Norman Mailer and the Cutting Edge of Style/Introduction

From Project Mailer
Norman Mailer and the
Cutting Edge of Style
  1. Introduction
  2. The Naked and the Dead
  3. Barbary Shore
  4. The Deer Park
  5. An American Dream
  6. Why Are We in Vietnam? and
    The Armies of the Night

Vidal's characteristically malicious amiability carries more than a seed of truth, and much more than a seed of the essential problem — that of being Norman Mailer. To many readers, indeed, and to many people who may not have read a novel in years, the problem — or the profession — of being Norman Mailer might well appear to be the central drama of American literature since World War II. Other writers, novelists, poets, and journalists may content them­selves with the comfortably traditional eminence of an academic career, with the more complex and demanding satisfaction of a private existence with writing their sole activity, or with an intricate, almost monkish quest for anonymity. But Norman Mailer, alone among the significant writers of his generation (or now, his genera­tions), has made himself at home within the full panoply of publicity media and personality mongering which is the climate of America in the television era. He has been a frequent, outrageous, comic-meta­physical guest on innumerable talk shows. He has produced, di­rected, and starred in his own movies. He has run for mayor of New York City. He has, as I write, received a much-publicized million­ dollar contract from his publishers for his next (not yet completed) novel. Vidal’s venom is understandable; indeed, coming as it does from a fellow laborer in the often barren vineyards of fiction, inevitable. For “a New York Jewish boy from Harvard who had written a war novel,” Mailer has come as close as one can imagine coming (closer, perhaps) to being one of the Beautiful People of his age, to winning and holding the kind of fame and fascination the Ameri­can public normally reserves for politicians, film stars, and crimi­nals.

Through it all, moreover, Mailer has remained an apparently inexhaustible writer of prose. His twenty-odd books discuss, with unflagging enthusiasm, whatever may catch both Mailer’s imagination and the current interest of the reading public. From the administration of John Kennedy (The Presidential Papers) through Nixon and the moon landing (Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of a Fire on the Moon) to women’s liberation, nostalgia, and the urban counterculture (The Prisoner of Sex, Marilyn, The Faith of Graffiti), he has established himself as a kind of demonic Winston Churchill, the most contentious and consistently interesting journalist of his time. But while Churchill’s journalism was partisan, conservative, and ponderously, ostentatiously judicious, Mailer’s is partisan, “left-conservative” (as he first identified himself in Miami and the Siege of Chicago), and irreverently, obsessively confessional. No writer since Lord Byron-except, perhaps, Oscar Wilde-has so successfully made his writing an adjunct to his life, his life a feature of his writing. At his worst, Mailer seems to us a heroic but tiresome monologist (one’s half-drunk uncle at the annual Christmas party), unendingly repeating the tale of his hopes, passions, and failures; while at his best he can achieve a tense, nearly Byronic union of the personal and the public, the metaphysical and the political, in a prose style uniquely and inimitably suited to that difficult task.

He has not (what writer has?) been well served by his most avid supporters. The Mailer style, the Mailer panache, is a deliberately constructed and maintained role-and one which offers, perhaps, too many easy consolations to the critic not prepared himself to undergo the arduous and risky task of being Norman Mailer. He has been celebrated, by such dissimilar cheerleaders as Jimmy Breslin and Richard Poirier, as the prophet of a new sexual vitality, a profound and original philosophical thinker, a liberator of the cloistered and inhibited American imagination. He is, I suggest, none of these things and often the reverse of some of them. But so overblown has become the celebration (or the damnation) of Mailer that such a paring of the image is bound to seem like an attack (or a defense) of the writer and the man. Mailer has, with signal efficiency, made his personality and his art inseparable; but he has paid the price of this unification, and an important part of that price is the refusal of his fans (fans everywhere, whether of a rock singer, a movie star, or a novelist, are the same) to allow him to be anything less than everything. The man who wrote the daring and painfully personal Advertisements for Myself (1959) has had to live with the implications of that brilliant title, for in turning his art into an “advertisement,” a more-than-aesthetic act of existential salesmanship, he has been burdened—at least in his career as a novelist—precisely by the success of his ads, by the “Norman Mailer” who has become such a surefire seller and high-ratings personality in contemporary American letters.

There is no doubt that Mailer has always thought of himself primarily as a novelist; and here, as often, he is more correct in his self-assessment than are his enthusiasts. And here, as often, his career displays a curious ambiguity, a deep-seated malaise underlying the proclamations of health, a dark flirtation with failure beneath the arrogantly flaunted triumphs. Of his twenty books, only five—six, stretching a point to include The Armies of the Night—are novels. Indeed, for a writer as prolific as Mailer, remarkably little of his published work is in the field, fiction, which is his announced, chosen, loved and hated vocation. It is, of course, an easy and cheap temptation to discover the saving, humanizing flaws of a splendid success, the hidden insecurities of a “star”; but if we consider Mailer’s career as a novelist, it is difficult not to see such a set of contradictions. One remembers Vidal’s flippant dismissal of his first success: “who had written a war novel.” But what is implicit in that phrase is, surely, the most important event of Mailer’s life as a writer. The “war novel” is The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948, Mailer’s first novel and—much more than a “war novel”—one of the major achievements of American fiction in this century.

It was a cruel fate for a young novelist. We have already spoken, in the previous chapter, of the “one-book” nemesis of the American writer, the inability of so many major American talents to overcome the success and the burden of their earliest important achievements. And, as Mailer’s own first triumph in The Naked and the Dead is so much more surprising even than the promise of The Sun Also Rises or This Side of Paradise, so the difficulty of living up to that achievement appears to have been for him all the more painful. This is, oddly, a frequently ignored or glossed over, but central point about Mailer; for The Naked and the Dead is not simply a brilliant first book, it is the work of a master. Given the reach of that early (perhaps premature) mastery, the wonder is not that Mailer has since written so little fiction, comparatively, but rather that he has managed to complete so much. He has lived and worked, since he first appeared as a writer, as a first magnitude star whose talent and appeal are, if anything, too massive for any vehicle which we might imagine efficiently carrying them. No wonder, then, that one of his most embarrassingly revelatory nonfiction books is his recent biography of another definitive presence in search of an adequate incarnation, Marilyn Monroe.

Mailer’s affair with the novel, unlike Marilyn Monroe’s with the film, has been an affair of intelligence as well as of passion. Monroe’s tragedy is to have sought an identity, a sexual fulfillment, promised her by the very medium, the movies, which continually denied the satisfaction of that promise in any but the most artificial ways. Mailer, however, has not only pursued the elusive image of the culminating work but, as a man of wide literary culture, has from the beginning understood the deceptive, slippery, fallacious nature of the medium in which he has elected to seek that culmination.

No one, indeed, has written more vividly about the infuriating, seductive appeal of the novel as a literary form. In a long essay originally published in Esquire at the very beginning of the sixties, he describes the novel as the Bitch Goddess, at once whore and virgin, easy conquest and impossible mistress:

Every novelist who has slept with the Bitch (only poets and writers of short stories have a Muse) comes away bragging afterward like a G.I. tumbling out of a whorehouse spree—“Man, I made her moan,” goes the cry of the young writer. But the Bitch laughs afterward in her empty bed. “He was so sweet in the beginning,” she declares, “but by the end he just went, ‘Peep, peep, peep.’” A man lays his character on the line when he writes a novel. Anything in him which is lazy, or meretricious, or unthought-out, or complacent, or fearful, or overambitious, or terrified by the ultimate logic of his exploration, will be revealed in his book. Some writers are skillful at concealing their weaknesses, some have a genius for converting a weakness into an acceptable mannerism of style.

It would be hard to find a passage with more of the nervous, run-on confession, the blustering vulgarity and deep insecurity, the acute culture and genius for metaphor which characterize Mailer’s distinctive talent. The archetypal novelist is a G.I. who is perhaps superpotent, perhaps sexually deficient. It is impossible, confronted with that image, not to remember Mailer’s own first success with a novel about G.I.s, his frenetic struggles, throughout the following decade, with both a series of wives and a series of coldly received novels, and his violent assertion, during the sixties, of the equivalence of sexual and literary power. The key line of the passage, and perhaps the key line for the writer’s entire enterprise, is “A man lays his character on the line when he writes a novel.” Many novelists—and surely all of the best—have felt this, but few (Henry James excepted) have taken it as much to heart, made it as unyielding a part of their personal credo as has Mailer. If he has, in his journalism and his public clowning, shown a genius for performance, that genius is only a spillover, a secondary derivation from Mailer’s sense of the art of fiction itself as a performance par excellence, of the novel as an ultimate risk, revelation, and perhaps betrayal of oneself. Poets and short story writers, he contemptuously observes, may have Muses, the reassuring and pacific ladies of artistic inspiration; but the novelist’s business is not inspiration, it is struggle and hard work—under the shadow of the sweet, easy, vulgar and inaccessible Bitch who will at once elicit and mock his best attempts to prove himself. Sartre, in Saint Genet, invented the phrase comedian and martyr to describe Jean Genet’s dedication to the art of fiction which could lead a man to the most abject buffoonery and the most self-denying discipline. The same phrase applies to Norman Mailer, novelist, with perhaps even more force.

It is an ancient piece of pop-psychological wisdom that great blusterers and braggarts are, usually, very shy men. Mailer’s achievement, on one level at least, is to have carried the truth of that observation to the pitch of high art. A man may lay his life on the line when he writes a novel, but—such are the suasions of the Bitch—there is, underlying the existential gamble of storytelling, the continual possibility of evasion, of avoiding that ultimate confrontation with the self, of concealment; and it is this aspect of fiction which accounts, finally, for the lasting power of Mailer’s best writing. The storyteller always, whether he knows it or not, tells a story about himself. That is the deep gamble of the craft, and the more acutely aware the storyteller is of the confessional nature of his art, the deeper the gamble, the higher the stakes. But if the teller reveals himself, he also conceals himself more efficiently than he may realize. Mailer says, “Some writers are skillful at concealing their weaknesses”; but as he surely knows, and as all longtime readers and writers of fiction know, most writers become, in the course of a life devoted to telling tales, skillful at concealing, or transforming into specious strengths, their weaknesses. If self-revelation and self-confrontation are the mocking threat of the Bitch Goddess, the evasions of style, the possibility of transforming private weakness into public power, are perhaps her primary seduction. At least this appears to be the case with Mailer. The last word of the passage I have cited is “style,” and that word with its attendant associations may be the most important in Mailer’s lexicon.

During the sixties, Barth, Pynchon, and others were to define, effectively, a new mode in American writing by creating novels whose content was largely a self-conscious commentary on their own form—novels, that is, which included their own critical commentary. Mailer foreshadows the fictive self-consciousness of these writers—just as Saul Bellow, in his very different way, foreshadows their concern with the inheritance of Western culture and with the “terms of our contract,” the burden of making that culture a moral force in contemporary urban reality. While Mailer, anticipating later writers, demonstrates a self-consciousness about his own narrative processes, he nevertheless—unlike Barth or Pynchon—carefully segregates that self-consciousness from the creation of the story itself (at least, until his later novels which are themselves influenced by Barth, Pynchon, and others). His plots themselves, that is, tend to come from the conventional stuff of action-packed, sexual melodrama; and the elaborations of self-conscious style are, as it were, overlaid upon the prime matter of this “popular” (sometimes almost B-movie) substratum. His concern with style, then, is at least partly a concern with the masking, self-disguising powers of fiction—with fiction as a highly formal, almost ritual performance and test of the self which must conceal, as all good rituals do, its own machinery.

Mailer’s concept of “style”—it becomes almost a totem word in his discussions of himself and his work—involves a good deal more than the simple masking of the self or transformation of private debilities into narrative strengths. Style, indeed, at least by the writing of his third novel, The Deer Park, becomes an agency of imaginative and personal salvation for Mailer and for his characters, a last vestige of morality and honor in a world which will no longer tolerate the open expression or embrace of those values. Sergius O’Shaugnessy, the improbably named, aspiring novelist who is the hero of the book, decides near the end of his curious adventures to prepare himself for his writing career by giving himself a public-library liberal education:

I would spend my days in the public library, often giving as much as twelve hours at a time if I had the opportunity, and I read everything which interested me, all the good novels I could find, and literary criticism too. And I read history, and some of the philosophers, and I read the books of psychoanalysts, those whose style I could tolerate, for part of a man’s style is what he thinks of other people and whether he wants them to be in awe of him or to think of him as an equal.

Style is not simply a matter of literary, verbal habits but part of a man’s whole sense of himself as a member of society and perhaps as a shaper of the society to which he belongs; it is a political, existential act (two words which are never far from each other with Mailer). The passage cited is not only one of the author’s major pronouncements on the nature of style, but also a dramatic acting out of its concepts. Sergius O’Shaugnessy (as he remarks, his name is only artificially Irish—it lacks a crucial “h”) is everything Mailer, the “New York Jewish boy from Harvard who had written a war novel,” is not: he is part Irish Catholic, has not written a novel, is minimally educated and—most of all—is an orphan, a man unencumbered by traditions precisely because he cannot remember, has never known, the pressure of those traditions upon his own life. The style of his speech in this passage is, with a rightness of pitch which is one of Mailer’s most uncanny gifts, exactly the proper tone of a brilliant, perceptive young man possessed of the gift for fiction but denied the culture to deploy that gift. Sergius, in other words, is a deliberately constructed, sensitized savage. And it is Sergius’s own imperceptions and failures which liberate his creator to write The Deer Park. For Mailer, surrounded by what he sees as the shattered traditions of value, living in a society whose personal life and political life are inextricably confused and perennially violent, style becomes a diminished, crisis sacrament—the sacrament of the existential orphan. To follow Mailer’s career as a novelist, then, and his enormous if ambiguous influence on later American writers, we must regard the sequence of his novels as a continued experiment with the concept and the cutting edge of style.

The contrast between the art of Norman Mailer and that of Saul Bellow becomes clearer at this level of discussion and more central for understanding the course of American fiction in the fifties and sixties. Bellow’s career has been a steady, unrelenting examination of and assertion of the permanent relevance of the major traditions of Western liberal thought to the complexities and upheavals of the contemporary City, but Mailer has carried on a two decade warfare with precisely those certitudes in which Bellow finds himself so much at home. Each of Mailer’s six novels has defined for the reading public a “new” Mailer, a new and, for the moment, aggressively self-confident approach to the problems of our personal and political strivings; and this frenetic, almost pathological uneasiness with his own achievement, has in turn caused the history of his books to be one of mingled, sometimes accidental and often deliberately managed failure. Mailer, like most strong novelists, finds it hard to write fiction. But he has, in a valuable way, made that difficulty one of the central materials of his fictive stance and in so doing has become, for American fiction, the indispensable and archetypal self-conscious fabulator of the postwar years.