Norman Mailer at age eighty, with an anthology of scars, tickles, slaps, and winks for would-be writers and weary readers—not Aquarius but Gerontion, an old man in a drafty house under a windy knob…
Perhaps 7 percent of The Spooky Art is previously unpublished, although it’s hard to tell for sure as you flip to and fro from body text to source notes. You may recall that in the last mound of Mailer, The Time of Our Time (1998), 1,300 pages of recycled snippets from five decades of fiction and journalism paraded by, not in the order in which they’d been written, but in the order of the years they described. (Thus the “White Negro” essay of 1956 was immediately followed by two chapters from the 1991 novel Harlot’s Ghost, which happened to be about the CIA in the late Fifties.) At least in Spooky, the book extracts, prefaces, afterwords, interviews, speeches, talk-show transcripts, and extemp animadversions are arranged, inside broad categories of craft, genre, philosophy, and guff, to accord roughly with the many Golgothas of his long career.
Still the book feels like one of those late-night cable commercials for Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits, or Conway Twitty’s: act now, call this toll-free number, and we will also send you, at no extra charge, a cool tool to sharpen your knives, whiten your teeth, and screw your neighbors.
“Craft,” says Mailer, “is a grab bag of procedures, tricks, lore, formal gymnastics, symbolic superstructures—methodology, in short.” Craft is not in the same big league as “a vision of experience,” which is what the great writers all have, and can’t be borrowed, mimicked, or faked. Craft is more like “a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued.” If you like this folksy sort of thing, there is a lot of it in Spooky, a kind of humming on the wires between rants and ruminations about journalism, pornography, critics, being, nothingness, and other writers.
Unbuttoned, he will tell us that poems are a one-night stand, short stories an affair, novels a marriage, and movies “more likely than literature to reach deep feelings in people” because film “delves into deeper states of consciousness.” That we need to do something we can write about, preferably something existential, “by which I mean an experience you do not control.” That writers ought to train themselves, like athletes, “to do a good day’s work on a bad day.” That writing on drugs is a lousy idea, but writing without cigarettes is a bitch. That, in first person or third, he has a hard time with multiple characters and passing time: “At the moment the only great writer who can handle forty or fifty characters and three or four decades is García Márquez…. In my Egyptian novel, it took me ten pages…
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