Watchman, What of the Night?

Of a Fire on the Moon

by Norman Mailer
Little, Brown, 472 pp., $7.95

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

by Doris Lessing
Knopf, 308 pp., $6.95

Doris Lessing and Norman Mailer
Doris Lessing and Norman Mailer; drawing by David Levine

When Norman Mailer’s “The Prisoner of Sex” appeared recently in Harper’s, it served to shove his Of a Fire on the Moon into the background, and even his admirers did not seem unhappy. Mailer admits he wrote it because he needed money, and his way of giving value for money was to write a book almost 500 pages long; moreover, it is about the flight of Apollo 11, about which no one has cared for some time. So it was good of Mailer to appear again quickly, and writing about women as well.

In favor of such a position it can be said that the first and third sections of Of a Fire on the Moon, the Mailer sections (he calls himself Aquarius), are quite bad, and the long middle section, on the moon flight itself, has some boring stretches. Mailer is, say, at a dull news conference in Houston, or he is hot and tired the night before the liftoff at Cape Kennedy. For years he has been assuming he can bludgeon his feelings even at his worst moments and end up with news, but it doesn’t work this time:

Aldrin gave a disconcerted smile. “I hope I don’t have a tender foot walking around the moon.” It was so bad a joke that one had to assume it was full of reference for him, perhaps some natural male anxiety at the thought of evil moon rays passing into one’s private parts.

Who could say the ride of the Indian with whisky in his veins was not some conflagration of messages derived from the silences of the moon? Now tonight were the ghosts of old Indians awakening in the prairies and the swamps?

Give Mailer a “one had to assume” or a “who could say” and, of course, he can launch into Mailerese, but the effort here seems forced and most of the launchings abort quickly. Mailer has on his hands a “hovering of machinery” and it costs almost “twenty-five billion dollars,” so he must make something of it. The machinery, thus, “is preparing to go through the funnel of an historical event whose significance might yet be next to death itself.” Which is silly, and Mailer seems to know it, so he backs off, changes the subject.

Most of the book is like that. Mailer will be content for a while to report straightforwardly, but then, as if he feels he were being paid to be Norman Mailer, he lurches off: Is the trip to the moon a fulfillment or a defiling of God’s will? Is the American Wasp God’s answer or His Curse? Does this or that malfunction in a computer or a hatch portend the long-feared moment when the machines strike back, asserting their own will? He is committed to trying to see the very big in the very…

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