An American Dream
This is, to my mind, the most eccentric of the four novels Norman Mailer has written. It is far more eccentric, I think, than Barbary Shore—his second novel and a better one than literary opinion has generally taken it to be—which alienated readers not so much by personal singularity as by the extreme sectarianism of its political theme. In the case of that work it might well be said that the reader, wholly unprepared for that kind of statement, was in a certain sense quite as much at fault for its failure as the author. This latest book, however, has very few if any of the qualities that redeemed Barbary Shore as well as Mailer’s other fictions.
There is nothing here like the brilliantly observed comic episodes in The Deer Park (involving Hollywood producers Teppis and Munshin) or the powerfully sustained narrative-sequence comprising the second part of The Naked and the Dead (the Sergeant Croft section). And the title, An American Dream, strikes me as a misnomer. It implies a generalization about the national life palpably unsupported: either by the weird and sometimes ludicrous details of the story or by the low-level private mysticism informing its imaginative scheme. That mysticism is more or less pseudonymously presented in Mailer’s articles under the flashy and ostensibly impersonal heading of Hip. Now whatever the origin of the term in the underworld of jazz and narcotics, the explication of it that he has been engaged in for some years is at bottom scarcely a report on something that exists outside himself, but is basically a programmatic statement of his own desires, power-drives, and day-dreams. It amounts to a kind of personal mythology projected onto something he chooses to call Hip. I venture to say that real-life hipsters, not romantic youths reading Mailer with relish, would hardly recognize themselves in his free-wheeling description of their motivation and behavior.
The time of this new novel’s action is thirty-two hours, and its frantic action consists of a great deal of sexual activity. It is centered on a murder—the protagonist’s killing of his wife, a bitchy wealthy heiress—during a violent tussle in which hard words and harder blows are exchanged. It is true enough that the murder is unpremeditated, but it can not be said that this act of ultimate violence committed by Stephen Rojack, the protagonist, is merely an accident; in fact he commits it with enormous exhilaration. Already on page 8, before the episode of the killing is introduced, Rojack acknowledges that he had long known there was murder within him, and he speculates that the exhilaration accompanying it must come “from possessing such strength.” “Besides,” he adds, “murder offers the promise of vast relief. It is never unsexual.” (How would he know that, since these thoughts occur to him prior to the experience itself?) Moreover, the long paragraph describing Rojack’s choking Deborah to death is full of positive imagery, and it closes with the following sentences: “I was weary with a most honorable fatigue, and my flesh seemed new. I had not felt so nice since I was twelve. It seemed inconceivable at this instant that anything in life could fail to please. But there was Deborah dead beside me….” Immediately after absorbing this, to him, ecstatic experience, a true renewal, Rojack rushes to the maid’s room to engage her in sex-acts both plain and fancy. It is not that he had been having an affair with her; killing excites him sexually. Then he returns to the scene of the killing and dumps the corpse out of the tenth-floor window to the East River Drive. So much for hipster heroics!
The curious thing about it is not only that this murder goes unpunished (Crime without Punishment) but that it is also without any kind of consequence, either external or internal. Clearly the plot is all too intentionally manipulated by the author so as to free Rojack from paying any sort of price for what he has done. At the last moment and even as the detectives are closing in on him, they are held back by a call from Washington. We are astonished to learn—just as her husband is—that Deborah had all along been engaged in “amateur espionage.” As the maid, Ruta, explains to him: “Last night they must have had electricity burning in government offices all over the world…. Yes, they had to let you go…Since nobody can know if you know a little or a lot, a real investigation would be ending der Teufel knows where.” But this novel is not designed as a spy-thriller nor as a wacky tale the absurd happenings of which are not meant to produce consequences; it is written in the realistic convention and without a trace of irony. The business about espionage, arbitrarily introduced at the last moment, is simply the author’s deus ex machina—a device confirming Rojack in his lordly “existentalist” freedom at the same time as it confirms him in his ecstasy of violence. Only in a hipster’s fantasy is society so easily cheated of its prey and only in his fantasy can the self become so absolutized, so unchecked by reality, as to convert itself with impunity into the sole arbiter of good and evil.
It is evident that Mailer has repressed in this novel his common sense as well as the moral side of his nature. He has of late been arguing, in his neo-primitivistic fashion, that civilization threatens to “extinguish the animal in us.” This yea-saying to instinct is a common error of neo-primitivism. It is well-known that patterns of instinct are rigid and conservative; the original and spontaneous are virtually a monopoly of human consciousness. Moreover, neo-primitivists seem unaware that not only “the animal in us” but also our Superego, as Freud and other analysts have repeatedly shown, is subject to repression. If Freud’s motto was: “Where the Id once was there shall Ego be,” Mailer’s should read: “Where the Ego once was there shall Id be.” Nor is the objection to the imaginative scheme of this novel a matter of morality pure and simple. It is also a matter of the novelist’s primary responsibility to his craft. A writer like Mailer, who aspires to be something more than an intellectual version of Mickey Spillane, who takes himself seriously and in turn expects us to take him seriously, cannot without self-stultification center a story on so portentous a theme as murder (think of what novelists like Dostoevsky and Stendhal and Faulkner, among others, have made of this theme!) and then proceed to evade its multiple consequences in the dimensions of character and fate by means of sheer plot-manipulation. But I suppose this kind of thing has been more or less in the cards ever since a number of our literary people have gone in in a big way for what is known as swinging. The swingers want to make the scene, to be “in,” to be “hot.” Their great pretension is that they are protesting against a genteel, conventional, and conformist society, but the fact is that they are not truly protestants or rebels at all. What they are doing is expressing the fickle moods of a certain sector of American society, by no means the least affluent, which in every sphere but the political has collapsed into total permissiveness. There is money in it and fun too, though in the long run the fun runs out as the law of diminishing returns takes over. And as the shock of riotous explicitness in the handling of sexual subject-matter by writers wears off, murder and other forms of brutal sadism beckon from the wings. Engaged in raising the ante all the time, the swingers must come to that.
Who is this protagonist of Mailer’s? He is not at all the anti-hero of modern fiction but one of the most lamentably old-fashioned heroes—in the dictionary meaning of a man of distinguished valor and performance—I have come across in years. Hence as a novelistic character he never quite comes to life: he remains a vacuity. He is “the one intellectual in America with a Distinguished Service Cross,” an ex-Congressman, a television celebrity, a professor of “existentialist psychology with the not inconsiderable thesis that magic, dread and the perception of death were the roots of motivation,” author of a work entitled The Psychology of the Hangman, and, needless to say, a prepotent lover and expert in fisticuffs. Though as conformist as anyone else in his bedazzlement by power and success (“there’s nothing but magic at the top”), he is so full, however, of almost clinical obsessions, and outright superstitions to boot, that the last thing one can say about him is that he stands generically for Americans at large. On all levels but that of literal biography he is a facsimile of the author, down to the most absurd details of his personal mythology; and some of the secondary characters, like his girl-friend Cherry and his millionaire wheeler-dealer father-in-law, are also mere mouthpieces on occasion. The national experience, whether conceived in the broadly typical manner of Dreiser and Dos Passos or in a latent imaginative form is not to be found in this novel. Its true raison d’être is a dream of romantic omnipotence, in which what is projected is a mana-figure, a being of occult and enchanting powers. Mailer is testing here (or acting out, to be more precise) a whole cluster of notions to which he has committed himself. But unfortunately for him the fictional medium is far more exacting in its demands than the discursive form of the article, in which charm and personal vehemence take you a long way.
To make sense of An American Dream one must use as a gloss the articles he has collected in Advertisements for Myself and The Presidential Papers. There he declares that “the existentialist moment, by demanding the most extreme response in the protagonist, tends to destroy psychotic autonomies…and then one is returned to the realities of one’s personal strength or weakness.” Also, “whether the life is criminal or not, the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself.” Also: “Postulate a modern soul marooned in constipation, emptiness, boredom and a flat, dull terror of death. It is a deadened existence, afraid precisely of violence, cannibalism, loneliness, insanity, libidinousness, perversion and mess, because these are states which in some way must be passed through, digested, transcended, if one is to make one’s way back to life.” The language here is a bit circumlocutory, a bit on the “tactical” side, but its meaning is clear enough. It appears that the way to “transcend” violence is to commit it, the way to overcome perversion is to indulge in it; get it out of your system once and for all. The “extreme response” (presumably not excluding murder) is regarded as therapeutic and heuristic. The psychopath in oneself is to be encouraged, and if that is indeed Mailer’s program he has certainly succeeded only too well so far as this latest novel is concerned. And the most curious thing about it all is the way in which in all his invocations of violence he nearly always identifies with its perpetrators, almost never with its victims. Violence, however extreme, is plainly for him a testing-ground of courage, which he is inclined to understand, with excessive reiteration and emphasis, in a strictly physical sense. Yet because of such ideas Mailer has been saluted by some people as a “moralist” no less, an expositor of sacred mysteries, a religious type in fact.
The one religious notion of the novel is expressed by the girl-friend Cherry in this wise: “There is no decent explanation for evil. I believe God is just doing His best to learn from what happens to us. Sometimes I think He knows less than the Devil because we’re not good enough to teach Him. So the Devil gets most of the best messages we think we are sending up.” This same belief is elaborated by Rojack’s father-in-law, who holds that God is engaged in a war with the Devil and God may lose. “God might be having a very bad war, with troops defecting everywhere.” Thus when the God-Devil relationship is not conceived of as a kind of celestial prize-fight it is conceived of as a scene from a war-novel. This echo of an old Christian heresy, a sort of flattened-out Manichacism, is solemnly offered as a contribution to theology. It also seems to contain a vague, distorted, late American military-style reminiscence of Paradise Lost. More than ever, then, we should now cry out with Wordsworth: “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour…”
Then there is Mailer’s obsession with explaining cancer in his own inimitable manner, here repeated by Rojack: “In some madness must come with breath…. In some it goes up to the mind. Some take the madness and stop it with discipline. Madness is locked beneath. It goes into the tissues, is swallowed by the cells. The cells go mad. Cancer is their flag.” With what ease Mailer thus outmaneuvers the biochemists! And there are other far less “original” beliefs of a magical nature in the book, such as Rojack’s compulsive involvement with “the phases of the moon,” which now and then invites him to commit suicide; but these thoughts of suicide, induced by the guileful moon, appear to have nothing to do with guilt-feelings or remorse; in fact they occur to him before the murder. Rojack also hears voices and messages from some unspecified beyond, which at one point order him to walk three times around a parapet twelve-inches wide at the Waldorf Towers thirty stories above the street, and this feat he virtually manages to accomplish too. Then there is a whole series of extravaganzas of the olfactory sense, a kind of olfactory mysticism, permitting Rojack to smell what are really states of mind rather than states of the body.
On the technical side what the novel obviously lacks is verisimilitude, even in the most literal sense. In his thirty-two hours in New York Rojack, a man no longer young, engages in feats of strength—consuming vast quantities of alcohol, fighting, making strenuous love to two different girls, not to mention murder—that would lay low not one but several younger men. The characters don’t emerge into reality, especially Rojack and his girl Cherry; Deborah is drawn rather better than the rest and in Chapter 7 the Negro singer Shago Martin engages in a near-monologue of hipster talk which is worldly-wise, heady, and strangely effective. It is a pity that he does not stay around long enough, for he is soon beaten up by Rojack and thrown downstairs. Eventually, in the very last paragraph, the words “I was something like sane again” occur, but here Rojack is referring not to the main action in New York but to his last and least credible experience in Las Vegas, where the story ends. It is important to stress that Rojack is not considered by his author to be insane—inspired, if you please, but not mad.
But Mailer is no ordinary swinger. For one thing, he cannot be accused of pornographic intent, for the sex-writing in his more recent work, however rank and dense, is so mixed up with concepts of the self’s salvation that it cannot be mistaken for exploitative commercialized sexology. For another, he is a prose-writer of considerable gifts; and this novel is written with a certain sharpness, though to my taste there are too many purple passages in it. The trouble with Mailer, to my mind, is that he has let himself become a victim of ideas productive of “false consciousness”; and these ideas are wilful, recklessly simple, and histrionic. He has too many ambition-fed notions and he does not sufficiently value the artistic function. His habitual stance of toughness and the “advertisements” of his own special brand of excruciated sexology have not been helpful in resolving the discords of his creative personality. Salvation is not to be seized by force of heroics or diabolics. Life’s cruel and inexorable processes can be arrested neither by the brain nor by the phallus, least of all by the phallus. But if Mailer ever extricates himself from his entanglement with the hocus-pocus of power and the glamor-dream of the romantic domination, both physical and psychic, of existence, he might yet emerge as one of our greater talents.
Swinging May 6, 1965