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Why I Miss Norman Mailer
Posted on Feb 18, 2011
By Mr. Fish
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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