Saturday, November 10, 2007

Roger Kimball: Norman Mailer, a Dissenting View

The list of articles noting Norman Mailer's death that I posted earlier today were almost universally positive. While they acknowledged some his more obnoxious -- and nearly murderous -- moments, most them praised Mailer.

Well, Roger Kimball would beg to disagree.

The news that the novelist Norman Mailer died earlier today at the age of 84 has already elicited little hagiographical murmurs. That hushed choir will doubtless turn into a deafening chorus of praise in the coming days and weeks—how much space do you suppose The New York Times will devote to its (I predict) front-page obituary? What grand superlatives will be dusted off and rolled out to commemorate the polyphiloprogentive wife-stabber and booster of homicidal misfits? “Genius” will be paraded early and often, I’ll wager, as will the extended family of adjectives emanating from the word “provocative.” One early notice described Mailer as “the country’s literary conscience and provocateur” and characterized The Armies of the Night as one of his (presumably many) “masterworks.” Perhaps, before the celebratory paeans entirely drown out critical judgment, there is room for a few dissenting observations.

From later in the article:

In 1955, Mailer helped to found The Village Voice, which, though always riven by internal dissension, quickly became a megaphone barking New Left thought, such as it was, into the mainstream culture. By the mid-1960s, he had emerged as an established antiestablishment guru. The spectacular success of works like The Armies of the Night (1968)—Mailer’s bloated, “non-fiction novel” about the 1967 march on the Pentagon and his own role in the demonstration—bore witness to his gifts for literary demagoguery. Subtitled History as a Novel, the Novel as History, the book followed Truman Capote’s example in In Cold Blood (1966), deliberately blurring fact and fiction, a procedure gratefully seized upon by a public eager to sacrifice truth to the demands of ideological zeal. Indeed, it was a procedure that characterized the intellectual—or, more accurately, the anti-intellectual—temper of a generation battened on mind-altering drugs and taught to regard any appeal to facts as an unacceptably “authoritarian” threat. Among anti-Vietnam War radicals—which is to say, among nine out of ten establishment intellectuals—Mailer’s exercise in narcissistic psychohistory was greeted with ecstatic hosannas, and duly picked up both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Sample adulation from the critic Richard Gilman: “Mailer has opened up new possibilities for the literary imagination and new room for us to breathe in the crush of actuality.” From the writer Nat Hentoff: “Mailer has won clear claim to being the best writer in America.”

In fact, like almost all of Mailer’s books, The Armies of the Night is badly written—almost preposterously so. It has often been observed that Mailer’s early literary heroes were Hemingway and John Dos Passos. But his own writing totally lacks Hemingway’s lapidary craftsmanship and Dos Passos’s cinematic control. When The Armies of the Night was serialized in Harper’s, to the great excitement of the editor, Willie Morris, a young copy editor complained about Mailer’s prose and, as one witness recollects, asked, “I wonder what he writes like when he’s sober?” The unfortunate copy editor was promptly fired. But she was right: The Armies of the Night is a hyperbolic, self-indulgent mess that looks sillier and more naive with every year that passes. Its famous third-person narrative strikes one now as a facile gimmick: “Mailer discovered he was jealous. Not of the talent. [Robert] Lowell’s talent was very large, but then Mailer was a bulldog about the value of his own talent… . Nonetheless, to Mailer it was now mano a mano.” That “mano a mano” is about as close to Hemingway as Mailer got.

The adulation that greeted The Armies of the Night underscores an important fact about Mailer’s success. It is part of Mailer’s genius to have been able to calibrate his appetites and deficiencies precisely to the appetites and deficiencies of the moment. His obsessions have been celebrated as brave insights because they have mirrored the defining obsessions of the time. For a moment—but only for a moment—they appear to be revelatory insights. Well into the 1970s, anyway, Mailer instinctively knew exactly what register of rhetorical excess would galvanize the left-wing intellectual establishment. This talent made him an important figure in the long march of America’s cultural revolution. It proved to be immensely profitable, financially and in terms of prestige. By the time Mailer came to write The Prisoner of Sex (1971), he was widely rumored to be up for a Nobel Prize, a rumor that absorbed his full attention for the first thirty pages of that execrable book.

This is not to say that Mailer escaped criticism. His second and third novels, The Deer Park (1955) and Barbary Shore (1961), were widely attacked, as indeed was An American Dream (1965). An American Dream was the infamous novel in which the hero, Stephen Rojack, a savvy, tough-guy intellectual—just like Norman Mailer, you see—starts out by strangling his wife. He then walks downstairs and buggers his wife’s accommodating German maid, a former Nazi who declares, “I do not know why you have trouble with your wife. You are an absolute genius, Mr. Rojack.” (Buggery—another “B” to put alongside booze, boxing, bullfighting, and broads—was to become an obsession with Mailer.) There are numerous Mailerian fingerprints in the novel. President Kennedy (“Jack”) calls to convey his condolences; Rojack’s wife is rumored to have had affairs with men high up in the British, American, and Soviet spy agencies; even Marilyn Monroe—who was to become another of Mailer’s notorious obsessions—makes a posthumous cameo appearance: when Rojack fantasizes about having a telephone conversation with a dead character, he reports that “the girls are swell. Marilyn says to say hello.” But the chief point of the book is that Rojack gets away with the murder. Such, Mailer wants us to believe, is the real if unacknowledged “American dream.”

Read the whole, scathing essay.

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