselves. George urges him to see a doctor, but Bill refuses. He boards a ferry from Cyprus and dies in his sleep of internal bleeding, alone and anonymous (Chapter 13). An unnamed man goes through Bill's luggage after realizing that Bill was dead, taking his "passport and other forms of identification, anything with a name and a number, which he could sell to some militia in Beirut" (Chapter 13).

In the US, Karen and Scott come to grips with the idea that Bill may not return. They consider their future and realize that they can live in Bill's home, surrounded by Bill's unfinished novel, which they would let sit, "collecting aura and force, deepening old Bill's legend, unyieldingly" (Chapter 14).

In Beirut

The novel's Epilogue takes place after an uncertain amount of time has passed. Brita arrives in Beirut to photograph Abu Rashid, the terrorist who has kidnapped the Swiss writer, for a German magazine. She has stopped photographing writers and has instead begun taking assignments and photographing "interesting things" (Epilogue). She speaks to Rashid with an interpreter while taking pictures, and Rashid tells her about his organization and the way that it gives their children a sense of identity and purpose. The fate of the Swiss writer does not get revealed, though the implication is dark.

Finally, Britta stays at an apartment that belongs to "a friend of a friend" and is awakened by a tank rolling past the building. Britta sees that the tank is being followed by a wedding party. She realizes that the group of revelers has hired the tank as an escort, and she snaps photos of the procession. The novel ends with Brita looking through her camera.

Mao II's Characters

Mao II is populated by many characters, but the primary focus is on those surrounding the writer Bill Gray—his assistants, his connections in the world of publishing, and those interested in his novels.

Bill Gray

Bill Gray is an aging author from the late-Modernist era of J.D. Salinger. Bill Gray longs to be able to "make raids on consciousness" (Chapter 3) the way the old authors could. Gray believes that Samuel Beckett was the last author who could do this before the dawn of cable television.

Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings." (Chapter 11).

The name Bill Gray quietly references a character from DeLillo's previous novel, White Noise (1985). The character Willie Mink (Mr. Gray) has developed a drug called Dylar which neutralizes the fear of death. Mink has become addicted to his own medicine, which produces a sense of déjà vu and an eerie suggestibility in its subjects, making them repeat and perform the actions suggested to them by others.

Brita Nilsson

Brita is a Swedish photographer who has been in the US for fifteen years. She has decided to devote her career to photographing artists and writers, and one of her portraits of Andy Warhol hangs in a New York City gallery. The critic Randy Laist has called Brita "Warhol-esque,"3 since she is connected to the development and reproduction of images. Brita has on-and-off affairs and romances with both Bill and Scott, but her ultimate allegiance is to herself and her camera. Through her photography, she is able to gain access to the terrorist organization to take pictures of the kidnapper.

Scott Martineau

Scott Martineau is Bill's assistant and Karen's new lover. Scott is characterized by the ordered and methodical reverence by which he attends to the notes, revisions, and editions of Bill’s new novel, as well as his organization of Bill's life. As a character, Scott represents the near-religious allegiance and devotion inspired by fame when the famous person becomes more of a myth than a human being.

Karen Janney

Karen Janney is a 21-year-old American woman who appears at the beginning of the novel in the mass wedding, the Blessing Ceremony, in the Unification Church. In the body of the novel, she has fled the Unification Church, but she continues to believe and preach its messages. After Bill's disappearance, she moves to New York City and becomes involved with the poor and homeless in Tompkins Square Park. Karen is described as intensely receptive to images and electronic information––especially television.

Charles Everson

Charles is Bill’s editor and old friend. He edited and published Bill’s previous work decades before, and now he is waiting for Bill’s new novel. In the meantime, he has become the chairman of a committee that attempts to bridge the literary world with the world of politics. He tries to arrange a media event to announce the capture of the kirnapped Swiss writer, Jean-Claude Julien, inviting Bill to read Julien's poetry. After the bomb threats and the explosion, Charles never manages to get the event off the ground, and he leaves, telling Bill that he wants his novel to be completed soon.

Jean-Claude Julien

Julien is a Swiss writer, a poet and “a UN worker who was doing research on health care in the Palestinian camps” (Chapter 7). He has been kidnapped by terrorists and has gone missing in Beirut, Lebanon. Bill has been asked by Charles to participate in a media event, which is supposed to bring support for both writers and political organizations. Bill has read Julien's poetry, and takes a trip to London to read Julien’s poems to the news media for the event.

George Haddad

George Haddad is an obscure academic and scholar living in Athens. He is the contact person for both the literary committee and the terrorist organization. Though George himself is not a member of the terrorist group, he has contact with them as “only an intermediary” (Chapter 9). George has vast ideas about the media and the role that art plays in politics, believing that the terrorist now occupies the most visible role of cultural dissent. George tells Bill that he needs to upgrade from writing on a typewriter to a computer word processor: “The keyboard action is effortless. I promise you. This is something you dearly need” (Chapter 11).

Symbolism in Mao II

Mao II is a cultural novel. Packed with references to artists, historical events, media figures, charismatic leaders, artists and their artworks, Mao II is difficult to pin down in terms of its symbolism. However, it does feature a number of recurring themes which are tied to particular images in the narrative.

"Mao II" by Andy Warhol

While DeLillo has claimed that the original inspiration for Mao II was a pair of photographs: one of J.D. Salinger being ambushed by New York Post photographers in New Hampshire, and the other being a photo of a mass Moonie wedding. However, DeLillo's novel takes its name from the painting "Mao II" by Andy Warhol (1972), which symbolizes repetition and reproduction. Warhol's silkscreen painting technique reproduced photographs as paintings, which over-developed the original image. This allowed Warhol to color the photo with outrageous colors. The paintings could be quickly made and easily reproduced. Many of his paintings featured the same image in a row with little to no variation.

Mao II, Andy Warhol's work in the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Northern Ireland, StudySmarterA Northern-Irish gallery exhibition of Andy Warhol's work. An image of Mao is on the right. Wikimedia.

DeLillo claims that Warhol's "Mao II", just as his works on Elvis and Marlyn Monroe, had the effect of decontextualizing the figure. Mao II explores the themes of Warhol's work, and considers the ways in which Warhol himself has been absorbed into the machinery of fame that his own work attempted to critique.

Wharhol's artwork appears in one scene where Brita attends an art gallery: "[Andy] was all here now, reprocessed through painted chains of being" (Chapter 9).

2, or II

The number 2 (more specifically, the Roman numeral II) carries much symbolic weight in DeLillo’s novel. The title Mao II references the name of the Warhol painting, which was the second in a much longer series. "II" is also a visual reference to the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center in NYC.

Mao II, the World Trade Center in New York City circa 1993, StudySmarterBill and Brita have a conversation about the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Wikimedia.

Wouldn’t a single tower be much worse?” (Chapter 3)

The critic Randy Laist claims that in this scene, Bill's adherence to the idea that a single tower would be worse than two, reveals his early Cold War idea of political power as a monolith—a single, tyrannical force. Brita, on the other hand, realizes that power in a world after the Cold War period moves back and forth, like a conversation between two points. In an electronic age, power is much more nimble and adaptable than it was in the old tyrannical regimes.3

Themes in Mao II

As with symbolism, Mao II's themes are expansive. Since the novel is told through a fractured timeline with many gaps and unfinished episodes, each theme is merely gestured at rather than fully explored.

Crowds

Though much of it takes place in Europe and the Middle East, Mao II is a distinctly American novel. It specifically engages the idea of liberal American "individualism," since as the 20th century came to a close, the individual has started to become integrated into the crowd. Mao II is populated by crowds, all of which are being caught on camera and televised—crowds of mourners, crowds in celebration, crowds of poor and homeless. This tendency toward crowds is at odds with the American myth of the great individual—the author, the entrepreneur, and the maverick politician.

However, Mao II suggests that the image of the "great individual" and crowds are not so separate as they might at first appear, especially since all of the crowds gather around an image of a leader: the Chinese revolutionaries saluting portraits of Mao Ze Dong, the Moonie parishioners following the leadership of Sun Myung Moon, the mourners at Khomeini's funeral, and the crowds of people that gather alone in their living rooms to watch their television sets. Mao II suggests that the individual and the crowd exist as a couple, paired together and reproducing each other.

Just as the crowd and the individual are conceptually paired, Mao II posits that so too are the writer and the terrorist. Where the writer once stood outside of the culture, the media has absorbed the writer into its crowd of information and noise. As the writer gets absorbed by the media, the terrorist caters to the media, freely giving the camera images of fear and protest that it craves.

Media

Media is a recurring theme in DeLillo's novels. Mao II opens with Karen's father, Rodge, looking through a pair of binoculars, and it ends with Brita looking through her camera's viewfinder. The camera and electronic media technology have framed the way that people interact with the world, which exists in direct opposition to the "raids on consciousness" (chapter 3) of the modernist novel.

The news has become full of emotional and risky stories and mass tragic events. To elaborate, "The news has replaced the work that the novel used to do, the figure of the terrorist has replaced the figure of the novelist, only the terrorist stands outside" (Chapter 11). Brita is using the camera to capture novelists in their living moments, as singular individuals.

Media is the way that culture has absorbed threat and danger. If the novelist wants to produce a novel that bears some real potential to change the culture, then the culture absorbs it, commodifies it, and renders it neutral. Bill is sustained by this system, and steps out of it, giving his life to terrorism's reality.

Analysis of Mao II

An analysis of DeLillo's work in the 1980s and 1990s must include an explanation of DeLillo's obsession with media, information, and art. Mao II occurs at a moment in DeLillo's career where he was thinking about his role as an artist, what hope he could have for his work's impact on the culture, and whether he was doing something important in the political climate of the late 20th century.

Art's aura

Nothing happens until it’s consumed…Nature has given way to aura. A man cuts himself shaving and someone is signed up to write the biography of the cut. All the material in every life is channeled into the glow.” (Bill, Chapter 3)

The concept of a work of art’s aura comes from Walter Benjamin’s 1925 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The aura is the what gives a work of art a definite time, place, and tradition.

Imagine Michelangelo's mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This is a work of art where one has to be physically present to sense its aura—the sound of clergy members moving about, the smell of the walls, the sense that millions of people were once at that very spot, and the knowledge that an Italian artist in an Italian Renaissance tradition of painting was the origin of the thing being seen—these factors are what Benjamin refers to as a work’s “aura.”

Bejnamin argues that mass reproduction of works of art (specifically in the form of kitsch—tiny mass reproductions of artistic objects that are manufactured in bulk and sold) destroy the aura of the original. The work's “specificity” is replaced with a "generality," an image that now belongs to an industrial process rather than a human at a specific moment.

The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence” (Benjamin, Chapter II)2

DeLillo extends Benjamin’s ideas surrounding an art's aura and applies this symbol to the mass media. Whereas Benjamin was interested in photography and film as modes of art that required mass production, Benjamin could not have imagined what the media would turn into by the 1980s. Bill Gray is an artist who suddenly becomes aware that his work has already been subsumed by this great, all-pervasive, mechanical process that endlessly repeats itself.

By the beginning of Mao II, Bill has decided to give himself to this process and break his reclusive lifestyle. He offers himself to become a repeated image in Brita’s camera.

Here I am in your lens. Already I see myself differently. Twice over or once removed.” (Chapter 3)

Mao II - Key Takeaways

  • Mao II is a novel written by Don DeLillo in 1991.
  • The main character, Bill Gray, is a modernist writer from the generation of authors that preceded DeLillo.
  • Bill Gray believes that the image of the terrorist has replaced the image of the novelist in the era of electronic media and cable news.
  • The title takes its name from a series of silkscreen reproductions of photographs by Andy Warhol.
  • Reproduction takes away a work of art's aura, according to Walter Benjamin.

1. Don DeLillo: The World, The Image, and The Gun, BBC, Sept. 27, 1991, http://www.perival.com/delillo/ddbbc.html

2. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1925.

3. Randy Laist, Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo's Novels, 2009.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mao II

Mao II was published in 1991 and written between 1988 and 1991.

Mao II concerns the relevance of the fiction writer in a world of electronic information and endless news coverage.

The main theme in Mao II is crowds and their relationship with the old ideals of individualism.

A few of the characters in Mao II are the author Bill Gray, the photographer Brita Nilsson, and the political scientist George Haddad.

American novelist Don DeLillo wrote Mao II and published it in 1991.

Final Mao II Quiz

Question

From which famous artist did DeLillo borrow the title of Mao II?

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Answer

Andy Warhol

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Question

The theme of crowds is set in direct opposition to the theme of ____.

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Answer

Individualism

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Question

Who was the charismatic head of the  Unification Church?

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Answer

Sun Myung Moon

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Question

The mass wedding ceremonies were called ____ Ceremonies.

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Answer

Blessing

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Question

Complete this quotation: "The future belongs to ____."

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Answer

Crowds

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Question

What is the name of the literary movement that spanned from the early 1900s to just after WWII?

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Answer

Modernism

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Question

What does Bill plan to read by the Swiss writer?

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Answer

Poems

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Question

What is the term that Walter Benjamin gives to the definite time, place, and tradition of a work of art?

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Answer

Aura

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Question

Walter Benjamin's famous essay about a work of art's aura is "The Work of Art is the Age of Mechanical ____?"

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Answer

Reproduction

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Question

Don DeLillo's writing heavily features what American city?

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Answer

New York City

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