Thursday, January 24, 2013

Norman Mailer's Prescience


He's largely discredited, talked about more than read, derided more than admired, invoked as a warning more often than as an example. And yet: Mailer casts a shadow. Swaggering, bloated, misogynistic, self-important, his ambition cramping his achievement, Norman Mailer nevertheless still looms large for a young man trying to write, even if that young man has never read him. He's like the planet that appears in Borges' story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," its effects felt before it ever appears in the sky. Of the great postwar dinosaurs, I've read a lot of Bellow, Cheever, Updike, a bit of Malamud, but Mailer? The Naked and the Dead, The Armies of the Night, The Executioner's Song—they often came down from the bookstore or library shelf, cover opened, a paragraph or two read, but never enough urgency radiated from them so that they had to be read right now, not when I hadn't read Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice or....

This constant relegation would have wounded old Norman, of course, because he wanted nothing more than to be The Novelist. Not the next Hemingway, but Hemingway's better—everyone's better. And yet even as I placed his books back on the shelf, moving on to more vital parts of the canon, books that would come in handy at the kind of cocktail parties I assumed I'd someday attend, I knew I'd have to come back around to Mailer at some point; there was no way not to. He was Mailer, an object of both fascination and repulsion thanks to his insistence upon his own greatness, a greatness that even he seemed to know he was never quite fulfilling, and that even when he came closest, it was in his nonfiction, not in his preferred field of fiction. The nonfiction is where I finally tried to start last spring, with "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," his report on the 1960 Democratic National Convention for Esquire that's widely considered one of New Journalism's Founding Documents, but which I found to be a fetishization of John Kennedy that a half-century's worth of revelations had rendered into a wince-worthy panegyric. Undaunted and beset by exam-week boredom, I took a crack at Of a Fire On the Moon, an impenetrable inquiry into the Moon landing that I abandoned after thirty or so pages, in no small part because of Mailer's insufferable insistence on referring to himself as "Aquarius" on just about every page.


And yet I'm finally engrossed in a Mailer book now, and it was by no design of my own, which feels fitting. It's as if Mailer's legend, lurking out there on the periphery of good taste, picks readers in its own good time. The book is Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer's account of the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Convention. I came across it on the shelf at Chicago's Seminary Co-Op Bookstore, its cover emblazoned with a stark aerial photo of riot police and protestors squaring off in Grant Park. I was in the right city, in the right post-election mood, and so I bought the book and began reading on the plane home.

As ever, Mailer's pompousness is on display ("Norman Mailer took up too damn much room," Jonathan Lethem writes in a fond essay). He refers to himself as "the reporter," a device one might think is chosen for unobtrusiveness that ends up drawing large amounts of attention to itself (though it's better than Aquarius). His self-regard surfaces in laughable ways ("...it was possible the reporter had influenced as many Black writers as any other white writer in America," e.g.). His self-analysis veers into the absurd. (At one point, he entertains the thought that if he apologizes to his wife for having an affair, a wounded Robert Kennedy might survive the bullet wound to the head. To be fair, Mailer acknowledges that this thought is ludicrous, but this acknowledgement does nothing to lessen the ridiculousness of his disclosure.)

And yet the book remains a feast of humor, erudition, and insight into the American scene that feels as valid in 2013 as it must have in 1968. Here, for instance, is Mailer's assessment of the old-guard Republicans at the convention's outset:

"They believed in America as they believed in God—they could not really ever expect that America might collapse and God yet survive, no, they had even gone so far as to think that America was the savior of the world, food and medicine by one hand, sword in the other, highest of high faith in a nation which would bow the knee before no problem since God's own strength was in the die."

Yes, the young writer thought to himself: maybe there are reasons Mailer continues to haunt the land, after all. He was insufferable, a bloviator, and rarely sober, but he was on to something.

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