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 really mattered, when, in fact, novels no longer mattered as they did during the modern era. For a time, Mailer managed to leverage this anachronism into a journalistic career based on a residual novelistic promise.
— Loren Glass, Authors Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, 1880-1980.
Fair enough: that catches exactly what it felt like to be let down by Ancient Evenings or Harlot's Ghost. But for those of us to whom the novel matters as much as anything ever mattered to anyone, the episode of Mailer and "the novel" was a quarter-century drama of bluff and impotence just as good as the great white novel he couldn't harpoon. For wasn't it transparent to the utmost and from the start — in Advertisements for Myself — that Mailer couldn't pull it off? Well, I had the benefit of hindsight; who knew what I'd have expected from Mailer if I'd encountered the drama in real time? In hindsight, Mailer looked in the late '50s to have become a radar detector for the onset of the postmodern novel — as he had for the postmodern cultural condition generally — in his declared topics, his appetite to engulf every dissident impulse and the whole atmosphere of paranoia and revelation that saturated the '60s, though he delivered barely any fiction to reflect it, in his predictions in essays like "Superman Comes to the Supermarket"; in his self-annihilating advocacy of Burroughs's Naked Lunch; in his desperate, dashed-off forays in Why Are We in Vietnam? and An American Dream, and so on. The reason Mailer couldn't arrive at a satisfactory postmodern style (even as he saw his one firm achievement inThe Naked and the Dead mummified by ironic treatments of his war by Heller, Vonnegut, and Pynchon) was because postmodernism as an art practice extended from modernism, to which Mailer had never authentically responded in the first place. This might have been Mailer's dirty secret: He was still back with James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan in the soul of his aesthetics, even as the rest of his intelligence raced madly downfield, sometimes sprinting decades past his contemporaries.
That said, I think An American Dream is pretty good.
So defend indefensible Mailer. I once promised, in another essay, to land on judgment, not hover: Advertisements for Myself, The Armies of the Night, the two campaign books, and, er, parts ofThe Fight, parts of Of a Fire on the Moon, parts of Cannibals and Christians, parts of The Deer Park, parts of etc. Parts, always parts. The novelist Darin Strauss, confessing his Mailer-thing to me when I confessed mine, said, "Other writers are inconsistent book to book, but Mailer's inconsistent within books, sometimes even within paragraphs ..." I wonder: Does anyone credit Mailer this postmodern way, as a purveyor of fragments, a centrifuge of sentences? Mailer's false accents — Texas, Patrician, boxer-tough — are like Orson Welles's false noses. If only he'd landed, in the end, on a jeu d'esprit like F for Fake instead of the dreadful parade of King Tut, Oswald, Jesus, and Hitler ...
Joan Didion, 1979: "It is a largely unremarked fact about Mailer that he is a great and obsessed stylist, a writer to whom the shape of the sentence is the story." Conrad Knickerbocker, 1965: "Mailer has evolved a rhetoric that moves far beyond his original naturalistic endowments. His words always hinge on the event, but he gives perspective to events with a kinetic poetry that turns the huge losses of his characters into, strangely, gains of a kind." Knickerbocker again: "It's such a vulnerable book. What wrenching innocence, what cool nerve, to write melodrama in the Age of Herzog!" Cynthia Buchanan, 1972: "We read him not for moon talk, not for mayor talk, not for marches or wars on women, but because he is 'our genius' ... He is medium and metaphor; he is infinitely vulnerable." Reading reviews of Mailer's books pre-'80s, you glimpse the world that's been lost (on both sides of the conversation). And twice comes that completely disarming and accurate judgment, that Mailer was above all "vulnerable." Sticking to Mailer's reviews pre-'80s, you wouldn't know that Mailer was fatally out of fashion.
But no. With my lifelong habit of attaching like a remora-fish to interesting readers older than myself, and now, in the profession of mentoring writers much younger, I feel uniquely well vantaged to make the sad judgment that Mailer is as much on the skids as the world of referents in his work is evaporating. If nearly anyone above a certain age surely holds a set of opinions on Mailer — had taken the task of understanding him, and not too quickly, as an appointment of their literary citizenship, even if a weary one — it was as certain that anyone below a certain age, even the most talented and alert of my students, take Mailer's toxic preposterousness, and obsolescence, for granted. All the pomp of Mailer's recent funeral rites, the endless tributes, felt like an era tucking itself in for the long night, rather than the graduation of Mailer's best writing from the burden of his person. I suspect we saw the ark of Mailer's work being pushed out to sea with the corpse aboard, not a moment too soon for a status quo for whom it still, fifty years on, conveyed fear of disarrangement.
If, as in the Isaiah Berlin formulation, "the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing," then Mailer's gift and curse was to have been a hedgehog trapped inside an exploding fox. What the hedgehog knew was that the uncanny symbolic life of our imagination resolutely steered the outward action of the legible world, no matter how much we might legislate it out of existence or deny its relevance in one realm or another. This hedgehog thought had two tenets: First, that in any realm of collective experience or action the pressure of the denied myths would invariably make themselves crucial. Second, and paradoxically, that in the life of a given individual the nourishment and cultivation of the realm of the symbolic, the self's own intangible dream stuff, was no small responsibility but a tender and delicate affair, endlessly at risk of betrayal or abandonment. Fair enough. The difficulty was that the fox in Mailer wanted to detonate this hedgehog of insight, like a grenade's shrapnel, into five decades of culture, into McCarthyism, Vietnam, feminism, Gore Vidal, Madonna, Bret Easton Ellis, ensuring himself a dozen frags for every decent kill.
"... the increasing anxiety of American life comes from the covert guilt that abundance and equality remain utterly separated, and we have reached the point where socialism is not only morally demanding but unconsciously obvious - obvious enough to flood with anxiety the psyches of those millions who know and yet do nothing." That's Mailer in 1953. Socialism as "unconsciously obvious"! The implication, that Marx's work could only be fulfilled in Freud's, and vice versa, sounds to me like nothing so much as Slavoj Žižek, the hipster-provocateur of contemporary political theory.
I lived for a time in Canada, and found myself fascinated by the slavish pride of a culture basking in a self-recriminating joke. "A lobsterman turned his back on three catches in an uncovered bucket. A bystander worried the lobsters would escape, but the lobsterman waved him off, saying, 'No problem, these are Canadian lobsters. If one reaches the top the others will pull him back in.'" Yet who, lately, seeing how transparent the Internet-comments culture has made our vast leveling rage, our chortling conformism and anti-intellectualism, our scapegoat-readiness, could keep from thinking: "We're all Canadian lobsters on this bus." If Mailer's grievance, as stated in Advertisements, was "The Shits Are Killing Us," then perhaps my grievance is along the lines of "We Have Met the Shits and They Is Us." By temperament or generational necessity (or both), I find myself again and again compelled by questions of collective culpability in conspiracies of amnesia and distraction, and by the vicarious waste of our best attention to ourselves and the others beside us. Likely anyone would agree that for three decades Norman Mailer took up too damn much room. Lately I've wondered whether, if another Norman Mailer came along, there'd be any room for him to take up at all.