Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Unless one reads this novel as a hallucinatory allegory of the American Dream, as a philosophical parable of one man’s quest for meaning and value in a corrupt social world, it is likely to strike one as completely absurd; not only do the events seem unrealistic and ridiculous, but Rojack’s own perceptions, beliefs, and language often seem childish and sophomoric. This is not to say that Rojack’s (and Mailer’s) belief in the power of the primitive is childish, or that his understanding of the link between the mythic and the psychotic is in error. Rather, this particular novel never seems to manage to fuse these legitimate views profoundly. Moreover, Heidegger’s sense of existential dread and the need to face death to achieve authenticity seem vulgar and pretentious oversimplifications coming from the mouth of the melodramatic Rojack.

Mailer has attempted to write an allegorical satire of the American Dream, as it seemingly must be played out in a fallen and corrupt world, and indeed the novel has a disquieting surreal effect, but his use of the conventions of detective fiction, the gothic novel, and the spy thriller do not transcend their sources. Thus, this novel often reads like the writing of an amateur philosopher taking himself too seriously. In its self-important reduction of everything to macho values, it equates the instinctual with the merely self-serving and brutal. Mailer laments the loss of the medieval miracle and criticizes modern society for its empiricism and anti-supernatural mode of perception; he emphasizes the need for a return to the mystical side of experience; he wishes to present Rojack as a man who yearns for a dissolution of the ego, a transformation of the self, a return to primitive wholeness. Yet either An American Dream is not the vehicle for such a vision, or else Mailer is simply not a sufficiently profound thinker to achieve such a synthesis.