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Arts and Culture

Why I Miss Norman Mailer

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Posted on Feb 18, 2011
Mr. Fish

By Mr. Fish

(Page 2)

Certainly, many would say that Mailer’s massive ego was precisely what ruined him as an artist. True, he appeared sometimes not to entirely trust the ability of his audience to understand his writing without excessive coaching. Oftentimes his work seemed as if it were being presented to a reader pre-chewed; that is, so rigorously vivisected that those readers not repulsed by having to slog through the innards of whatever he’s overwritten—which is typically full of plot points that are revealed slowly, from the inside out, and with greatest aplomb for the stench and creepy sinewy-ness of the whole exercise—might still wish that they were the ones doing the chewing and subsequent tasting of the material. It’s the difference between being handed an entrée at a restaurant and being left alone to eat versus being brought back into the kitchen to have the cook explain why each ingredient he’s cooking with needs to be appreciated—a lot. And then there’s the help in the preparation. And the cleanup. And then the picking through the excrement days later to see that, in fact, each ingredient was properly digested and nourishing to the right bones.

The question is: Is that art of terrific depth or is it just the expression of a mammoth insecurity that forces a writer to continuously talk over his reader’s shoulder because he doesn’t want anybody to notice how thinly his characters are rendered or how idiotic the scenarios that inspire them to act one way or another are when they are left unadorned with an author’s incessant commentary?

Of course, suggesting an answer would belie the whole point in asking the question.

One thing that is undeniable, though, is how seriously Mailer took his responsibilities as a novelist—responsibilities that are indeed profound. He knew how pitifully incompetent and morally bankrupt real reality was when compared with fiction, and yet he always did his best to outfit his ideas with strings that would prevent anything resembling escapism from suggesting that the brutal truths of existence should be fled. He understood better than most how fiction, by simulating reality, was able to harbor all the emotional significance and inspiration offered by real reality with one rather remarkable difference:  unlike real reality, fictitious reality was both editable and portable. The fictitious Manhattan of 1951, for instance, as gray as a pewter ashtray and cold as the bottom of a wishing well, can be experienced anywhere in the world by anybody with a library card. Likewise, if you’ve never enjoyed the rare pleasure of jerking off into a hissing frying pan or pissing into the uterus of a cackling fishmonger’s wife, nor did you plan on ever having the gumption to enjoy such rare pleasures using your own fluids, you can always pick up something by Charles Bukowski or Henry Miller. Real reality is never that generous. Real reality is immutable; it’s nothing but the prop closet and the set upon which we stage our fiction. 

Fictitious reality can also do something that real reality couldn’t do in a million years: suggest that the universe is not indifferent to the existence of human beings. In fact, fictitious reality remains the only version of reality that, by being both editable and portable, people are able to conduct controlled experiments upon as a way of figuring out how to conduct their real lives in real reality in a way that maximizes the unsubstantiated fantasy that what they think and what they do has some meaning other than simply being more cosmic balderdash. Fictitious reality provides human beings with the only reality that offers them anything like justification for their continued survival as a species. It is literally the lie of sanity. 

But perhaps Mailer’s greatest achievement was his invention of something I’ll call theophysics in fiction, which might be defined as a detailed study of how the spiritual dimension (assuming there is such a thing) might coexist with the corporeal dimension, both sharing and affecting the same exact reality without being entirely aware of the other’s presence or purpose. I imagine that it’s not dissimilar to how plants and animals coexist. Despite the fact that a fruit-bearing plant possesses a completely different type of awareness of the world than a rabbit or a deer and that neither is, therefore, capable of having anything resembling sympathy for the other’s suffering or empathy for the other’s quest for comfort and joy, both, by being able to experience each other’s existence through interdependent cycles of sustenance and reproduction, still have an obvious influence on each other’s behavior. Likewise with humanity, there most certainly must be a number of super- and substructures of reality in the universe that are completely incomprehensible to human beings, yet they are still an influence on how humanity behaves, or, in the case of Mailer’s work, misbehaves. 

“God,” he once said, “like us, suffers the ambition to make a destiny more extraordinary than was conceived for Him—yes, God is like me, only more so.”

And now God is dead. And we are left with the remarkably profound gift of nothing being any better or worse as a result.

The final question from the audience in 2007 came from a woman in her 50s who said that she was writing a play about Marilyn Monroe and wondered if Mailer had any insights into the deceased superstar that might help her finish. Ugh. Mailer looked at her impatiently and asked if she’d read his book on Monroe. She had. “I have no other insights to offer other than those in the book,” he said, “although I do have an anecdote I can share with you.” He then proceeded to tell how he and Arthur Miller actually lived in the same brownstone in the 1950s and how they’d met nearly every day at the mailboxes downstairs. In all the years that they shared the same address, Miller never once offered to introduce him to Marilyn. “He knew that I’d try to steal her if I ever met her,” said Mailer, “and there’s nothing that eats at a thief more than being prevented from committing his crime.”

Standing up to leave, with real satisfaction in my chest, I imagined Melissa Booth sitting at a nearby bus stop trying to ball her arthritic hand into a fist, wondering who the fuck had stolen her night out at the theater and why there was so much evil in the world.


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By bowwowboy., February 21, 2011 at 7:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Which wife? Mailer was married six times. In 1960,
after a party, he stabbed his second wife, Adele
Morales, with a penknife. She almost died as a
result.  Subsequently, Mailer was involuntarily
committed to Bellevue Hospital for 17 days. Morales
did not press charges. She later published an account
of the incident in a memoir entitled The Last
Party
.

Feminists in the 60’s and 70’s took this act of
violence as the not unexpected consequence of the
misogyny frequently expressed in Mailer’s writing.
Kate Millet famously skewered him in Sexual
Politics
. Gore Vidal wrote an essay linking
Mailer with Charles Manson and Henry Miller as
exemplars of patriarchal fear and hatred of women.
The Prisoner of Sex represents Mailer’s
confused and confusing effort to come to terms with,
among other things,  the meaning and implications of
the women’s movement.  It doesn’t rank high in the
Mailer canon.

Mailer’s rigid if never-convincing machismo seemed to
relax in later years. Once famously homophobic, his
attitude toward his gay fellow citizens in
Provincetown was of the live-and-let-live variety.
Auden said that writers’ works are often in better
tastes than their lives, and this is as true of
Mailer as of anyone else in that much-maligned tribe.
In the end, we are left with his prose, which at its
best represents some of the finest writing in the
last century, as well as the memory of his fiercely
combative, sometimes wrongheaded, but always
honorable spirit.

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By Myshkin, February 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm Link to this comment

Wonder all you wish, Fish. When you can better distinguish between the “literal” and the “figurative”, or more accurately, the factual from the satirical, you might then write with the kind of first-person clarity that Mailer excelled at. If you’re gonna mix facts with your own impressions, at least get the facts right. Your satire will be the beneficiary.

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By Bobbi Ames, February 20, 2011 at 8:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Is this Fish the same Stanley Fish who writes for The New York Times?

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By dorndiego, February 19, 2011 at 12:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I just took a walk in a light, warm rain at about 8:30 this
morning, Feb. 18, past some dripping Eucalyptus trees
and a quiet, glistening street.
That’s why East Coasters are always pissing on the
West Coast.

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Mr. Fish's avatar

By Mr. Fish, February 19, 2011 at 10:11 am Link to this comment

I’m starting to wonder if maybe Myshkin is the lady whose seat I stole that night in 2007 - a woman who, like Jack Benny, is perpetually 39 and keeps her head down while passing any reflective surfaces, figurative or literal…

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By Dwayne Raymond, February 19, 2011 at 2:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I am remiss in not mentioning in my earlier post that I was Normans editorial assistant
for the last four of his books and the final five years of his life. And that is what my book,
Mornings with Mailer, is about.

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By DarthMiffy, February 19, 2011 at 1:50 am Link to this comment

Takes guts to write when there are commentators like Myshkin just waiting to
pounce.

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By Melissa, February 18, 2011 at 8:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Fish, I share your devotion to Norman Mailer and his oeuvre.  It was my fondest desire to attend the 2007 event, but circumstances conspired against me.  Perhaps you could share your address with me that we might correspond re your insights from that happy evening.

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By moonraven, February 18, 2011 at 7:58 pm Link to this comment

Mailer could have been one of the very best writers if he had not been so insistent on spending much of his energy being his own publicist.

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By Melissa, February 18, 2011 at 7:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Fish,
I share your devotion to Norman Mailer and his work, and it was my deepest desire to attend the 2007 event, but circumstances conspired against me.  Perhaps you would be so kind as to share your address with me that we might correspond re our mutual hero?

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By Katha Pollitt, February 18, 2011 at 5:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Fish, are you quite sure that ALL the writers on east and west coasts are men?
You need to get out more.

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By David Fisher, February 18, 2011 at 4:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think it was mean to steal Melissa Booth’s night out. Mr. Fish is a thief.

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By gerard, February 18, 2011 at 4:11 pm Link to this comment

This is my ego speaking to your ego.  At least we have that in common—and all together are trying to create some kind of human ego that we can stand to look at in the mirror, in spite of the odds stacked against our success.

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By Egomet Bonmot, February 18, 2011 at 3:44 pm Link to this comment

I love Mailer!  And I’m glad that you headline him during this slow news week.

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By Dwayne Raymond, February 18, 2011 at 3:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I am the author of the book, Mornings with Mailer. I think that you and the readers of this blog may have some interest in it as much of it deals with the writing of Castle in the Forest.

I appreciate that you wrote this piece on Norman. He was truly a good and kind man. I met him, of course, when he was 80 years old and so much of the oddities of his life were in his past. What he loved most was his family, his wife and his work.

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By MossyOak, February 18, 2011 at 3:15 pm Link to this comment

Just finished reading Castle in the Forest. Pages and pages on beekeeping sprinkled with few tidbits of insight into Hitler’s upbringing and ultimate personality. No castle in the story, until the end when Mailer begs the reader’s forgiveness for using a title that had nothing to do with the story. I guess only Pulitzer winners can get away with irrelevant titles. 

The true genius of a writer is his/her ability to put their ego aside. Mailer was a brilliant writer when he was able to win this battle. Sometimes he lost.

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By Myshkin, February 18, 2011 at 2:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I also attended this event in 2007. And I am, as were very many of us in attendance, well “under 70”. It was pretty easy to reserve a ticket too. I wonder if maybe, as your spittle-blown, ill-humored article suggests, it was a failure attributable only to you, and no one else, performing this commonplace task?

“What is a writer’s Guild doing in Hollywood, anyway?” you asked yourself. The answer, I think, is operating as a union for the collective bargaining rights of its members. A noble practice in this or any country.

I’m sorry this offends your antique perception of an “East Coast writer” as someone who, “is a smoker, works on a typewriter [sic] and is an enormous failure; he is a sandwich maker who cries easily and can quote Nabokov and Algren and Eliot,” while dismissing West Coast writers as mere “50-year-old fat guy[s] in white sneakers who wrote a couple ‘X-Files’ episodes 13 years ago and knows the name Faulkner only as a screen credit on some old Bogart movies.”

Sigh. The East Coast writer vs. West Coast writer is surely the most threadbare of American literary canards. Take a single example: by all accounts, Thomas Pynchon wrote most of “Gravity’s Rainbow” while living on the West Coast. And dearly as I regard Mailer as a writer of extraordinary nonfiction, he couldn’t produce a novel even half as brilliant or influential as Pynchon’s.

You end your account of the evening Mailer spoke at the Writer’s Guild with what must have been the least interesting question and response of the event—the question, you note, was asked by “a woman in her 50s”, which I believe qualifies her as being “under 70”—but be that as it may. The more interesting reflections Mailer offered had to do with his late-blooming belief in a God, and his reasons for it, which touched upon a long friendship with the author, James Jones, of whose several novels at least two have been made into quite fine films by members of (well whaddaya know?) that inexplicable (to you) Writer’s Guild.

I miss Norman Mailer too. Mailer the provocateur, the prodigiously insightful author of some of our greatest nonfiction, and especially the formidable and public intellectual whose place in our culture is now occupied by… who? You?

Tastes in literature are variable. What’s not at all variable is the fact that any number of great writers hail from places on the map at compass points East of Manhattan. So why botch a recollection of Norman Mailer’s last public appearance with a lot of bad-tempered blather about West Coast writers?

You may be a Fish out of water West of the Hudson, but you know, pitching a fit over failing to reserve a ticket to a public event makes for a weak case against the likes of writers such as, oh I dunno, Joan Didion, say?

There are many other examples, each available upon request. Or you might try using your own library card, at least when you’re not otherwise occupied inhabiting some “fictitious Manhattan of 1951”.

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By Kay Johnson, February 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm Link to this comment

Didn’t Mailer stab his wife?

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By Mike789, February 18, 2011 at 8:55 am Link to this comment

Mr Fish, I applaud you for reminding me to get back to Mailer.

May the compresence of the multi-dimensionality you describe make suggestion upon our collective unconscious and serve as an asymptote approaching an epiphany.

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