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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 to be written about 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, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
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Advertisements for Myself is chaotic; its tone is uncertainly pitched between defiance and apology. So much is this the case that anyone can easily lay hands on its jugular, and many reviewers have done so and thought they severed it. But the condition of Norman Mailer's life and art is that his jugular remains exposed. With all its faults in view, Advertisements for Myself is a confessional document of considerable interest and an engrossing chronicle of the postwar literary life. It is also an extremely funny book, for Mailer's gifts as a humorist are among his most reliable gifts. The one thing that his candor and wit leave unmolested is his own heavy dependence on the literary past, on what has been done. (pp. 97-8)
[The] attraction of Moby Dick to Mailer [who once described a projected thousand-page novel as "a descendant of Moby Dick"], seems to consist largely in its bulk, profundity, and prestige. It is to him, I should imagine, an image of literary power rather than a work to be admired, learned from perhaps, and then returned to its place of honor. And to judge by Advertisements, the literary past is all the weightier for him because it includes the achievements of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and others of their vintage, all of them together representing to him a massed accumulation of potency. How did he come to write his first published book, The Naked and the Dead, a novel of army life in the late war? "… I may as well confess I had gone into the army with the idea that when I came out I would write the war novel of World War II." With this idea in mind he did serve in the army (proudly, as a rifleman) and he did produce, punctually, efficiently, and as if on demand, The Naked and the Dead. But what an idea, and what a phrase, "the war novel of World War II"! The war novel? To be sure, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and others of their time had used their varied experiences of World War I in the writing of a lot of enormously varied books. Not they, but later journalists and sociologists, lumped those books together in the misleading, the unreal, category of "war novels." And when the second war arrived, the same crowd created that demand for "the novel of World War II" which Mailer determined to meet.
Advertisements for Myself testifies to his constant preoccupation with those 20's writers, in their capacity not merely as war novelists but as symbols of literary prestige in general. (pp. 98-9)
No Olympians can ever have looked more Olympian to an outsider than Hemingway and the others have looked to Mailer…. His genuine appreciation of their work was laced with a strong sense of their material stature—their reputation, influence, position in the literary market place. One sees, too, that his disposition to regard them, and the literary past in general, in this light, arose not only from the fact of his coming of age at this formidable phase of their careers. He also came of age at a moment of rapidly growing prosperity and expanding culture in America, when similar rewards seemed to be within reach of himself and other aspiring young writers.
Hence, probably, the dreams of worldly power which, in the pages of Advertisements, give unmistakable signs of being conjoined to his legitimate literary ambitions. Unmistakable? He has been "running for President for years," he says, and applies the same phrase to James Jones. Such truculent admissions are evidently supposed to induce in the reader a state of amused shock. To me they represent a rather depressing confusion of purposes. Why, with a thousand-page novel to finish, does anyone want to be President, unless he fears that he will never finish the novel? (pp. 99-100)
Advertisements may, as Alfred Kazin affirms, resemble Fitzgerald's The Crackup in showing "how exciting, yet tragic, America can be for a gifted writer." But Mailer's battleground has at least these resemblances to a city play-ground: it is strenuous, competitive, gang-conscious, cruel, sporting, amusing. And though America is unquestionably exciting to Mailer, it is wonderful how little he ever allows it to become tragic. Indeed, his response to the excitement of it is intense enough to preclude his feeling "deeply" any tragedy in it. One of the advantages of Advertisements over his novels is that the sense of excitement and the laughter get full play here, unembarrassed by any need to write, or rewrite, the Great American Novel. America represents wonderful sport and adventure to Mailer; and they get better as America itself seems to him to grow more corrupt and menacing. (p. 100)
The various forms of enlightenment which the older writers brought to bear on their experience seem to have crystallized, for Mailer, into a vague, self-conscious sort of wisdom. This has sought to express itself in appropriate ideas, Marxist or Nietzschean … or Freudian. Of these the Freudian is Mailer's most pervasive source of ideas and images. It is astonishing how often in his novels an authoritative older person is engaged in trying to assist some younger, more amorphous person to maturity…. But the Freudian ideas, like those of other derivation, often operate not to reinforce and clarify his experience but to embarrass and devitalize it. The author himself seems frequently to approach his material as the learner, the disciple, the patient, eager to grow up.
The result in his novels is … a sort of tug of war between his passion for experience and his felt need of enlightening ideas. And it is in The Deer Park, that survivor of what was to be his eight-part colossus, that Mailer's contradictions reach their maximum intensity. When Alfred Kazin calls The Deer Park a "somehow sick book," "peculiarly airless and closed," I feel obliged to assent even while rebelling against the J. Donald Adams-like adjectives. (The Deer Park brings out the old Adams in us all.) For this novel about the sex life, the political, social, and business problems of Hollywood personages gathered in a resort resembling (I gather) Palm Springs, is frequently paralyzed by its opposing intentions. The manners prevailing in this unpleasant pleasure resort are superbly observed. The conversation of Hollywood magnates is admirably comic. The routines of the call-girls form a weird dance-like pattern within the slowly moving narrative. In the rendering of such things Mailer's passion for experience is matched by his expert knowledge of what he writes about. How does it happen, then, that this panorama of iniquity is constantly threatening to turn into a waxworks display? For one thing, Mailer's trio of heroes, Eitel, Faye, and O'Shaugnessy, are too sententious and loquacious and self-conscious. In their frequent colloquies they constitute a sort of committee interminably "chewing on" (in committee jargon) the agenda of the day. And with much help from the author, by way of his often intrusive comments on the action, they just about chew the hell out of it. Literally, they all but convert the experience of modern corruption into something inert, dry, and abstract. (pp. 101-02)
With his essential humor, sanity, and (yes!) humility, Mailer seems to … give promise of reconciling his appetite for life with his appetite for ideas. But a novel in perhaps a thousand pages? Raintree County approached that length, I believe, but Moby Dick, in my edition, runs to only 822. (p. 103)
F. W. Dupee, "The American Norman Mailer" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1960 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, February, 1960 (and reprinted in Norman Mailer: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Leo Braudy, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972, pp. 96-103).
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Through the years Mailer has acquired notoriety through incidents ranging from the stabbing of his second wife to his New York mayoralty campaign, and his facility for antagonizing his audiences is well known. Whatever the circumstances of his exposure to the public, Mailer rarely fails to be "good copy" and consequently has been fair game for the media newsmakers. Because of the difficulty of reconciling this notorious Mailer with the much-admired author of The Naked and the Dead and The Armies of the Night, critics have commonly, at their most charitable, dismissed Mailer's public acts as irrelevant to his written work, or, at their least, considered them damaging to his reputation as a writer. (p. 3)
Ironically, with the awarding of the 1968 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award to The Armies of the Night, Mailer was admitted to the American literary establishment despite his continued violations of its decorum, which, indeed, since that time are more often received as the eccentricities of a literary genius than as the self-indulgences of a publicity-seeking minor novelist.
Far from being antipathetic to his writing, however, as The Armies of the Night demonstrates, Mailer's public acts are the tests of the efficacy of his theories without which he could grow neither as a man nor as a writer. To attempt to separate Mailer's art from his life is to invite the question, "What is his art if not the creation of himself?" Part of the problem we have had in accepting this relationship in Mailer (although not in his Romantic predecessors) stems from his huge ambition and his usurpation of the critic's role with respect to his own work. At a time when he had only one popular and critical success to his name, his fine 1948 war novel, The Naked and the Dead, and three comparative failures, his ambitions seemed presumptuous…. [In Advertisements for Myself] he planned to outdo all other American writers, past and present, by trying to hit "the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters." Were these not presumptions enough, the book itself was a rejection of conventional criticism, conventional themes, conventional forms. (p. 4)
Committed … to altering the contemporary consciousness, Mailer continually changed and refined his methods in his search for the most effective means to this end. The years between Advertisements for Myself (1959) and The Armies of the Night (1968) were rich in explorations into both subject matter and style, always aimed at pushing back their existing limits. Much of the difficulty readers had with An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam?, for example, was caused by the unconventional subject matter of the former and the difficult style of the latter…. While of uneven quality, the quantity of work produced during this period is prodigious.
Mailer resolved his thematic and stylistic concerns in the work which may be considered the end product of this experimental period, The Armies of the Night. That Armies is further the culmination of twenty years of writing may be seen through the perspective I have termed Mailer's aesthetics of growth. Since the late 1950's Mailer has had a vision of forces at war for possession of the universe, metaphors for our moral directions which he calls God and the Devil, whose victories or defeats are seen as ultimately productive either of life or death for the human race. The forces of evil, or totalitarians, have been winning for too long, he believes, so that "God is in danger of dying." The machine technology and those who would extend its power have characteristically been Mailer's villains and the human spirit their victim. In order for man's consciousness to grow once more toward the vitality and creativity it had enjoyed during the Renaissance and in frontier America, when the limits of human possibility were explored, each individual must wage his own war against the totalitarian systems which would control and segment him. The battle-ground is anywhere, the opponent anyone or anything that would prevent human growth, the moment of battle "existential," for in summoning the courage to confront an adversary one pushes himself out onto the end of a limb where "he does not go necessarily to his death, but he must dare it." The reward for victory is growth through renewed courage and self-confidence and the remission of old sins.
To be defeated, on the other hand, is to permit the life-sapping forces to take hold in oneself (cancer is Mailer's metaphor), making future victories more difficult. Our only defenses are our knowledge of the danger and our capacity for courageous action against the enemy. The progress of a human life, then, in Mailer's design, is charted as a series of moments of synthesis resulting from the interaction of opposing forces and aimed ultimately at embracing all contradictions.
To seek victory over what one considers evil and productive of death is to strive toward the heroic condition. Convinced of the need for a heroic leader, a man capable of embodying the ambiguities and contradictions of this discordant age, Mailer began to develop him through the contours of style. That style has always been heavily metaphorical, and attempts to take him literally have often obscured his meaning. The initial reception of An American Dream is a case in point. Read as realism, the book seems to justify murder and sexual perversion. However, as a metaphor for America's need to rid itself of its corruption and to seek a new and better self truer to the old American Dream, the novel is one of the finest contemporary visions of America's possibility through a courageous and radical heroism.
Over the years Mailer moved through a series of possible heroes including the amoral hipster of the "The White Negro" and President John F. Kennedy, as well as Stephen Rojack of An American Dream, before concluding that the viable hero for our time must be a man in whom the schizophrenic halves of the American psyche, the dream of the extraordinary and the mundane reality, can come together. And so Mailer settled upon a man whom he created as much as discovered for the role: himself.
It is in the combination of the actual and the metaphorical functions of the hero known as "Mailer" in The Armies of the Night that Mailer's life and art grow together most significantly. Because we live in an anti-heroic, deflating age, the hero for our time must be comic, capable of ludicrous self-debasement on the one hand and courageous action on the other. Such is Mailer's portrayal of himself…. Clearly the Mailer hero is no Superman but a very human being who on occasion summons up the courage to rise above the beast in himself, to outweigh and redeem his failures, although because he is human he will fail again. This knowledge is what makes him a whole man and can make America a whole nation.
Having established himself as the representative American hero, Mailer is obliged to confront those events which are capable of influencing our national destiny, as his works since The Armies of the Night demonstrate…. [It is] the "detached ego," the persona generally known as "Aquarius" whose confrontations with and experiences of current events provide Mailer the writer with material. The use of himself as an objective observer in these books, rather than as a literary character, represents a shift in emphasis since The Armies of the Night from the method to the material. Mailer has overcome the historian's traditional difficulty, determining the reliability of his sources of information, through his own presence at and participation in the making of history. (pp. 5-8)
The progress from the Norman Mailer who wrote a fine war novel in the best American tradition a quarter-century ago to the Norman Mailer of The Armies of the Night who created a new literary form to encompass his expanding vision of American life is the result of Mailer's uncompromising adherence to his goals. While it may surely be argued that much of Mailer's work has been ineffective for his purpose, it must also be granted that the nonliterary portions of the work, which have seemed so various, so ill-conceived, so egocentric to some are part of a progressive whole. After all, it is the process itself and the aesthetics that move it rather than his separate performances which constitute Mailer's greatest contribution to his age. (p. 8)
Laura Adams, in her introduction to Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? edited by Laura Adams (copyright © 1974 by Kennikat Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1974, pp. 3-9.
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Mailer is shameless in his passion for women, and one is led to believe anything he says because he says it so well. He is so puritanical, so easily and deeply shocked, like any hero, that his arguments, which approach the fluidity and senselessness of music, have the effect of making the dehumanized aspects of womanhood appear attractive. (p. 216)
[To] Norman Mailer, "the prime responsibility of a woman is probably to be on earth long enough to find the best mate possible for herself, and conceive children who will improve the species."
But we don't know what the species is. A post-Darwinist name for "God"? A scientific concept? A mystical concept? A word? An identity? An essence? Do we locate ourselves in it, or does it push through us, blindly, with the affection of a stampeding crowd? And how long is "long enough"? Should we remain on earth for twenty years, or forty, or dare we hope for an extravagant eighty years, though our last several decades will be unproductive and therefore unjustified?… The "power to conceive or not to conceive" is, after all [according to Mailer], the "deepest expression of [a woman's] character…." Not one kind of expression, not even the most pragmatic expression, but the deepest expression! One sees why the mystic is the most dangerous of human beings. (pp. 217-18)
The mechanical fact of possessing a certain body must no longer determine the role of the spirit, the personality. If Women's Liberation accomplishes no more than this it will have accomplished nearly everything.
But there are further problems, further areas of masculine uneasiness. Mailer criticizes Kate Millett for believing in "the liberal use of technology for any solution to human pain." Yes, that sounds like heretical belief so long as human pain is valued as sacred, or important as an expression of personality, or helpful for salvation … or even conversation. But it isn't. It is nothing, it is a waste, a handicap, a mistake…. Mailer, like all heroic spirits, places a primitive value on suffering. And one feels that he would not shy away from suffering, even the suffering of childbirth, if that were a possibility for him. Yes, to suffer, to feel, to be changed—it is a way of realizing that we live. But it is also a way of becoming dehumanized, mechanized. In fact, a way of dying. (pp. 219-20)
At the start of The Prisoner of Sex, Mailer speaks of having taken care of his large family for several weeks during the summer, cooking, cleaning, turning into a kind of house-wife, so exhausted with domestic chores that he had no time to write, to think, to contemplate his ego. No time to contemplate his ego! (p. 221)
There will be a place in our society for Mailer's heroic mysticism, at the point in history at which women can afford the same mysticism. (p. 223)
Joyce Carol Oates, "Male Chauvinist?" in Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? edited by Laura Adams (copyright © 1974 by Kennikat Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1974, pp. 216-223.
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Norman Mailer,… in his shifting and for the moment truncated career as a novelist, illustrates precisely how American writing has tended to move into a new, problematic relationship with history. His first book, The Naked and the Dead (1948)—in many respects still his most adequate novel—draws on techniques of Dos Passos, Farrell, Steinbeck, and other American social realists of the 30's in order to present a panoramic view of American society in the crucible of war, the writer using his medium to grapple strenuously with the complex ideological forces that were exposed in the war, and struggling to imagine some way to a livable human future beyond this or other wars. Mailer's two novels of the 50's, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, try to explore technical possibilities and human situations beyond the purview of The Naked and the Dead, but he remains in both of them an essentially political novelist, keenly attentive to how power is exerted in a particular time and place, how ideology and the moral imagination respond to the felt pressures of power. In Mailer's two novels of the next decade, however, An American Dream (1964) and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), a radical shift occurred, a shift that may explain why Mailer has written no novels since. The very titles, of course, emphasize a programmatic concentration on issues of national destiny, but both novels in fact are largely devoted to the playing out of private fantasies. Frequently articulated with stylistic brilliance, the fantasies do on occasion illuminate certain aspects of the larger American context, but too often their self-indulgence only leads us down some primrose path in Mailer's own teeming mental garden. After such fiction, this abundantly talented writer, losing purchase on both form and subject, seems to have concluded that he had little choice but to become a self-dramatizing journalist. (p. 45)
Robert Alter (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1975 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, November, 1975.
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Over the perspective of both officers and enlisted men [in The Naked and the Dead] prevails the narrative voice of Mailer, who, Olympian-like, remains a detached, omniscient observer. He conveys the tribulations of war with almost scathing objectivity. (p. 18)
Clearly, Mailer's perspective in this novel seems noninnovational for it is derived from naturalism, the prevailing point of view of the American masters of the 1930s—Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Farrell, and Hemingway—who inspired him. Naturalism's most frequent metaphor, the lawless jungle, is the literal setting of The Naked and the Dead. (p. 19)
What makes this novel so disturbing is not the actual horror of war, but Mailer's unrelenting vision of the void—of the lack of love, justice, and mercy. Nothing human is sacred, and the only constant is change. The unpredictable oscillations of nature and man's emotions charge every scene. To be human is to be a mass of uncorrelated impulses. (p. 24)
The mythic heroism of [the three main characters] and the naturalistic universe they oppose is the primary dramatic conflict in The Naked and the Dead. In artistic terms, the conflict is between romance and realism. The interplay between these two elements gives this novel its identifying form as a work of art. (p. 26)
The Naked and the Dead is the finest novel in English to come out of World War II. More than any particular philosophy or social theory it may advance, its claim to greatness lies in the fact that Mailer defines war on the raw, sensate level and thereby makes us understand it in a palpable way. (p. 28)
It would be simplistic to say that Lovett [the narrator of Barbary Shore] is not real for us because he is not real to himself. The problem, really, lies with the book's artistry. Mailer has set himself a difficult task—to make a pallid character engaging. Barbary Shore represents Mailer's first first-person narration, and he has not quite mastered the form. The prose is articulate, but flat. Lovett's vapidity is essentially a function of his characterization, not of his character. (p. 33)
The characters of Barbary Shore seem to be less full-bodied creations of humanity than personifications of certain sociological tenets. Lovett alone escapes categorization, and this only because his identity is so vague. (p. 35)
Yet if the characterization of Lovett does not always satisfy, the book as a whole can be enjoyed. It gains in dimension if one thinks of the literary heritage from which it grew. The rooming house brings to mind the cave-like basement in Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths and the squalid tavern in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. The last third of the novel, like Gorky's play, is a socialist call to action, and Hickey's confessional monologue in O'Neill's play forms an interesting parallel to McLeod's.
Generally, though, the inhabitants of Mailer's purgatorial rooming house remind one of Eliot's people existing, as they do in "The Dry Salvages," "among the breakage," each a separate "sphere of existence." (p. 36)
In conclusion, Barbary Shore is a book born of much polemical thought. Thus its final effect on the reader is of life argued rather than life lived. (p. 37)
[Both Faye and Sergius in The Deer Park] are unconvincing, each for opposite reasons. Faye is developed beyond any dramatic justification, and Sergius is not developed enough. Though Mailer makes clear the moral urgency of Sergius's situation—the conflicting claims of the "imaginary world" and the "real world"—he seldom presents him reacting dramatically to it, and so the reader does not have a felt sense of involvement with Sergius…. (p. 49)
Happily, what more than compensates for the flaws in the characterization of Sergius is the brilliant delineation of the affair between Eitel and Elena. With scrupulous honesty Mailer renders an intensive, intimate portrayal of a relationship—its dynamic of sensual rapture and love, its attendant disillusionment, its deterioration, its final stale disablement…. As a novel about the journey of love, The Deer Park has a justifiable claim to greatness.
Reinforcing the doomed, airless quality of the Eitel-Elena affair is the novel's setting, Desert D'Or. It is the unifying center of the entire book, a persistent atmospheric presence that gives palpable form to the "prisons of pain, the wading pools of pleasure, and the public and professional voices of our sentimental land." This for Mailer constitutes American culture at large. (pp. 50-1)
Mailer's purgatorial—indeed, Dantean—vision of Desert D'Or imbues his realistic story with an epical gravity and intensifies its moral theme enunciated by Eitel: "'One cannot look for a good time, Sergius, for pleasure must end as love or cruelty'—and almost as an afterthought, he added 'or obligation.'" The Deer Park is an ironic prose elegy about people seeking after pleasure as though it were happiness. (p. 51)
[It appears, from Advertisements for Myself, that] Mailer may rather enjoy being embittered; he certainly must have got satisfaction from his "Advertisements" because they are written with a freedom and a brio never before found in his work. Gone is the dispassionate, workmanlike prose so characteristic of his previous novels and his early Farrellesque stories of social realism. Now we get a prose of propulsive vigor, of pungently sensuous flourishes grounded upon a brooding earnestness. Together these "Advertisements" form a self-inventory; they show us Mailer grimly taking stock of himself amid a waste of broken resolves to write a novel that would have brought to fruition the early promise he showed at the age of twenty-five in The Naked and the Dead. (p. 55)
Advertisements for Myself is an amalgam of the three themes that have always been and still are basic to Mailer's work: the individual in conflict with society, the role of the artist in the modern world, and the nature of the sexual experience. As Mailer treats them, these three themes have the same intention: to delineate the conditions of our social, psychological, and natural existence, and to show in what ways they are at odds.
It is, however, the theme of the artist in the modern world that is central to Advertisements for Myself. For essentially what one comes away with after reading this book is an experiential sense of what it was to be a writer in America at midcentury and, by extension, what it is to be a man. For Mailer intends us to conclude that the artist's plight is an intensification or clarification of the plight of every thinking man. (pp. 61-2)
Mailer intends [An American Dream] to be a fiery chisel working its way into all the dull lairs of American guilt and malaise. His method is to present a narrator whose senses are unsheathed, who looks at the world—indeed, smells it, feels it, hears it, tastes it—with an accelerated consciousness…. Rojack is a man operating on an edge between life and death, for at the dramatic heart of the novel is the conflict between creative and destructive power.
The principal theme of the novel argues, however, for intimacy with destruction, not separation from it. (p. 66)
[Always] the suggestive thrust of his writings has been that insanity is unavoidable in contemporary America. That which social tradition deems sanity, he argues, is actually sickness: the military (The Naked and the Dead); political parties (Barbary Shore); and show business (The Deer Park)…. The theme of An American Dream is the clarification and intensification of the subconscious self. It is about exhuming one's primeval being so that it can invigorate and inform the conscious mind and be brought to bear upon the social and institutional arenas of contemporary America. (pp. 69-70)
To give form to this struggle for unencumbered selfhood, Mailer has fashioned a large-motioned, polyphonic prose of remarkable metaphoric richness. His language is at once energetic, convolute, and lush. It is an orchestration of gusts and magniloquent musings, exhibiting always a quivering awareness of the tangible world. (p. 72)
An American Dream signifies a radical departure from Mailer's earlier novels that were written in the realistic mode. The role of literature for him now becomes one of mystic release and revelation. He found in this book a way to give the immediacy of direct sensation to the morbid or sensuous dream. Areas of our nature usually left unexplored—Mailer would say untapped—are revealed. (p. 73)
[Mailer explodes] the whole Adamic tradition of American literature. Why Are We in Vietnam? is a deliberate rebuttal of the revered notion that if man removes himself from the corruptness of civilization and enters the realm of unspoiled nature, he can revive within himself something of the purity of heart and nobility of spirit that Adam must have felt in that first world that God set specially before him. While Mailer believes that man does indeed divorce himself from the mystical harmonies of nature, greedily ravage it, build war machines, decimate his own kind, and seem generally to sing a ghastly paean to death, he clearly suggests, by way of D. J.'s and Tex's Arctic experience, that the origin of man's barbarity is nature itself. Evil was in nature before it was in man. Such is Mailer's premise, and he shares it with William Burroughs, whose novel, Naked Lunch, inspired this one. (pp. 81-2)
[The] real achievement of [Why Are We in Vietnam?] has more to do with the re-creation of cultural contradictions than with escape from them; for the greater part of D. J.'s narrative is a verbal prism of the dire divisions within American society. (pp. 82-3)
The novel is a digest of verbal parodies. Nowhere else in postwar American fiction do we see the contradictions of American culture so richly and variously voiced. We can read this novel as an oratorio for many voices, each one of which infuriates, stupefies, or fills us with dark laughter. By re-creating the duplicities and tensions that infect the American character, Mailer enables us to understand, perhaps more clearly than heretofore, why we were in Vietnam. (p. 83)
By mimicking the languages of the land, he helps us to better see through them and thereby resist their beguilements and coercions. Verbal play is restorative, a spiritual tonic. Mailer suggests it is the last physical liberty. (p. 84)
[The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History] is novelistic because it sensitively describes the effects of the march on a participant-protagonist, Norman Mailer, and historical because it scrupulously describes the facts of the march. (p. 86)
The book's unity of time and its strict enclosure within the limits of a particular event and place give it a classical sharpness of design. There is a precision of vision here that we do not find in Mailer's previous two novels, An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? Compelled into compliance with what he sees before him, he must now record reality rather than invent it. His previous novels shaped events; now events shape the book—events, moreover, that people know about and can therefore in some fashion relate to. (p. 87)
Mailer's personality in this book can be accurately described with a motley of adjectives: foolish, vain, inspired, deluded, imaginative, energetic, generous, quixotic. Interestingly, America itself can be accurately described with the very same adjectives. This is a recognition that Mailer expects us to arrive at, for he imagines himself as a microcosm of the nation. (p. 88)
We may find Mailer as self-styled Jeremiah rather tiresome. But when he goes about the business of "studying" every "lineament" and exploring human behavior with the old-fashioned tools of the novelist, his writing wholly engages us. For sheer force of social observation and astuteness of character delineation The Armies of the Night is a considerable achievement. Most significantly, nowhere else in modern American literature do we see a writer conceiving of his life with such an abundance of drama, energy, and wit. We have to go back to Benjamin Franklin, extraordinary as the association may seem, to find a parallel. (p. 94)
The Armies of the Night seemed a crescendo; the action gradually mounted toward an explosive climax, the clash between demonstrators and soldiers. The book is one large wavelike movement. We remember Miami and the Siege of Chicago, on the other hand, as a slide show, a series of arresting images. (p. 95)
[In Of a Fire on the Moon Mailer] becomes the technocrat to beat all technocrats, exhaustively detailing the intricate mechanical grandeur of the Apollo-Saturn rocket. He does so, however, in the service of art, not in the service of science. I am an epical poet, he seems to be saying, and therefore take all human experience as my province. (p. 101)
Yet, despite the vibrancy of Mailer's descriptions, the impression one gets is of a vision sought rather than found. Apollo 11's flight, as momentous as Mailer admits it is, does not finally bring him any closer, as he so ardently hoped it would, to a clarifying conception of man's role in the universe. (pp. 101-02)
It is necessary [after attacks on him by Kate Millett and other feminists], Mailer thinks, to reexplore his relationship with women by examining the nature of his love for them and to once and for all set forth in writing his own ideas about the sex game and his own sexuality. The Prisoner of Sex, then, is an act of self-clarification. (p. 108)
Mailer is at his comic and mischievous best defending his crony in eroticism [Henry Miller] and lampooning Millett for what he deems her dogged, tractarian approach, her insensitivity to Miller's humor and metaphoric power—in short, her lack of literary-critical skill. (p. 111)
[For] Mailer, every honor, every hope and virtue, makes itself manifest in sex. He believes in this book, as he always has, that to a great extent what you are is how you copulate, that the sex act is the barometer of personality. We might interpret The Prisoner of Sex, then, as Mailer's wily toast to the new feminists for making possible an opportunity to ruminate, by way of an attack on them, on the deepest reaches of his self.
A question remains. Do Mailer's ideas about women in this book correspond to implicit ideas articulated in his novels or has Mailer the middle-aged man changed his views? Actually, his views have not altered. He still sees women as adversaries, as biological shamans, as being capable of bequeathing to man godlike powers and of utterly mortifying him. But Mailer's work depends on them, and he knows it. Many of his books could hardly have been written had he not been loving or hating a woman at the time of writing. (p. 114)
Issues aside, however, what seems most unfortunate about this book is its style. Although The Prisoner of Sex comprises Mailer's most energetic expository prose since "The White Negro" fourteen years earlier, too often he and the reader lose the flow of argument in a rip tide of endless sentences swirling with the debris of subpoints and elaborate qualifiers. The reader needs a blue pencil.
Nonetheless, when Mailer is propelling home a point with hard imagery, as he does in his discussion of Miller and Lawrence and in his description of the subterranean drama of the sperm and the ovum, his language sharpens. It becomes trenchant and self-delighting. (pp. 114-15)
[Even] if we do grant Mailer his purpose in Marilyn—to set an artist to catch an artist and write a novel-biography—we have to question whether he has really evoked for us the originality of her character. As Mailer treats her, she seems less a character in her own unique right than a composite portrait of his former female creations….
Still there are passages in which Mailer allows authenticated biographical material to firmly prescribe his themes. Such passages are the only effective parts of the book. (p. 118)
[Muhammad Ali] seems a version of Mailer himself, which may explain Mailer's fascination with him for fifteen years. If Mailer were less subtle and more loud, he would resemble Ali more than a little. And if we recall Mailer's other living hero, Henry Miller, the three personalities suggest an unmistakable unity. Each man is embodiment of loquacious defiance. They are romantic individualists in an age of growing collectivism, and they both have an inflammable sense of personal honor. It may not be at all wrong to see them as sympathetic to the values of the past. How agreeable for Mailer, then, that [The Fight] takes him to the living past, to Africa, where, if technology and trade are to succeed at all, they must be wedded to tribal tradition. (p. 122)
[Throughout The Fight Mailer] harmonizes disparate modes of discourse into one original voice. He chronicles, poeticizes, observes, and analyzes. He works his combinations, much like Ali himself. The Fight is the perfect marriage of style and subject. The literature of sport has never seen a better book. (p. 125)
In 1956 with his columns for The Village Voice, Mailer transformed his style, cutting free from the influence of Hemingway, from those direct sentences of studied dispassion, and shifted his allegiance to the stylistic tradition of Miller. His prose became gusty, dense, exhortative, eloquently cadenced; it purposively flew in the face of "literature."… When Mailer rhapsodizes over Miller, he is idealizing himself.
Genius and Lust can be read not only as its subtitle states, as "a journey through the major writings of Henry Miller," but as an overview of Norman Mailer the writer, for Mailer shares practically the same strengths and defects as Miller. Yet it should be established at the outset that in some significant respects these two men can hardly be called literary brothers or, as a proper regard for time would dictate, father and son…. Miller is the last of the buoyant anarchists, a novelist of hearty diabolisms who has always written as he pleased, remaining all but deaf to the world's censure. Trophies, adversative or admiring critics, and fat royalties have been to him very much beside the point. Mailer, on the other hand, has been working since the mid 1950s at the impossible task of disturbing people and then coaxing them to adore him. He is a creature of topicalities, consistently choosing as his subject matter the events, the celebrities, the issues that the nation itself, for reasons he is always trying to divine, has chosen. It is hard to imagine Miller, an unregenerate bohemian sequestered from the clamorous world in his hermitage at Big Sur, appearing on TV, negotiating for movie rights, making big-time deals with publishers, and meeting deadlines. (pp. 125-26)
[Mailer's] early fiction asks: what is the world that man may understand it? But when the mixed reception of The Deer Park turned Mailer into an impassioned outlaw, his fiction underwent a radical change. The emphasis shifted. A new question was asked: what is man that the world may understand him? In the early fiction, reality acted upon consciousness. In later fiction, consciousness acts upon reality, or rather transforms it through the egocentric imagination. The direction of Mailer's fiction, then, has been from the mimetic to the expressive, from a world described to a world envisioned. (p. 131)
History chastened Mailer and provided occasion for him to make of his art the perfect fusion of abstraction and objectification, romance and realism. Expressiveness and mimesis became reconciled at last….
The real moral power of Mailer's writing derives from his depiction of human will and human imagination battling against the forces of constraint. The only thing that operates for good in Mailer's world is the individual fighting alone against the institutional powers that be. (p. 132)
But the struggle often turns out to be not as valiant as all that. In Mailer's world, to test oneself against any implacable power is to be caught visibly in contradictions: to attempt seriousness and fall into clownishness; to become doctrinaire in defying the doctrinal; to skirt a ledge between heroism and absurdity; to shift precariously between clarity and turgidity, reason and dream, generosity and self-obsession, libertarianism and autocracy; to be Prometheus with the compulsions of Icarus.
Yet Mailer does not try to neutralize any of these polarities in himself. He refuses to put together a harmonious personality because he suspects that consistency is only another name for inertia. (pp. 132-33)
He insists on believing that man is supernatural, not natural. His struggle, then, has been mythic, epical…. [The] magnitude of Mailer's imagination and his extraordinary powers of expressiveness have restored to English literature the fertile, energetic grandeur it has seldom known since the seventeenth century. (p. 133)
Philip H. Bufithis, in his Norman Mailer (copyright © 1978 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Frederick Ungar, 1978.
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