Monday, November 12, 2007


Norman Mailer died Saturday, joining, with his death, that other grand old man of the American novel who lived into the 21st century: Saul Bellow. Different as those two are, they are two for whom "the Great American Novel" would have to be as great as a great Russian novel of the nineteenth century. For almost everyone else you care to name, the great novel of the twentieth century would have to be developed in the shadow of Joyce. Mailer, of course, floundered in the shadow of Papa Hemingway, but that's a bit different. In other words, it's only because he toed a line that ran from Tolstoy to Dreiser and Farrell and veered into modernism via Dos Passos and Hemingway, that Mailer could still see himself in the running for the Great American Novel. He still believed it could be done by some kind of muscular act of will, that some gargantuan talent, such as himself, would have the wherewithal to include, Whitmanlike, the multitudinous ethnic diversity of America and subsume it via themes of sex, violence, money, family/race, spectacle, and, maybe, art.

It's a grand hope, a great passion. But it's odd that Mailer has so little to do with the one American writer who came closest to doing that, for one region of our sprawling states at least, Faulkner. But that's the wily Jew in Mailer, if you don't mind my saying so, or, put another way, Faulkner didn't do it in New York, so it really doesn't count. In any case, Mailer sensed that being Jewish gave him the outsider status necessary to see America for what it is -- a strength also found in Bellow and in Philip Roth. But only Mailer was also hamstrung by a hubris that both made him and marred him fatally: the need to be hip. If you want to see what I mean, take a look at The Naked and the Dead (1948), then take a look at Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967). In the first the creaky Dos Passos-meets-Farrell stuff is all over the place, but it's ok, it's the '40s, that stuff isn't yet completely shot, or, it's an approach that is "new" enough to seem "dazzling" to people who haven't been keeping up (like, um, Americans) and it's grounded enough to do the things the novel is supposed to do (kill time on long flights). And it's a war story, an attempt to portray "honestly" (which is to say with a gritty sentimentalism rather than a polite sentimentalism) the experience of the war for the enlisted man. That was enough to make it a best-seller, the worst possible thing that could've happened to Mailer the writer. Suddenly proclaimed as the possessor of a talent (that hadn't yet become original or even viable), Mailer became the great ego of American letters. And this is because he was forced into the position of, to borrow Lou Reed's line, "growing up in public."

But if Mailer had only intended to be a celebrity, that wouldn't have been so bad. In fact it's almost a "consummation devoutly to be wished" for many a spotlight junkie. But Mailer actually, truly, almost at times humbly, wanted to write a great novel. And not without reason. The Naked and the Dead, for all its malarky is never bad writing. Its ideas, its conception of character, its devices -- all are thin and made to bear much more than they can take. But that's youth, an imagination still in thrall to films and a sensibility willing to take shortcuts. As sentences, Mailer's prose is gifted, can lay claim to Hemingway territory. So -- of course he should've been working at finding the subject, the perspective, the means to make his ability thrive. But what got in the way was in large part the times themselves. Mailer quickly became a "throwback" in a way that didn't bother Bellow. Bellow was willing to be the sane humanist as our cultural values went to pot (ha ha) in the mad revel of the '60s. Mailer wanted to join the party. He wanted to be the life of the party. Why Are We in Vietnam? is the result of steady pot-smoking, of affecting the hipster guise of "cool cat" jazz, black and rock slang, and more than anything it's the anxiety of finding an older nemesis who had somehow caught the ear and the manner of the young: William Burroughs. Naked Lunch (1959), which Mailer defended at one of its trials, was a challenge that was almost Joycean to Mailer. But this wasn't a dead master, this was a guy from Kansas who went to Harvard . . . On just about any page of Why you can experience Mailer reeling from the blow.

But at the same time, to anyone paying attention, it should be clear that novels like Naked Lunch and Catch-22 (1961) were happening on a different playing field entirely. The idea of that big novel Mailer yearned to write was passé, in fact it was politically retrograde: paternalistic, imperialist, macho, etc. Mailer tried to school himself in this new manner, but he was even more of an outsider, and actually quite the buffoon, almost a square. Still, he was too much of a writer to be stopped. And that leads us to journalism, where Mailer's strengths as a writer naturally belong -- and fortunately, those very same forces of hipness and chaos that were making the Great Novel impossible were making journalism "arty." Enter Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the rest. Mailer found his pulpit/podium on the pages of the Village Voice where he was able to be, in print, exactly what he was: Norman Mailer (and who the hell are you?). And then came Armies of the Night, and Mailer got to be himself at an event that those other worthies missed out on, and all the posturing and maundering and playing at being Mailer delivering Mailer also became the occasion for the kind of pithy essays on being American that we don't expect from our great novelists, but which we do accept from our great journalists. Mailer found his vehicle and made the most of it.

I have to say I never read him, not in my day. There was every reason to avoid reading him. In the late '70s when I read some of Wolfe and Thompson, Mailer seemed even more of a "Mr. Jones" than Wolfe ('something is happening here, but you don't know what it is'), and in the '80s Mailer brought out Ancient Evenings (1983) which seemed so decidedly what we didn't want the novel to be, ever, that there just seemed no point. In between he came out with The Executioner's Song (1979) which looked to me to be a potboiler -- the novel as movie-of-the-week (trying to do the Capote number at twice the length). When I finally got around to Armies and then the novels I've discussed and then large segments of Advertisements for Myself and In The Time of Our Time, I found Mailer to be embarrassing at times in his insistence on his powers -- he simply doesn't have enough original talent to be a great artist, and he doesn't care deeply enough about other people to be a great novelist, and he doesn't think deeply enough to be a philosopher, but he does care deeply enough about writing to be, if not a great writer (a GREAT writer has to combine all those other three), a great copyist. But I also found him to be likeable in his insistence on finding himself exasperating and puzzling and ambitious and lazy, and in being able to deliver, via prose, a readable and always recognizable self.

Oswald, the CIA, Jesus, Hitler, maybe sometime I'll get around to the masks of the later Mailer, but, with the exception of Christ, I doubt that what I'll find will be as illuminating as a good non-fiction study of those subjects would be. And that's part of the problem: for Mailer's method to work we have to be deeply concerned with what the novelist makes of historical fact, because we trust him to find in our cultural past material that histories can't bring to light -- because some things must be tempered by fiction. But I don't trust Mailer to find that material, and I expect his fictions to be always subservient to the primary fiction: Mailer as the Great Novelist. Only in the case of Jesus is it possible that Mailer -- a myth to himself -- might manage to remake a myth in his own image that, if not what the world needs, is at least something it wouldn't otherwise have.

In any case, so long, Norman. Good luck.

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