Mailer, Norman (Vol. 14)
Mailer, Norman 1923–
Mailer, a novelist, essayist, social critic, and filmmaker, is one of the most prominent contemporary American writers. The Naked and the Dead is considered one of the major novels of the Second World War, but his fiction since has been of uneven quality. He has shown a much more consistently capable hand in his nonfiction, most of which is written in the style of New Journalism. Foremost among these works are Armies of the Night and Of a Fire on the Moon. A writer of powerful prose, he is at his best when attacking the materialism and spiritual malaise of contemporary American society. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
George Alfred Schrader
Soren Kierkegaard has … provided us with an exquisitely precise description of the kind of program which Mailer has adopted for himself. Mailer calls it the "philosophy of Hip" and "good orgasm"; Kiekegaard terms it "the despair of defiance." They come to much the same thing. (p. 82)
Mailer is no existentialist—unless we are to consider his brand of self-styled "American existentialism" as an existentialist heresy. Whereas Mailer claims to be a confirmed romantic who hopes to find his destiny through Hip and "good orgasm," the European existentialists have been consistently opposed to all varieties of romanticism. Kierkegaard expressed the antiromantic orientation of existentialism pungently and succinctly in his assertion that "there is no immediate health of the spirit." Yet, it is just such an "immediate health of the spirit" which Mailer professes as the fundamental doctrine of his "existentialism." Although he is referring specifically to the psychopath rather than the hipster, what Mailer says about orgasm expresses the basic tenet of "the philosophy of Hip": "At bottom, the drama of the psychopath is that he seeks love. Not love as the search for a mate, but love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it. Orgasm is his therapy—he knows at the seed of his being that good orgasm opens his possibilities and bad orgasm imprisons him." The very notion of "orgasm," which might be...
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[To] write history in Mailer's style requires even more strenuous efforts with language than does the writing of a novel or a play. Having more claims to preexistent forms of reality than novels do, history will give up the shape it has assumed to some other shape only under enormous stylistic (or scholarly) pressure. In the absence of such pressure, we're left to contemplate only the failure of the efforts to exert it, to study the drama of confrontation between a doughty self and resistant historical forces. (p. 168)
His books are about Mailer, to be sure, about the man as he writes history as well as about the man who tried to participate in its making. But they are meant to reveal the true nature of the historical events and issues with which he has involved himself. Similarly, while his metaphors do reveal the workings of his mind, in its probing, contradictory, fluid movement, they also, he would insist, expose the reality of America. He'll settle for nothing less. It's a heroic ambition, but except in the special circumstances of Armies, where the nature of his participation in events is beautifully synchronized with his writing about them, the ambition is seldom achieved. Mailer is more often than not the overreacher of his times.
His metaphoric and melodramatic versions of society and history are of course full of revelations; they tell us more than would a Mailer gone sane and sedate…. There is...
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Writing in brief, widely spaced-apart paragraphs, Mailer laces together a string of disquieting anecdotes [about condemned killer Gary Gilmore in The Executioner's Song], creating an atmosphere of friction and frayed nerves: fear at the heart of an empty calm.
The early chapters are suspenseful—doubly suspenseful: The reader not only waits for Gilmore's nerves to snap, but also for Mailer to make an all-trumpets-raised-in-tribute entrance as Aquarius or The Reporter or The Existential Detective. Instead, Mailer slyly—wisely—cloaks himself in invisibility and keeps a watchful distance…. He shadows Gilmore, shooting him from a dozen angles, darting in and out of the minds of his victims, lovers, enemies, and kinfolks. Free of psychometaphysical bombast (remember the anagrammatic analysis in Marilyn, the apocalyptic epiphanies of The Faith of Graffiti?), The Executioner's Song is a study of shallows and surfaces, of moods that curl like smoke or harden into hateful fists.
Nearly 800 pages into the book, Mailer reports New West writer Barry Farrell's reaction to Gilmore's tapes of his In Cold Blood escapades "His account fell into the same narrative style every hustler and psychopath would give you of the most boring, or of the most extraordinary evening—we did this and then, man, like we did that. Episodic and unstressed." Gilmore's narrative style becomes Mailer's: Episodic,...
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It is one of those testimonies to the tenacity of self-regard in the literary life that large numbers of people remain persuaded that Norman Mailer is no better than their reading of him. They condescend to him, they dismiss his most original work in favor of the more literal and predictable rhythms of "The Armies of the Night"; they regard "The Naked and the Dead" as a promise later broken and every book since as a quick turn for his creditors, a stalling action, a spangled substitute, tarted up to deceive, for the "big book" he cannot write. In fact he has written this "big book" at least three times now. He wrote it the first time in 1955 with "The Deer Park" and he wrote it a second time in 1965 with "An American Dream" and he wrote it a third time in 1967 with "Why Are We in Vietnam?" and now, with "The Executioner's Song," he has probably written it a fourth. (p. 1)
[In] a meticulously limited vocabulary and a voice as flat as the horizon, [Mailer has written] a novel which takes for its incident and characters real events in the lives of real people. "The Executioner's Song" is ambitious to the point of vertigo, and the exact extent of its ambitiousness becomes clear at the end of the first chapter, when a curious sentence occurs, a sentence designed as a kind of Gothic premonition. Brenda Nicol … has gotten a call from the penitentiary at Marion saying that her cousin Gary Gilmore was coming home—by way of St. Louis,...
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[One] of the many edges on which Mailer has always precariously balanced his career and reputation is the edge between fiction and what we like to call (forgetting how fictive it really is) "real life." The subtitle of his best political book, The Armies of the Night, is History as a Novel: The Novel as History. And, seriously as that subtitle may have been meant in Armies, it takes on even more serious meaning in The Executioner's Song (subtitled A True Life Novel). For if "fiction" means anything at all, it means an intelligent shaping and ordering of the inchoate stuff of life itself.
He was lucky in his subject. Gary Gilmore was a loser, a violent thug who, after spending half his life in jails, chose to accept his sentence of death rather than spend the rest of his life there. But he was—is, in this book—also a walking compendium of everything that had, long since, become characteristic of the archetypal Mailer hero. (pp. 28-9)
Moreover, by the time he became front-page news, Gilmore had begun to realize another and less savory aspect of Mailer's own career: that of the existential hero trapped among clowns and hucksters capitalizing on his private decision, and even seducing him into complicity in the packaging of what ought to be, in its purity, unpackageable. (p. 29)
Gilmore (like Jim in Lord Jim) is both the center of this book and its...
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The good news is that Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song … is a superb piece of writing. It has the scope and wallop of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy; its realism contains echoes of Zola and Frank Norris and James T. Farrell; and it reaffirms the vitality and the validity of the social novel, which, having fled underground with the advent of the Cold War, has now re-emerged with incredible pulsing power. The Executioner's Song is (or should be) the occasion for rousing cheers.
In spare, detached, almost journalistic prose Mailer demonstrates that he is a master of suspenseful narration and of character building through adroit use of quotations, dialogue, and stark personal interactions. The result is a camera-eye focus on the underside of American society; on the loathsomeness of some of its inhabitants who exist in mirror image to cultivated society; on the failure of our penal system to regenerate its inmate-victims; and on the devilish role of the press in publicizing Gilmore's final days.
Mailer eschews tractarian moralism: It is enough to grip the reader and to fix his gaze steadily on the human lemons that American society produces…. With its relentless authenticity, Mailer's volume forces us to confront the fact that life in the Lower Depths is just as American as sour apple pie.
The first part of the book centers on Gilmore, Nicole, their circle, and the...
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The Executioner's Song is a "plain, unvarnished tale," stitched together from hundreds of hours of interviews, about half of them conducted by Mailer, with supporting characters and bit players in the Gary Gilmore saga. The story is told from several dozen points of view….
Mixing the different voices proved to be Mailer's highest hurdle. "I was brought up not to jump from one person's mind into another," he says. "I thought that was what poor writers did when they didn't have enough imagination to find a form. But then, I thought, the shifting point of view was a 19th-century form, it went back to a time when people believed in God and the novelist could play at being the All Knowing Supreme Deity."
In this case, the deity orchestrates the voices, but does not join in the song. The qualities (or flaws, depending on one's point of view) we look for in Mailer's work—the ripe style, the existential musings, the outrageous ideas, the over-characterizing—are nowhere in sight.
What then, one might ask, is there of Mailer in the book, and why could it not have been written by any competent journalist who knows how to edit taped interviews? Mailer insists that "only someone who has been writing for 30 years would be willing to relinquish his ego. I couldn't have done it 15 years ago. It's hard for a writer who takes himself seriously to be nothing but a transmission belt."
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However powerful one finds [The Executioner's Song] there are reservations one may feel about the genre and about its social implications—if only what to make of the literary ambulance-chasing that the true-life novel encourages.
Perhaps the contradictions embodied in the idea of true-life fiction reflect Mailer's ambivalence about whether to take a journalistic or novelistic direction with this fascinating material, involving as it does both dramatic elements of love and death and matters of worldly significance. Gilmore's assertion of his right to have the death sentence carried out and the legal bases of efforts to save him, the evident failure of the penal system to do anything for or with him in his nineteen years of prison, or to protect his victims from him either, the role in the story of Mormonism and Utah history—these and many other matters would repay the attention of a journalist of Mailer's penetration and energy. On the other hand, Gilmore's story partakes something (too little, it turns out) of popular literary traditions about tragic lovers and defiant condemned men …, cowboys, On the Road types, Tobacco Road types which would attract any novelist, especially one with Mailer's romantic turn of mind….
Gilmore's history, Nicole's history are horrifying, sad, moving, and skillfully told in Book One ("Western Voices") in short, forceful paragraphs with extra spaces between,...
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