A reclusive novelist named Bill Gray works endlessly on a novel which he chooses not to finish. He has chosen a lifestyle secluded from the outside world in order to try to keep his writing pure. He, along with his assistant Scott, believes that something is lost once a mass audience reads the work. Scott would prefer Bill didn't publish the book for fear that the mass-production of the work will destroy the "real" Bill. Bill has a dalliance with Scott's partner Karen Janney, a former member of the Unification Church who is married to Kim Jo Pak in a Unification Church Blessing ceremony in the prologue of the book.
Bill, who lives as a complete recluse, accedes to be photographed by a New York photographer named Brita who is documenting writers. In dialogue with Brita and others, Bill laments that novelists are quickly becoming obsolete in an age where terrorism has supplanted art as the "raids on consciousness" that jolt and transform culture at large. Gray disappears without a word and secretly decides to accept an opportunity from his former editor Charles to travel to London to publicly speak on the behalf of a Swiss writer held hostage in war-torn Beirut.
Meanwhile Karen ends up living in Brita's New York apartment and spends most of her time in the homeless slums of Tompkins Square Park. In London, Bill is introduced to George Haddad, a representative of the Maoist group responsible for kidnapping the writer. Bill decides to go to Lebanon himself and negotiate the release of the writer. Cutting himself off from Charles, he flees to Cyprus where he awaits a ship that will take him to Lebanon.
In Cyprus, Bill is hit by a car and suffers a lacerated liver which, exacerbated by his heavy drinking, kills him in his sleep while en route to Beirut. In the epilogue, Brita goes to Beirut to photograph Abu Rashid, the terrorist responsible for the kidnapping. The fate of the hostage is never revealed, though the implication is grim. The plot unfolds with DeLillo's customary shifts of time, setting, and character.