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Beat the Devil

For most of the Sixties Mailer was one of the things that was permitted, since anyone who seemed sufficiently far out held an appeal. And Mailer was a performer, a kind of celebrity the Sixties loved. At the end of the decade, though, he ran into a wall. This, of course, was feminism. Mailer took feminism to be a tool of technology, an attempt to divest sex of spiritual content. Feminism’s aim, as he understood it, was to give women sexual independence from men, which meant making reproduction a laboratory exercise and orgasm a mechanical one. He could not see that there are just different kinds of sexual pleasure and different methods of reproduction, because for him unless these matters carry cosmic consequences, the universe is absurd. If a vibrator is as good as a penis, life has no meaning.

Mailer’s crusade against feminism was hopeless from the start, for he was fighting against one of the simplest and most powerful of human hopes, which is that happiness can be made a little easier to grasp. He offered some sort of truce with the movement (it was not accepted) in The Prisoner of Sex (1971)—which also includes defenses, against the strictures of Kate Millet, of Miller and Lawrence that are, whatever one makes of the book as a whole, brilliant pieces of criticism. But he never really got it. He was done in by the clitoral orgasm.

Mailer’s best writing in the Sixties, therefore, was conceived in the skeptical spirit of a critic, not in the enthusiasm of the culturally reborn. The first half of The Armies of the Night, which tells the story of his participation in the 1967 march on the Pentagon, is almost certainly the strongest piece of journalistic writing Mailer ever did, and what gives it its sour brilliance is the author’s barely suppressed animus against all the good liberals whose arms are linked with his. As a screed against the war The Armies of the Night is not especially distinguishable from many other writings of the time. But as a mordant portrait of the culture of the anti-war movement there is nothing to beat it.

After The Prisoner of Sex Mailer’s projects became more diffuse—two books on Marilyn Monroe, a book on the Apollo moon landing, another on the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire, a “true-life novel” about Gary Gilmore, the novel set in ancient Egypt, another one set in Provincetown, a huge unfinished novel about the CIA, and books about Pablo Picasso, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Jesus. Mailer has continued to cover presidential campaigns for various magazines, although he has not collected this work since St. George and the Godfather (1972). (A fair amount is included in The Time of Our Time, helping to keep up the appearance of a continuous chronicle of postwar history.)

There are things to admire in this writing, but the intellectual approach is a little too familiar: the author divides his subject into redemptive and infernal elements, and then muses, at length, upon the possibilities. The general mystery addressed is whether events have a meaning. It is a perfectly respectable mystery to address: to uncover meaning is a reason for writing. What begins to wear the reader down is the Manichaean insistence that all meanings are psychic meanings, and that there are only two ultimates. “The Beatles,” Mailer once remarked (and not in the spirit of self-parody), “—demons or saints?” There is never a middle possibility.

Thus on the Apollo moon landing, in Of a Fire on the Moon:

To make sense of Apollo 11 on the moon, to rise above the verbiage that covered the event, was to embark on a project which would not satisfy his own eye unless it could reduce a conceptual city of technologese to one simplicity—was the venture worthwhile or evil?

On the subject of AIDS, in a magazine piece on the 1992 Republican National Convention:

Was excrement a side-product of nature, offensive to some, as the Democrats would doubtless have argued, or was Satan in everyone’s shit? Which, in turn, was a way of saying that the devil was present more often in homosexual than in heterosexual encounters—exactly the question that blazed in the divide. We are dying, said the victims of AIDS, and you have no mercy. Are you cold to our pain because we are the devil’s spawn?—beware, then, for we will haunt you. That was the question. Was the gay nation guilty or innocent, victims or devils, damned by Jehovah or to be comforted by Christ?

On Lee Harvey Oswald, in Oswald’s Tale:

It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security. If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd…. Absurdity corrodes our species. The mounting ordure of a post-modern media fling (where everything is equal to everything else) is all the ground we need for such an assertion.

Reading The Time of Our Time one comes to feel that the reason the subjects in most of the later books tend to be about periods other than the present is because the author has lost touch with the culture. He no longer stands in oppositional or even in skeptical relation to it because he no longer quite understands it. He wishes to fight the battles of forty years ago, he has kept himself in fighting trim, but no one seems to know what he’s talking about. Haven’t all those battles been won? seems to be the response, when there is a response. Do we really need to hear about orgasms again? We can hear all about them on MTV.

There are, in this regard, two revealing pieces in the later sections of the anthology. The first is a review Mailer wrote in 1991 for Vanity Fair of a novel by Bret Easton Ellis called American Psycho. American Psycho is famous for having been dropped by its initial publisher, Simon and Schuster, just two months before publication and at a cost to the company of $300,000, after the chief executive read it and was offended by its dead-pan descriptions of the torture and murder of women. The novel was picked up immediately by Vintage Books, but it had already become a scandal, and it was universally panned. (Vintage abstained from advertising the book. It was a best seller anyway.)

Mailer’s review is very fine to a point—he is an exceptional critic—but he cannot get past the point. He is sympathetic to the use of grossly offensive imagery to shock audiences into some awareness of the technological horror of their condition. He has always relied heavily on obscenity in his own fiction with that end in mind. But he can find, in Ellis’s sadistic narrative, no there there. “If one is embarked on a novel that hopes to shake American society to the core,” he complains, “one has to have something new to say about the outer limits of the deranged—one cannot simply keep piling on more and more acts of machicolated butchery…. Blind gambling is a hollow activity and this novel spins into the center of that empty space.”

It is a little like watching Ernst Gombrich trying to elucidate the iconography in a work by Jeff Koons. The idea that a work of literature should have “something new to say,” or even that it should have an interesting way of saying it, is just one of the aesthetic values that Ellis is trying to dispense with, along with every other value of ordinary civilized life. Mailer thinks that Ellis hasn’t imagined horror; he has only copied it from schlock movies. “We are being given horror-shop plastic,” he suspects. We are. That’s the idea. It’s to banalize everything, including novels themselves. Lenny Bruce was the last obscene man in America. Even Norman Mailer cannot be obscene any longer. Everyone in his possible audience has heard it all.

The other interesting selection is an interview with Madonna that Mailer conducted for Esquire in 1994. Madonna seems so clearly Mailer’s kind of girl, and he works like a madman to get her up to his conception of her. But to no avail. He cannot arouse her intellectually, and he cannot persuade her to regard her mission from anything like a Maileresque point of view. There are many choice moments of crossed frequencies. Madonna is, of course, a leading spokesperson for safe sex.

Mailer: Well, condoms are one element in a vast, unconscious conspiracy to make everyone part of the social machine. Then we lose whatever little private spirit we’ve kept.

Madonna: On the flip side, couldn’t you say: If it makes everybody stop and question who they’re sleeping with, then isn’t that a good thing, too?… Maybe it’s a way of getting people to think how much they care about this person they’re sleeping with. You know what I mean?

Oh, he does, he does. Flatter her sense of self-importance as he may, Mailer cannot shake her free of the cant of liberal sexology.

Mailer: Well, you’re a revolutionary. What will this revolution be in the name of?

Madonna: In the name of human beings relating to other human beings. And treating each other with compassion.

Crazy, man.

The Time of Our Time rests its case for Mailer’s importance on Mailer’s views. This seems the wrong square on which to place the chips. Those views made few converts in their time, and they deserve none today. As motives for fiction, they have not proved enduringly stimulating. Mailer’s novels seem today to enact a panic about masculinity that has a very mid-century flavor to it; the sorts of gender roles central to Mailer’s imagination have virtually disappeared from the repertory of contemporary identity.

Mailer’s importance lies in another corner of the board altogether. One of the most interesting literary developments in the last forty years has been the challenge to the way we think about nonfiction. The notion of the realist novel as an impersonal mirror of reality (if anyone ever seriously entertained it) was exploded by the modernists, who placed artifice clearly in the foreground of their work. A novel by Joyce or Woolf or Nabokov is, above all else, written. Transparency is not the claim. But impersonality and transparency remain, to a great extent, the claims of contemporary journalism. Anyone who has had the smallest thing to do with journalists knows that newspaper pieces are not called stories for too little (to borrow a Mailerism). But to say so is to invite a defensive reaction. We cannot seem to acknowledge that writing, of whatever kind, is a technology like any other, a human invention for human uses. We cling to the belief that there must be one kind of writing that is a clear window on “the facts.”

Great cultural anxiety is therefore always triggered when “real” material is treated in a style that does not seem conventionally appropriate to nonfiction. This is the corollary of the anxiety triggered when works of fiction like American Psycho represent, without explicitly condemning, antisocial behavior. In both cases, the fear is that people are unable to separate the textual from the real—the fear, basically, that people do not know how to read. But the activity of reading a book is not the psychological equivalent of being hit over the head with a brick. It is, like the activity of writing a book, a process of selection, a continual assertion and withdrawal of assent to the representations being made by the language. In the end, what matters isn’t the literal accuracy of every word; there is no such thing as literalness where words are concerned. What matters is whether the writer has, in the reader’s judgment, got it right. There are many ways to get there.

Since 1960 American literary culture has become fascinated by these issues. The names usually mentioned in connection with the mainstream interest in them are Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote, who are credited with inventing the New Journalism, defined by Wolfe as journalism that uses the techniques of fiction, and the nonfiction novel, the term Capote cleverly used to characterize In Cold Blood (1965). Wolfe and Capote certainly popularized the idea that expectations about fiction and nonfiction could be challenged in entertaining ways. But they did not, except for the purposes of self-presentation, have much that was interesting to say about what they were doing, and their work, from a literary point of view, is of relatively minor interest.

Mailer was there before them, and he went much deeper into the possibilities released by the undermining of traditional distinctions between fact and fiction. The techniques of fiction are precisely what made his piece on the 1960 Democratic National Convention, which nominated John F. Kennedy, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” such a famous performance when it appeared in Esquire in 1960, three years before Wolfe is supposed to have invented the New Journalism. Mailer viewed politicians with a novelist’s eye; he read the inner man from the outer:

[Kennedy’s] style in the press conference was interesting. Not terribly popular with the reporters… he carried himself nonetheless with a cool grace that seemed indifferent to applause, his manner somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing, and two feet away from the corner when the bell ended the round…. Yet there was an elusive detachment in everything he did. One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind. Johnson gave you all of himself, he was a political animal, he breathed like an animal, sweated like one, you knew his mind was entirely absorbed with the compendium of political fact and maneuver; Kennedy seemed at times like a young professor whose manner was adequate for the classroom but whose mind was off in some intricacy of the Ph.D. thesis he was writing. Perhaps one can give a sense of the discrepancy by saying that he was like an actor who had been cast as the candidate, a good actor, but not a great one—you were aware all the time that the role was one thing and the man another—they did not coincide, the actor seemed a touch too aloof (as, let us say, Gregory Peck is usually too aloof) to become the part. Yet one had little sense of whether to value this elusiveness or to beware of it. One could be witnessing the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself.

There is nothing in Wolfe to match the sheer intuitiveness of this writing; he got his effects by other means. Still, Mailer was only elevating the form. He had not broken it open. That happened when he wrote about the 1967 march on the Pentagon for Harper’s, the story that became The Armies of the Night. There he did what no other New Journalist except, later, Hunter Thompson did (and Hunter Thompson went to school to Norman Mailer), which was to insert himself, as a character, called Mailer, into the reportage. He did it again, under the name Aquarius, in Of a Fire on the Moon, again as Norman in The Fight, and by one name or another in virtually every piece of journalism he has done since. Most readers have chalked the device up to ego; but it was not ego, or it was not only ego. It was a way of placing directly before the reader’s attention the circumstance that the text was written by a man armed with such-and-such prejudices, operating under such-and-such moral and physical limitations, altering events by his presence in such-and-such a way, and (as in The Fight, for example) induced to undertake the work by the lure of such-and-such a fee. The conditions of production are visible right there in the story, since they are in the story whether they are visible or not.

In Cold Blood was a great triumph for Capote, and no doubt Mailer pondered a little on Capote’s example, and whether he wanted to be perceived as emulating it, before embarking on his most successful book, The Executioner’s Song (1979). The Executioner’s Song was based on a story, the 1976 execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah, that brought together many of Mailer’s obsessions—the psychology of the psychopath, the technology of the penal system, existential risk and rebirth. He scarcely needed to add a thing, and it was his genius (though it was not characteristic of his genius) to realize it. “What I had was gold,” as he once said about the story, “if I had sense enough not to gild it.”

He was referring, of course, to the sort of cosmological interpolations his readers had grown, with some resignation, to expect. But it is a mistake to think that he turned himself into a tape recorder. His first artistic decision was to solve a problem that had plagued Capote’s book, which was the problem of direct quotation. Capote had conducted interviews for his book, but he was reduced in most cases to recreating dialogue out of his own head. The results, particularly in the case of the secondary characters, are often stagey, an Easterner’s idea of what Kansans talk like. And having flattened down the dialogue to suit the characters (it did not help that Capote was writing the book for The New Yorker, which imposed implicit restrictions on the kind of language he could use, even for his murderers), Capote flattened his own prose down to match it. The writing is genteel, careful, perpetually on the edge of cliché, as though a fresh expression might suggest some sort of authorial attitude, and throw off the journalistic “balance.” The consequence, as usually happens when a writer with as large an ambition as Capote self-consciously suppresses his or her personality, is a story utterly dominated by Capote. Except for the killers, whom he interviewed and who frequently speak in their own voices, the characters in In Cold Blood are just cogs in the machine of Capote’s prose.

Mailer’s idea was to render the language of his real-life characters in the novelistic style known as free indirect discourse—that is, to paraphrase them in language drawn from their own way of talking. He essentially created a voice between speech and narration.

Brenda knew her power in conversations like this. She might be that much nearer to thirty-five than thirty, but she hadn’t gone into marriage four times without knowing she was pretty attractive on the hoof, and the parole officer, Mont Court, was blond and tall with a husky build. Just an average good-looking American guy, very much on the Mr. Clean side, but all the same, Brenda thought, pretty likable. He was sympathetic to the idea of a second chance, and would flex it out with you if there was a good reason. If not, he would come down pretty hard. That was how she read him. He seemed just the kind of man for Gary.

This style enabled him to avoid the reductionism that was the consequence of Capote’s decision to maintain the impression of journalistic detachment, and it allowed him to create open characters—that is, characters who are not entirely subjected to the mediating distortions of the authorial voice—without losing control of his narrative.

Having withdrawn his own voice from the text, on the other hand, Mailer could not place his involvement in its creation in the foreground, as he had done in The Armies of the Night. This problem he solved by elevating the character of Lawrence Schiller to a key role in the second half of the book. Schiller, the man who went out to Utah to buy up the rights to Gilmore’s story and who eventually, of course, signed Mailer up to write it, is more than the representative of the journalist. He is a continual reminder that Gilmore’s death (and the deaths of the two men Gilmore killed) is being turned to commercial use. You think, what a carrion bird is this Larry Schiller. Then you realize that you are holding in your hands the very commodity he has helped to manufacture. You are a shareholder in Gilmore, Inc. The Executioner’s Song brings the old question about fiction that modernism had apparently drained of interest—can the text impartially mirror reality?—back to life. It raises the ethical stakes of reading.

In keeping himself out of In Cold Blood Capote was working for an illusion of transparency. He wanted to be a mirror to events. He had his own interpretation of the killers, but it was a psychological interpretation, and he quoted an article in a psychology journal to express it. He did not see a literary significance in his material. What Mailer saw in his material—as Schiller had already shaped it, of course, according to whose rights he could secure and whose he couldn’t; but we are privy to all the machinations—was a love story. What makes The Executioner’s Song novelistic is not the character of Gilmore but the character of Gilmore’s girlfriend, Nicole Barrett. She, not Gary, is the hero of the book, and the recognition that she is dramatically the equal of Gilmore is crucial to an appreciation of the story Mailer has imagined.

Half of the Gilmore story has to do with his struggle to force the Utah authorities to execute him, but the other half has to do with his struggle to persuade Nicole to die with him by committing suicide, and this second struggle is the novelist’s home turf. Nicole is a promiscuous and scatterbrained young woman, with two kids, living on welfare, and Gilmore is a cold and clever con. His whole personality is driven by the desire to control; this, more than anything else, is what motivates his crusade to have his death sentence carried out on his terms. He wishes (to offer the textual analogy) to be the author of all destinies; and he needs to suck Nicole into the grave with him. But she breaks free. Gilmore is about death, and Nicole is, in the end, for life. There is no one quite like her in contemporary American literature, and she is possibly Norman Mailer’s greatest creation. One wonders if he knows it.

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