“Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state.” With this artful sentence, Norman Mailer begins his Book of the Dead. Our most conspicuous literary energy has generated its weirdest text, a book that defies usual aesthetic standards, even as it is beyond any conventional idea of good and evil. Like James Merrill, with whom he has in common absolutely nothing else, Mailer finds one of his occult points of origin in the visionary Yeats, but unlike Merrill, Mailer truly shares Yeats’s obsession with the world of the dead. Merrill’s spirits, in The Changing Light at Sandover, are representations of our lives, here and now. But Mailer has gone back to the ancient evenings of the Egyptians in order to find the religious meaning of death, sex, and reincarnation, using an outrageous literalism, not metaphor. What the subscribers to the Literary Guild will find in it is more than enough bumbuggery and humbuggery to give them their money’s worth.
But there is also spiritual power in Mailer’s fantasy (it is not the historical novel that it masks itself as being) and there is a relevance to current reality in America that actually surpasses that of Mailer’s largest previous achievement, The Executioner’s Song. More than before, Mailer’s fantasies, now brutal and unpleasant, catch the precise accents of psychic realities within and between us. Ancient Evenings rivals Gravity’s Rainbow as an exercise in what has to be called a monumental sado-anarchism, and one aspect of Mailer’s phantasmagoria may be its need to challenge Pynchon precisely where he is strongest. Paranoia, in both these American amalgams of Prometheus and Narcissus, becomes a climate.
Ancient Evenings goes on for seven hundred large pages, yet gives every sign of truncation, as though its present form were merely its despair of finding its proper shape. The book could be half again as long, but no reader will wish it so. Thomas Mann proudly remarked of his Egyptian novel, Joseph and His Brothers, that “as the son of a tradesman I have a fundamental faith in quality…. The song of Joseph is good, solid work.” Mann gave his life to the book for sixteen years, and its quality is durable. Mailer has given Ancient Evenings a decade, and it is wild, speculative work, but hard work nevertheless. Its quality is not durable, and perhaps does not attempt to be. Mailer is desperately trying to save our souls as D.H. Lawrence tried to do in The Plumed Serpent or even as Melville did in Pierre. An attentive reader ought to bring a respectful wariness to such fictions for they cannot be accepted or dismissed, even when they demand more of the reader than they can give. Mailer wishes to make his serious readers into religious vitalists, even as Lawrence sought to renew our original relationship both to the sun and to a visionary origin beyond the natural sun. Mailer’s later…
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