The last sentence of the prologue reveals an important and major theme in Mao II: "The future belongs to crowds." Crowds feature heavily in the book, from the opening crowds of thousands at the mass wedding at Yankee Stadium, to the crowds living in Tompkins Square Park, to the thousands of mourners at the Ayatollah's funeral as observed on television by Karen. The nature of crowds and their relation to personal and collective identity are explored.
In predicting an age of terror in which "the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings," DeLillo was eerily ahead of his time in contemplating the profound effect that political terror was soon to have on American society. The question of the efficacy of art in the context of dogmatism and violence of a massive scale is central to the narrative. In preparing the novel, DeLillo's editor at Viking, Nan Graham said "Long before he had written anything Don told me he had two folders -- one marked 'art' and the other marked 'terror.'"
Just two years before the novel was published Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie after his publication of The Satanic Verses and New York Post photographers had ambushed J.D. Salinger in New Hampshire. DeLillo cited the published Salinger photograph and a photograph of a Unification Church Blessing ceremony he came across as inspiration for the book, telling Vince Passaro:
|“||I didn't know it at the time, but these two pictures would represent the polar extremes of "Mao II," the arch individualist and the mass mind, from the mind of the terrorist to the mind of the mass organization. In both cases, it's the death of the individual that has to be accomplished before their aims can be realized.||”|