How long can a writer hope to ride the wake of a best-selling first novel? With Norman Mailer's flair for shameless self-promotion, a decent start can carry you at least 50 years. The acclaim that greeted Mailer's 1948 war novel, "The Naked and the Dead" convinced him and his publishers that he is a gifted novelist -a conviction that no amount of bad writing since has been able to dispel.
Now, under the auspices of "The Naked and the Dead's" 50th anniversary and Mailer's 75th year, almost 1,300 pages of deplorable prose from Mailer's 30 books are being forced upon readers once again in "The Time of Our Time," (Random House, 1280 pages, $40). This "literary" anthology does accurately reflect one aspect of our time: the ease with which sensationalism and calculated outrageousness have replaced craftmanship in today's literary hierarchy.
If the sheer quantity of bad writing in this anthology were not sufficiently objectionable, it is accompanied by Mailer's usual grandiose claims. He believes that novelists, especially good ones like himself, have deeper insight into the nature of reality because they ask the questions mere mortals do not bother to contemplate, such as "Do I love my wife? Does she love me? What is the nature of love? Do we love our child?"
It is these questions, he finds, that improve the brain. The quality of the answers seems irrelevant.
Having improved his brain by asking these questions again and again, Mailer offers these selections, however dated, in the sincere belief that he has created a cultural history of America for friend and foe alike.
In fact, this collection reveals little more than the progression of Mailer's interests and obsessions and the state of his ego over the past five decades.
As an example of his skills in intellectual argument there is a 1972 letter Mailer wrote to Women's Wear Daily to counter Gore Vidal's accusation of misogyny. In it, Mailer points out that he had been married five times, Vidal none. He had seven children of which five were daughters, Vidal none. He then explains that since "there are four stages to comprehending a woman's character, and you could not claim to know her until you had passed through the four, that is, living together, being married, having children, and going through divorce . . . it was kind of gross of Gore to declare that Mailer hated women." (He neglects to mention what additional insights he gained into his second wife's character when he stabbed her repeatedly with a pen-knife.)
Since his letter did not have sufficient impact, Mailer later head-butted Vidal before appearing with him on the Dick Cavett Show, then insulted him on-stage.
Mailer's political acumen is pretty well contained in his announcement on the 1950s talk show "Night Beat" that "President Eisenhower is a bit of a woman." For those who might miss the daring of this exploit he provides some period flavor. "In those days saying something bad about Dwight D. Eisenhower was not a great deal less atrocious than deciding Jesus Christ has something wrong with Him."
An illustration of Mailer's moral thought can be found in the excerpt "Brooding over Abortion" in which he presents the following reasoning, having finally worked out the spelling of the four-letter expletive he mangled in "The Naked and the Dead"- "Embryos extinguished by abortion were more likely to be the product of extraordinary [sex] than the legal infant who saw the first light in a hospital - all too often embryos who were to be aborted had been conceived in the first place by too many good things happening not to conceive them. Since it is hard to imagine an optimistic view of human nature which would not assume that those who are born out of apocalyptic [sex] are more likely to be rich in potential than those conceived from a dribble, abortion is tragic."
Although he attributes this view to a character named Aquarius, Mailer expanded the theme in his own name in later interviews. Whether or not Mailer was attempting to shake up the abortion debate with shock value or humor, he betrays such a fundamental lack of taste and sensitivity that it is difficult to give him any benefit of the doubt. The complacence and self-satisfaction of his moral irresponsibility is astonishing.
There are many examples of Mailer's literary hubris in the excerpts from his novels, but the most striking concludes his preface to his pornographic novel "The Time of Her Time": "Reader, the story you are about to peruse is the godfather of 'Lolita'." "The Time of Her Time" has no resemblance whatsoever to Nabokov's elegant, unsettling masterpiece. It is a labored, repetitive, clich-ridden series of violent sexual encounters rendered in sloppy, hyperbolic prose. "For her, getting it from me, it must have been impressive, a convoluted, smashing, and protracted spasm, a hint of the death throe in the animal male that cannot but please the feminine taste for the mortal wound." Like all of Mailer's more or less explicitly pornographic works, it is a deadening round of fictional chest-thumping, dominance and humiliation.
Since he has chosen to reprint this material for a second and often third time -much of it appeared in Mailer's 1959 miscellany "Advertisements for Myself" - we must assume that he is particularly proud of it, warts and all. Yet even his most successful writing, like the energetic if immature "The Naked and the Dead," has not worn well. Mailer is addressing an audience considerably more jaded than when his early books appeared. Sound effects and expletives can no longer carry a book. Mailer has been flattered so long he can not recognize that his lapses in taste and judgment are just that: lapses.
For decades Mailer has been hailed as an intellectual figure, a literary and cultural rebel. This anthology should finally put that myth to rest, revealing him as a boor and a buffoon who, despite occasional and limited successes, has offered little of lasting value to his beloved nation.
Conscious of time
Mailer acknowledges his weaknesses, but only to reassert them. In 1958 he declared (and reminds us here) that he could not help his arrogance. "The sour truth," he continued, "is that I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the conciousness of our time. Whether rightly or wrongly, it is then obvious that I would go so far as to think it is my present and future work which will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years. I could be wrong, and if I am, then I'm the fool who will pay the bill . . ."
Mailer was wrong but, sadly, he is not paying the bill. His delusions of grandeur are intact and while he can hardly be credited with masterminding a revolution, he has certainly contributed to the decline of civility in our society and the erosion of literary standards. It is difficult to say whether his writing or his ridiculous antics have caused more damage. And there is no end in sight to either. He truly is, as the critic David Kirby noted, an "Energizer Bunny from hell."
A witness once described Mailer in a bar fight as looking "like a small fly, desperately flapping its wings to make its body look bigger." With this anthology, he has come to resemble a spoiled child jumping up and down, yelling, "Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!" We've seen it before and it wasn't appealing then. Do we really have to look again?
Tess Lewis' translation of Peter Handke's "Once Again fo Thucydides" will be published by New Directions this fall. She writes essays and reviews for the American Scholar, the Hudson Review, the New Criterion and Partisan Review. She was managing editor of Persea Books in New York and has a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University.
Pub Date: 5/17/98