'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Great American Novel 

On Friday, as noted here on Saturday, Norman Mailer died. For me, it is an unusual event to acknowledge. Unlike many, I have never read any of Mailer's fiction or non-fiction, although I have been tempted to read The Executioner's Song. As someone who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, I related to Mailer as a mythic cultural figure beyond flesh and blood. Unlike authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon, his personality so obscured his body of work, almost like a solar eclipse, that I encountered little, if anything, that motivated me to read any of it.

Two other factors were in play as well. First, my puberty corresponded almost perfectly to a period of Mailer's life where he produced few, if any, large scale works of significance, If one accepts that the time between Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song, basically 1967 through 1979, constituted a period in which Mailer published provocations and articles for magazines, then this corresponded almost perfectly to my attainment of adulthood, and the time in which I was beginning to undertake elemental cultural explorations. Mailer was, in a sense, missing in action.

Second, my impression is that there was always something adult about Mailer, he came across as a kind of high brow Mickey Spillane, and this did not carry great appeal in the 1970s. Of the three contemporary novelists that I encountered, Vonnegut instinctively examined the transformation from childhood to adulthood, retaining a Surrealist sort of nostalgia for the joys of being a child, Pynchon, aware of the emerging technocracy, searched for the residue of the individual in an increasingly deranged world of purportedly objective science, preserving an anonymity for himself that would have been anathema to Mailer, while Heller deflated the social and cultural balloons that had elevated people like Mailer with the humorous instruments of irony, satire and parody. While all three of these had produced critically acclaimed novels before the 1970s, they retained their allure in a way that Mailer did not.

Mailer emerged at a time when great novelists (great in the subjective, not the illusory objective, sense) replaced priests and ministers as the moral voices of their time (a process commenced by, interestingly enough, Tolstoy), and their works were therefore accorded a tendentious importance unimaginable today. After all, God was dead, and the author stepped forward as the modernist voice of the world and the psychological passions within it. Not surprisingly, as in Hollywood, Freud provided the roadmap.

In other words, Mailer was in the right place at the right time. Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner were either dead (Fitzgerald) or considered irrelevant in the post-World War II environment (Hemingway and Faulkner), so there was an opportunity for someone with talent and a relentless drive for self-promotion. Mailer possessed both.

Contemporaneously, there was this hunger for what critics, scholars and writers described as the great American novel, that brilliant masterwork that would incisively present America in all of its outsized, contradictory glory, yet rendered within the context of literature, marked by a mastery of plot, character and dialogue, in short, a new Bible to replace the old one that many condescendingly assumed was obsolete. The US was a now a superpower, and it required an authorial voice commensurate with its political and economic might. Mailer assured one and all that he was going to write it, and people were only too happy to believe that he would. It was one of the ultimate utopian modernist projects, like serialism in music, the Bretton Woods monetary system, the perfectability of foods and drugs (remember Pop Tarts, Tang and the pill?), the skyscraper and, of course, the computer.

Mailer must have known, as many others did not, that the creation of such a novel was an impossibility. And the passage of time soon proved him correct. I am tempted to say that his own falliability did as well, but then, as already noted, I haven't actually read Mailer, a fact that doesn't prevent us from recognizing the cultural manipulation associated with him. The essential point here is that he shouldn't be maligned, as he was at various times in his career, for being incapable of doing something that was, upon the most rudimentary examination, both preposterous and impossible.

To his credit, however, Mailer did attempt to personally fulfill the role to which he and others had elevated him. He lived an outsized life, he perpetually broke the rules of social convention and he was never afraid to voice his barbed opinions about US foreign policy, social life and cultural values. Accordingly, he was, by turns, an anti-imperialist, a male chauvinist and contemptuous of middle class values, even as he displayed the most conventional middle class value of all, a father's love for his children. He struggled against the postmodern revelation that there were no longer any grand narratives by, on the one hand, accepting it through his articles, and, even, possibly, non-fiction, like The Executioner's Song, while still aspiring to publish the novel that would finally satisfy the expectations that he had aroused so long ago.

Along these lines, we should not ignore the possibility that Mailer's fiction is more consistent in quality over his life that his obituaries suggest, with the controversy associated with it the consequence of the proliferation of genres of literary criticism, critical studies, feminism, deconstruction and postmodernism, just to name a few. Indeed, postmodernism also revealed that there were no longer any great men, men capable of recasting the world around them, but Mailer resisted it, publishing a novel late in life about . . . why, Hitler, naturally, because, to admit otherwise would mean that he was no longer a great man, either.

Other acclaimed postwar novelists either avoided this struggle, or foreshadowed the future. Heller was the visionary. Catch-22, published in the 1950s, is, in many ways, the prototypical postmodern novel. In this novel, he ridicules the notion of the seriousness of World War II, and by implication any war, as well as, conceivably, any major social event, such as a revolution. Even more, he exposes American masculinity as equally ludicrous, an expose, in effect, of Mailer and his public persona.

Vonnegut was postmodern in his own way. He stripped down the language of the novel, and expropriated the pop culture of serials and science fiction as grist for his literary mill. His innovations captured the spirit of his times. Like Heller in Catch-22, he presented America as an absurdity, but as a sad and melancholy one. His novels were more akin to, if one accepts the musical analogy, chamber works than symphonies. He was an anti-imperialist like Mailer, but more pessimistically so. Mailer's pugilism always carried with it hope for change, but Vonnegut was that avuncular friend whose whimsy concealed a profound despair.

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