Norman Mailer and the Cutting Edge of Style/Why Are We in Vietnam? and The Armies of the Night

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

On the face of it, parody is the least promising of literary forms—especially if one is interested in making a “serious” literary, visionary statement. While the satirist may excoriate contemporary behavior from the standpoint of a firmly established moral code, the parodist—more frivolous, less certain of his own moral stability—simply points up the peculiarities, the idiosyncrasies of current or influential literary styles. Parody is, in its way, satire at a second degree of abstraction, a highly sophisticated and self-effacing judgment, not upon the morals of its civilization, but upon the prevailing manner in which those moral values are promulgated. In its sly assumption that the “insiders” will recognize the moralities through the codes in which the moralities are transmitted, parody is, in fact, the classical version of Hip.

For a writer, then, with Mailer’s own peculiar relationship to the conventions of style and literary identity—for the inauthentic man of the postwar American novel—parody is capable of achieving a point, a fineness of articulation, and a degree of power vastly greater than it has enjoyed in any recent period. As satire and judgment upon the very idea of style, the possibilities of style to deliver us from the absurdity of our condition, parody can become the ideal vehicle for the simultaneous critique and transformation of political and fictive conventions of “the real”: a kind of Swiftean satire from the inside, whereby the speaker, trapped in styles of existence inimical to his very life, calls up before us the degree of our own entrapment within the same styles, and the existential necessity of our deliverance from them.

Why Are We in Vietnam?, which Mailer has said he regards as his best novel, is just such an exercise in parody, and indeed, one of his most remarkable books. Like his other books, it reflects not only the evolution of his own stylistic explorations, but a good deal about the literary and political climate of the years in which it was written. By 1967—the date of the novel—the absurdist, “black humor” fantasy of writers like Barth, Pynchon, Vonnegut, and Barthelme—a putative “school,” or at least a significant direction of writing which Mailer’s own fiction had surely helped make possible—was well established in American letters. Why Are We in Vietnam? is, among other things, Mailer’s attempt to write a novel in the dimensions of that school, the attempt of the sometime master to follow the lesson of his brilliant students. It is obviously, but superficially, influenced by the work of Pynchon and perhaps even more so by the austere and pornographic fictions of William S. Burroughs (Mailer was an early and passionate campaigner for the American publication of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch). But the book remains, nonetheless, distinctively Mailer’s, consistent with the explorations of the previous books and, through its newly enforced parodistic technique, able to carry those explorations to an unusual level of contemporaneity and urgency.

Many reviewers in the popular press, offended by the systematic brutality of the language of Why Are We in Vietnam? took great delight in pointing out that the word, Vietnam, does not even appear until the last page—as if that, itself, were not part of the novel’s acute intelligence. The book is about Vietnam, so much so that one is led to wonder, in retrospect, if any other American writer could have imagined the real dimensions of that obscene adventure as fully as Mailer. Following immediately upon the national shame of the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam war was, as much as any historical event could be, the bloody, inhuman, divisive incarnation of that Great War of the Soul that Mailer’s heroes, from Hearn through Lovett, O’Shaugnessy, and Rojack, had been prophesying about and preparing us for for nearly two decades. It is by now a cliché to observe that the Vietnam war was more apocalyptic as an internal conflict within America itself than as a conventional—or unconventional—series of battles upon Asian soil. For in the course of that long and revolting bit of military history the politics of the nation became polarized as they had not been since the thirties, with the massive defection of youth, the intellectuals, the artists, and finally great numbers of the working populace from the publicly announced and officially sanctioned policy of the nation’s leaders. The deep fissure Mailer had seen in our life since The Naked and the Dead, the fissure between the imaginatively naked and the living dead ensconced in positions of power, had come to pass, terrify.ingly, in the Johnson and Nixon presidencies. And to cure the seeming impotence of the voices of reason, the seeming failure of the good city and the good community, Mailer invents, in Why Are We in Vietnam? what may well be his most truly effective fiction since his first novel: the long, manically parodistic monologue of the narrator, D.J., attempting in a frenzy of allusion and outrage to explain why he is in Vietnam, and why he is, himself, desperately unable to control or even resist the necromantic forces which drove him there.

D.J., in his chief incarnation in the book, is the son of a Texas millionaire, Rusty, and of the vulgar, seductive, fascinating (the formula for Mailer’s women is by now granite—congealed) Alice Hallie Lee Jethroe. As “D.J.,” existential disc jockey, he broadcasts his story in a breathless, rapid-fire string of obscenities, metaphysical speculations, and hilariously narrated situations which are a brave, if inevitably stiff, imitation of that most definitive contemporary American patois, the rock-and-roll disc jockey’s patter. The rock of the sixties (The Doors, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, and The Rolling Stones) is itself an uncannily complete realization of Mailer’s own myth of Hip articulated in “The White Negro,” a direct and politically motivated imitation, that is, of black forms of music and alienation by white groups and audiences seeking an appropriate style for their discontent. And therefore, in a brilliant realization of this curious situation, D.J. at crucial moments in his narrative holds out to us the possibility that he may not be what he says he is at all, but instead a “crazy crippled Spade genius,” broadcasting from somewhere in Harlem his own superheated imagination of what it must be like to be D.J., the millionaire son of a millionaire Texan.

The inauthenticity of this Mailer character, in other words, goes far beyond the relative fictional stability of his earlier orphans and amnesiacs. For D.J.’s inauthenticity is not invented as a prior situation to his existence in the fiction, but is instead a carefully and confusingly maintained pose throughout Mailer’s construction of the narrative itself. It is a lesson in indirection learned, perhaps, from the Pynchon of V. or the Burroughs of Nova Express.

The story that D.J. has to tell, moreover, is a remarkable one. It is almost completely constructed of nonevents, ribald jokes, and most particularly of scenes which are themselves deliberate and brutal parodies of the classic situations of classic American fiction. Sitting bored and distracted at his own farewell dinner in the “Dallas ass manse” where he lives, D.J. broadcasts in the crystal set of his mind the events which have led him to this pass. That history is, primarily, the story of a grizzly hunt in Alaska on which his father takes him and his best friend, an even raunchier young man than D.J., named—what else?—Tex. In the course of the hunting trip, Rusty manages to disgrace himself before his son by violating the rules of the hunt (a Hemingway reminiscence/inversion, particularly, one feels, of “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber”), and D.J. and Tex decide, one night, to go on an impossible journey to the heart of the wilderness to confront the savage, the inhuman, the primal Bear.

This, the incident which is the imaginative center of the novel, is of course a bravely vulgar inversion of Faulkner’s great novella, The Bear—but it is much more. Faulkner’s story, one of the supreme achievements of American fiction, draws for its own immense power upon the whole tradition of myths of man-in-nature and upon the curative myth of pastoral, the belief that, if man’s confrontation with inhuman, unaccommodated nature is intense enough and courageous enough, that confrontation can save his soul, reapportion his ideas of his own identity, and perhaps even redeem his civilization from its own worst excesses. Certainly, in Faulkner’s tale, young Ike McCaslin’s solitary journey into the forest to meet Old Ben, the ancient and gigantic bear of the title, is such a pastoral moment of salvage. Bereft of gun and compass, Ike discovers something in his brief encounter with the bear which changes the course of his life; which, in fact, makes him a kind of Faulknerian saint, refusing economic ownership of the aboriginal land, refusing sex, refusing even his own birthright in order to reestablish a primordial, ritual relationship between the human and nonhuman worlds.

Mailer’s version of this archetypal plot, however, manages to turn the pastoral myth of unaccommodated man on its head, giving us instead the vision of technological man unable—for whatever complex of reasons—to deny himself his mechanical accommodations to nature and also unable to face the grim implications of that technologized state of existence. D.J. and Tex, at the beginning of their comic quest, engage in a kind of children’s “I dare you” contest, each claiming to be able to do with less on their journey until both boys, in a brutally funny burlesque of Ike Mccaslin, stand naked and shivering in the arctic snow. But they have second thoughts, deciding that now this and now that piece of equipment is really necessary to their exploration, until finally they set out as fully clothed and equipped as they had begun. And, far from meeting their great bear head-on in a moment of naked confrontation, they are chased up a tree by him, their nostrils filled with his murderous, terrifying scent until he decides to leave them alone. Later still, bedding down under the northern lights, they experience what may be their one moment of possible salvation in the novel, their temptation to make love; and both boys, without ever speaking a word, deny the impulse, converting their sexual urge into the lust for killing which finally leads them to enlist in the Vietnam war.

It is a curious novel, written in an imitation of street slang which seems more undeniably “literary,” more sadly dated, as the years wear on. But it is also, paradoxically, one of Mailer’s best books because the risks it takes, its self-conscious skirting of the silly and the overwrought, incarnate Mailer’s closest approach so far to the idea of fiction as political action which has for so long informed his storytelling. D.J.’s last words, indeed, are not only a deliberate reminiscence of the bleak “Hot dog!” with which Major Dalleson ended The Naked and the Dead, but also a not-so-tacit acknowledgment by Mailer that he has, at last, once again found a real war to write a novel about, a war which calls into operation all those dichotomies of the American mind which are his permanent theme: “So, ass-head America, contemplate your butt. Which D.J. white or black could possibly be worse of a genius if Harlem or Dallas is guiding the other, and who knows which? This is D.J., Disc Jockey to America turning off. Vietnam, hot damn.”

By the time of Why Are We in Vietnam? then, Mailer’s obsession with style as a mode of fiction and a mode of facing the political situation has caught up with his storytelling technique itself; the style of the novel is its political stance. Why Are We in Vietnam? was followed, in 1968, by The Armies of the Night, which, while it is not a work of fiction, nevertheless deserves to be considered as, for the moment, Mailer’s final narrative performance—or at least as the narrative performance which anticipates and defines the stance of his recent journalism. The subtitle of The Armies of the Night is History as a Novel: The Novel as History, and the reader who has followed Mailer’s work up to this point cannot fail to notice what a finely self-descriptive title that is for his entire narrative work. The book itself is, in fact, a political confession: Mailer’s narrative of how, during the 1967 march on Washington protesting the Vietnam war, he found himself transformed from a lukewarm liberal supporter of the protest into a seriously committed, fully politicized resister of the government’s policies.

As political autobiography, The Armies of the Night ranks with, or a little above, such a crucial twentieth-century confession as George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. More interesting than its historical, political value, however, is the way in which its plot recapitulates so precisely the experiences of such previous Mailer characters as Hearn, Lovett, O’Shaugnessy, Rojack, and D.J.—but now with “Norman Mailer” himself as the hero and central fictive character of the book. The cutting edge of style, that saving grace which allows a man, even in the midst of an insane world, to hew out for himself an island of responsive and civilized humanity, has finally been applied to the character who has always been Norman Mailer’s most interesting and most carefully sculpted hero, Norman Mailer. Indeed, viewing Mailer’s career as a movement, first from explicit political argument toward internalization of politics, and thence back outward to a redefined “public” political stance, we can say that The Armies of the Night, at the most obvious level of style, completes that two-part process. The Naked and the Dead is told from the point of view of a third-person, omniscient narrator, the most conventional and conventionally “public” of narrative modes; whereas all of Mailer’s later novels are first-person narratives, moving—from Lovett to D.J .—in the direction of an ever more idiosyncratic, ever more “private” version of the speaking “I.” The Armies of the Night, with brilliant paradox, manages to be Mailer’s most intimately confessional “novel” (indeed, it is only analogically a novel at all) and at the same time marks his return, after twenty years, to the third-person narrative form. He is not “I” in the book, but “Mailer,” “Norman Mailer,” “the Reporter,” objectified to himself. It is a habit of style which Mailer has repeated in his later journalism—Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of a Fire on the Moon—to less point, and which has indeed become something of a tic in the reportage of the seventies (as in Tom Wicker’s rather self-indulgent use of the device in his otherwise splendid account of the Attica Prison riot, A Time to Die). But, at least in The Armies of the Night, it can be seen as one of Mailer’s most original solutions to his life-long quest to transmute the embarrassments of the private self into the stuff of the truly political imagination.

The genesis of The Armies of the Night, in fact, is one of Mailer’s most embarrassing and vulnerable moments: the night he appeared drunk on the stage of a Washington theater, just before the march on the Pentagon, to be heckled and derided by the youthful audience anxious for serious political prophecy before their great moment. But so convincing and so obsessive is Mailer’s own recasting of his personal history during those days, that he is able, in the course of the narrative, to transform that disgrace into the material for a celebration of visionary politics and to present his drunkenness itself as a demonic, highly stylized parody of the killing politics of the American presidency: “‘See here, you know who I am, why it just came to me, ah’m so phony, I’m as full of shit as Lyndon Johnson. Why, man, I’m nothing but his little old alter ego. That’s what you got right here working for you, Lyndon Johnson’s little old dwarf alter ego. How you like him? How you like him?

So he describes himself addressing the crowd at the theater, in the full intelligence of his manic style, even to the contemptuous self-denigration of the word, dwarf (and once again, one cannot help but think of the connection between this kind of parody and the demonic monologues of Lenny Bruce). Like the narrative of D.J., Mailer’s speech here is the self-parodistic admission of inauthenticity which might, with luck and courage, cure itself and enter fully into the world of a humanized politics. And, in The Armies of the Night, the self-cure works, for Mailer concludes his narrative with one of the most moving articulations of political commitment an American in this century has managed to create.

The beginning of his career as self-fictionizing journalist has, to this point, marked the end of Mailer’s “second” career as novelist. As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, there has been no novel from Mailer since Why Are We in Vietnam? His intensely personal journalism has, of course, continued to arouse delight and controversy in the American intellectual establishment, and he himself, in his public pronouncements, still obviously regards himself primarily as a writer of fiction. In this assessment he is correct. He has demonstrated a capacity to surprise his critics; like another maverick, Mark Twain, he has a talent for showing us that reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated. The next month, or the next year, may well see another Mailer novel appear which beggars our previous analyses of the shape of his work. But even if that expected novel does not come forth, his production has earned him a central, if non-Euclidean, place in the history of the contemporary imagination. In an America faced with the decay of its own most fundamental imaginative values, he has, as much as any other writer of his time, attempted to survive in that chilling vacuum and to develop, out of the resources of his own speaking voice alone, a style and a mode of attack which might locate a human, civilized space in chaos. And if that effort, in his own books, is not always as successful as in the books of those who have come after him, the fact itself is a bitter testimony to his centrality. The case of Norman Mailer, after all, is like the case of Kilroy, that impudent, crudely drawn, absurdly hopeful human caricature which was chalked everywhere, from bathroom stalls to the sides of cathedrals to the casings of bombs during World War II. Whenever we encounter a self-conscious, irreverent, dangerous American fiction which attempts to reinvent, through its own stylization, a viable idea of human life and fruitful human passion, we must recognize that somewhere in the background, like Kilroy, Mailer was here.