Salvage from an Infatuation
THERE WAS ONCE A BOY WHO fell in love with Norman Mailer, a writer who called himself "Aquarius." Call this boy Aquarius-Nul, then. The name suggested all utopian possibilities the boy had glimpsed, born in the middle of the '60s to avidly countercultural parents. Their world, which he'd take for the world, was a show that was closing: the dawning of an Age, but no age to follow the dawning. This boy's own stories, when they came, painted his parents's tribe as a withered race of superheroes, Super Goat Men and Women, who'd at least been large once in their lives. Aquarius-Nul's uptight cohort sometimes seemed inclined not even to try, only to mock such attempts. (Aquarius-Nul was as uptight as any of them. Call him A-Nul, maybe.)
When Aquarius-Nul, who favored outlaw or outcaste identities (the Beats, the science-fiction writers), glanced at the then-present Mount Rushmore of U.S. writing, made of the Big Jews and Updike, Mailer was the only alluring prospect. For the teenage Aquarius-Nul, a major American novelist bragging of interest in graffiti, underground film, marijuana, and space travel was irresistible. Even better, Mailer was the only head on that Rushmore who nodded to the value of the outlaw or outcaste identities (the Beats, and science fiction). That Mailer was further a Jew and a Brooklynite yet had shrugged off those legacy subject matters made him, for Aquarius-Nul, who'd want to believe he could do the same, too good to be true. In fact, others on Rushmore would sustain Aquarius-Nul's interest before long. But not before Aquarius-Nul had burned through Mailer's whole shelf, sometimes in delirious wonder, sometimes guiltily bored, and, strangely, often both at once.
Enough with "Aquarius-Nul." (How could Mailer have stood it, typing "Aquarius" or "the Prisoner" or "the reporter" or even "Mailer" what must have been so many thousands of times, instead of settling for "I"?) And why so much self-regarding throat-clearing before getting to any journalistic subject — why put Aquarius-Nul in front of Mailer himself? Helpless tribute, I suppose, to the all-time ego king. Yet let this be my chance to say that Mailer's unfashionably preening brand of self-consciousness seems to me to be crucial in the formation of another, lately fashionable brand — the Eggers of Heartbreaking Work or the Wallace of A Supposedly Fun Thing — which, inoculated with savage undercutting doubt, conceals the lineage.
Challenged once by a friend to name a single immortal literary character from postwar fiction — someone to rival Sherlock Holmes or Madame Bovary in terms of bleed-through to popular consciousness — I blurted out "Norman Mailer!" I was halfway serious. Mailer, running hard against his limits at inventing a new form of novel as large as his ambition or claims, invented, by means of Advertisements for Myself and the third-person narrator of his journalistic books, by his television appearances, wife-stabbing, and so forth, the character of the public Mailer instead — and triumphed.
Mailer finally got around to writing encyclopedic novels during a period when, as a novelist, he no longer rea...read more