A Few (Quick) Thoughts on Norman Mailer

I’m making my way through Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night. I’ve never been a particular fan of Mailer (to put it generously), but I was curious about the book itself, which is a “nonfiction novel” about an anti-Vietnam-War protest he participated in.

1. Harold Bloom has a concept he uses called “period pieces”–a fancy way of describing a book that doesn’t age well. Though Armies won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, it seems like the very definition of a period piece. It isn’t a bad book–there’s some interesting observations about both the country and the era, and Mailer was unquestionably talented–but it does feel dated now, at least to me.

2. The book’s key point comes as an aside, about halfway through: “(Mailer’s habit of living–no matter how unsuccessfully–with his image, was so engrained by now, that like a dutiful spouse he was forever consulting his better half.)” (Parenthesis in he original.)

3. It’s no great observation to say that Mailer’s primary subject is himself…but it’s true. The style of the book in particular–Mailer’s use of the third person; the tension between irony, self-awareness, and self-glorification that inhabits almost every page; the way Mailer focuses over and over on how others perceive him (and how he perceives them perceiving him)–all read as a dialogue with Mailer’s persona. Mailer of course inhabited a very particular kind of literary fame common at the time: originally famous as a novelist, he became a kind of provocateur, to the point where the fact that he would be arrested at an antiwar protest was genuine news. The book’s style–the way it inflates and deflates Mailer’s persona–adroitly plays with his reputation, and this is by far the most compelling part of the book (seemingly intentionally so).

4. The problem, of course, is that Mailer’s persona is largely gone now. First, Mailer, while still read, hasn’t been a pop culture figure for quite a long time (he really stopped being a celebrity, as opposed to a “literary celebrity” during his own lifetime). Plus, Mailer’s persona–the macho, antagonistic strut he made famous–has been parodied so much (by Neal Pollack, etc al) that doesn’t read the same way as Mailer intends it to. To put it simply, it’s now obvious just how contrived Mailer’s persona is–which means the irony Mailer uses to describe himself now feels so necessary that the reader can’t give him credit for it.

5. But most importantly, the book speaks to a particular audience in a particular moment (middle-aged literary intellectuals in the 1960s). And it doesn’t really challenge that audience. Throughout, it’s impossible not to get the sense that, with his snappy portraits of fellow lit stars Dwight Macdonald and Robert Lowell, or his carping on his (then ongoing) feud with Paul Goodman, Mailer is working the room. But the room has changed. And now it feels like…well, shtick.

6. For some reason, the book made me wonder about contemporary novels like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or The Fortress of Solitude, which engage with pop culture. Mainly, I wonder if Chabon and Lethem are working the room in their engagement with comics or pop music. That they know the educated, middle-class audience they write for also grew up with the same comics and pop music, and that they will immediately identify not only with that world, but with how Chabon and Lethem use that world. To put it another way, I wonder if engagement with pop culture (at least in a straightforward way that takes a particular set of pop culture markers for granted) risks tying a novel to a particular audience at a particular time. I also wonder if that approach makes things to easy for that audience.

7. In the end, I feel like Armies of the Night doesn’t push its readers hard enough. There are some decent political observations–“Just as the truth of his material was revealed to a good writer by the cutting edge of his style…so a revolutionary began to uncover the nature of his true situation by trying to ride the beast of his revolution.”–but the reader is never threatened by them. Mailer’s own style doesn’t so much reveal the truth of his material as tame it, make it something a reader can look at from a distance. As a result, at no point does the reader feel like this revolution is going to ask anything of the reader himself.

8. It’s not that the book should be more “political”–it should just be…stranger. Really good writing doesn’t work the room–it opens a new one. That’s why a book’s longevity is (though imperfect) such a good measure of it’s quality. A book that does something genuinely new, that doesn’t cater to its audience’s prexisting ideas/tastes/interests stands a better chance with future audiences, if only because they will come to it on more or less the same (unfamiliar) terms as the book’s original audience.

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