Punch drunk

Vivian Gornick reviews 'The Time of Our Time' a collection of essays by Norman Mailer

Topics: Books,

I have not read Norman Mailer in a good 25 years; nor does anyone I know read him. When he is reviewed these days it is invariably by men who write
with respectful love of the way he made them feel when they were young in
the late ’50s and early ’60s, and those electric sentences of his first hit
the air, galvanizing a famously silent generation into remembering that it
is necessary to stay alive inside one’s own skin. It was the force and
rhythm of the sentence structure; like poetry, it seemed neither
description nor analysis but the thing itself. Really, Mailer’s writing was
an astonishing prod in the age of the gray flannel suit. That is, for the
men it was a prod. For intelligent women of the ’50s (the Doris Lessings
among us), I think it must have been another matter. I don’t really know
what Mailer meant to them; I don’t think they themselves knew. But in the
’70s, women in their 20s and 30s knew what he meant, at
whose permanent expense “feeling alive” was to be had. And when we said
so, out loud and in print, Mailer turned vicious. The antifeminism was
pathological, a thing we turned away from in fear as well as rage.

Now, all these years later, I pick up this dictionary-sized retrospective
of his work like an archaeological artifact, blow off the dust of my old,
long-dead angers and sit down to hear the sound of Mailer’s voice once
more, to see if I cannot listen (beyond the words that once filled my head
with blood) for the value of what is actually being said by an influential
writer who, for so long, was emblematic of a world that said to women like
me, “Over my dead body.”

James Baldwin once wrote about having first met Mailer in Paris when both
writers were in their early 30s. He remembered with affection “the way
Norman argued. He argued like a young man, he argued to win; and while I
found him charming he may have found me exasperating, for I kept moving
back before that short, prodding forefinger.” When they met again a few
years later, at a party in New York, something “seemed different about him,
it was the belligerence of his stance, and the really rather pontifical
tone of his voice … [He] was smiling and having a ball. And yet — he was
leaning against the refrigerator, rather as though he had his back to the
wall, ready to take on all comers.” And again, there was that “thrusting
forefinger.” Clearly, the pose had hardened.

This was the early ’60s. What Baldwin couldn’t know at the time (nor
Mailer, either, for that matter), was that the belligerence would never
dissolve out — never change shape, color or texture — not once in the 40
years that lay ahead. It couldn’t because, as it turned out, Mailer was
never to know himself any better than he did at that moment. For the rest
of his life he would be standing with his back to the refrigerator taking
on all comers.

To read this book through from beginning to end is to be made sharply aware
of how compelled Norman Mailer has been by an aggression that speaks
directly to the feeling of having been left out, dismissed and discounted:
a condition common to many writers who successfully turn early grievance to
writerly effect, and a thing Mailer himself did brilliantly and repeatedly
in his prime. He became his own metaphor. His grievance was the grievance
of the country. To talk about himself — what it felt like to be thwarted,
stifled, taken down, prevented from living openly, and with
intensity — was to talk, in the ’50s and ’60s, about the inner
death of middle-class America.

From “Boxing with Hemingway” (the first piece in the book) on, Mailer’s
nonfiction is remarkable for the use to which he openly — years before
the confessionalism of popular culture had taken hold — puts this habit of
exposing himself in all his weakness and all his anxiety. Having adopted
the distancing device of speaking of himself in the third person (a trick
seen at the time of writing as a piece of shameless egoism), he freely,
happily, repeatedly confessed to envy, greed, insecurity, raging
competitiveness. What is curious is how little affect his confessionalism
achieves. “Himself” is nothing he confesses to. Himself is the driving
quality of the prose. It’s the rhetoric that is the compulsive confessor,
the finger pointer come alive in the jabbing, prodding, taunting feel –
not the substance, the feel — of the sentences. The way those
sentences are accumulating, that is Mailer’s self on the page, and
the aggression in them never lets up. It contains all his intelligence, all
his bravado, all his shrewdness and insight. Literally: contains it.
It — the aggression — is never changed by the subject, never
influenced, never deflected. It does the changing.

This glittering, pugnacious insistence through a rhetoric that knows no
bounds, being written in a period of restraint and repressiveness, about
the need to live openly, and with intensity — this was all
put in place in 1959 when Mailer wrote “The White Negro,” his now-famous
manifesto of the existential heroism of orgasmic black violence. It is an
astonishing piece, marked as it is by the clotted sentences, the headlong
drive, the sheer inability to stop. Mailer is so in love here with
the need to “arrive” that he goes on arriving until he exhausts both
himself and the reader. Repeatedly, the power of his own insight is swamped
by his own overkill. Nothing he ever wrote after “The White Negro” went any
further or deeper, or took us to a different place, or failed to exhaust
us. But some strange and wonderful things came out of this driving hunger
of his:

There is the piece on the Democratic convention of 1960. Everyone went into
that convention convinced that Kennedy would be given the nomination — and
indeed he was. Yet the hall erupted in the most amazing wave of welcome
when Adlai Stevenson mounted the podium. The clapping went on and on,
threatening never to stop. Mailer makes the moment thrilling. He describes
it with an eloquence that comes directly out of his poetic intelligence. He
understands the longing behind the applause.

Then there is the speech at Berkeley on Vietnam Day: “One must speak of
alienation, that intellectual category which would take you through
many a turn of the mind in its attempt to explain the particular corrosive
sensations many of us feel in the chest and the gut so much of the time,
that sense of the body growing empty within, of the psyche pierced by a
wound whose dimensions keep opening, that unendurable conviction that one
is hollow, displaced, without a single identity at one’s center.” That is
his remarkable opening sentence. What follows is a strong, moving
presentation of America in mid-Vietnam war (“The country is in disease …”).

And, of course, there is the problematic but ultimately magnificent “Armies
of the Night”: pathologic and this time transcendent. Here, in this famous
account of the 1967 Pentagon march, we see clearly that the professional
self-exposure that came to characterize all his nonfiction is Mailer
replacing the corporate redneck voice of his fiction with “himself” — and
here the replacement does mount up into something extraordinary, as
so often it does not. Yet, throughout the piece, we also see clearly the
continual rise and fall of his self-command as a man, and as a writer.

The night before the march there’s a party and an indoor rally at the
Ambassador Theater in Washington. At the party Mailer consumes a huge
amount of alcohol, and then before he’s to go onstage he has to urinate. By
now, he’s drunk, can’t find the light switch in the bathroom and misses
the bowl. He describes this hilariously, observing that in the morning the
theater owners will blame the piss on the floor on the communists. Once
onstage — now really drunk — he begins to bomb and starts to tell the
story about missing the bowl, going on and on until people start yelling at
him from the audience. This drives him to further excess. He begins to
curse (as no other speaker has), and is bewildered when the audience roars
its displeasure. Puzzled, he tells the reader that he loved talking
obscenely: “It gave a heartiness like the blood of beef tea to his
associations. There was no villainy in obscenity for him, just –
paradoxically, characteristically — his love for America. He had first
come to love America when he served in the U.S. Army, not the America of
course of the flag, the patriotic unendurable fix of the television
programs, and the newspapers, no … he had come to love what editorial
writers were fond of calling the democratic principle, with its faith in
the common man. He found that principle and that man in the Army, but what
none of the editorial writers ever mentioned was that the noble common man
was as obscene as an old goat, and his obscenity was what saved him … The
sanity … was in his humor; his humor was in his obscenity.”

True, but as the years went on, the obscenity in Mailer’s writing became an
unbroken rush of language that grew increasingly more vicious, and when it
did it lost its American-ness, as well as its humor. This was the poison
of a writer growing old with his private grievance intact, projecting it
onto the idiom of his time and place and calling it cultural identity. That
same poison is there in the work of writers like V.S. Naipaul and Martin
and Gore Vidal — and in them, too, it fails. The “idiom” is neither
English nor Anglo-Indian nor upper-class American; it is simply that of an
anger, there from the cradle, that precedes culture and almost always
sense of things well into middle age. It wasn’t life he was at war with; it
was writing; it was himself. And this made the reader his antagonist. “He
did not have a notion of what he would say next,” he tells us somewhere in
“Armies of the Night,” “but it never occurred to him that something would
not come. His impatience, his sorrow, his jealousy were gone, he just
wanted to live on the edge of that rhetorical sword he would soon try to
run through the heart of the audience.”

In 1971 Mailer faced Gore Vidal on television in a now famous session of
“The Dick Cavett Show.” He had already written his antifeminist tract
“Prisoner of Sex” and Vidal, in his own nasty way, had taken him
down in the pages of the New York Review of Books. So before he ever walked onto the
set Mailer was feeling humiliated. In the waiting room backstage he decides how he will handle his bad feeling: “Mailer — like that general he
could never become — was contemplating the military chances for entering
an ambush of such delicacy connected to such strength. The only answer was
attack. Shatter all prepared positions. Go out, he said to himself, and
smash that fucking tea house.” And he did. He came out battling, made a
shambles of the program, and along with it the most monumental and
horrifying fool of himself. He was nearly 50 years old, and he’d been doing
this for more than 20 years: still standing with his back to the
refrigerator, taking on all comers.

Two other writers working around the same time as Mailer also developed
voices that originated in murderous truth speaking — George Orwell and
James Baldwin. Each of them labored long and hard to make anger serve
thought. Orwell did it most successfully, and we remember almost everything
he said. Baldwin produced a powerful rhetoric that also served, and we will
respond to much of his writing as long as American literature lasts. To be
now in the presence of Mailer’s voice speaking throughout 1200 pages of
writing that span 50 years, is to be overwhelmingly aware not only of its
unchanged sound, but that one hardly remembers anything it actually says,
only that it is determined to drive its rhetoric into our hearts. This is a
startling conclusion. Startling and depressing.

Vivan Gornick is a writer who lives in New York. Her most recent book of essays, "The End of the Novel of Love," is published by Beacon Press.

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