By Mr. Fish
I thought that I’d done everything I was supposed to do. This was back in the springtime of 2007, about seven months before Norman Mailer died. I’d sent an e-mail to the address in the newspaper and made a reservation to see him talk about what would be his last novel, “The Castle in the Forest,” at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, but I never got a confirmation e-mail back. I couldn’t even get anybody on the telephone. For four days I tried. It pissed me off.
“Writers Guild,” I grumbled to myself, listening to the telephone ring off the hook at the theater at 1:30 in the afternoon, six hours from when the event was scheduled to start. “What is a writers guild doing in Hollywood, anyway?” I asked myself. “What is a writer in Hollywood?” I knew what a writer was on the East Coast: He is a smoker, works on a typewriter and is an enormous failure; he is a sandwich maker who cries easily and can quote Nabokov and Algren and Eliot. The West Coast version of a writer is a 50-year-old fat guy 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.
As the phone continued to ring, I imagined the 50-year-old fat guy asleep beneath a torn “Dark Side of the Moon” poster somewhere in Westwood, his bed loaded with cats, nothing but dirty cereal bowls in the sink, his comic book collection archived in a stack of dusty boxes in the closet and ready to be sold if things get really bad, like if he all of a sudden got a girlfriend. I slammed down the receiver and called Book Soup, the retailer that was sponsoring the event. They told me to take a hike, that they were connected to what was happening at the Writers Guild only as booksellers, not as seat warmers.
Seat warmers. I wanted to kill somebody.
I got in the car and zigzagged my way from Pasadena for an hour and a half through rush-hour traffic until I got to Beverly Hills, the whole time trying to listen to a public library CD of Mailer reading, with his wife, his book about the Kennedy assassination, “Oswald’s Tale.” Parking, I was happy to turn the car off, the trading off of passages between Norman and the Mrs. having never amounted to much more than the dullest Sonny and Cher routine ever recorded.
The theater had the beginnings of a sizable crowd swirling around the lobby when I got there. Luckily, nobody was under 70 and practically everybody was a woman, so the swirling was dainty, like dandelion spores, not the least bit treacherous. Seeing the only other dude in the room, a youngster of about 65, sitting all by himself at a brown cafeteria table with a list of names and a cash box, I steeled myself against what I assumed was about to happen by sweating out my ass.
“Name?” said the man, cheerfully, as I approached.
“Booth,” I said, clenching my jaw.
“Booth,” he said, moving his pen down the row of names on his clipboard. “Ah, here we are, Booth,” he said, stopping at the name Booth, Melissa, his insatiable need to be both cheerful and accommodating blinding him to the specific purpose of his task. He made a check mark and said, “Twenty dollars.” With perspiration running down my legs to meet my socks, I handed him a pair of wet 10-dollar bills and found my seat, paranoid that it was only a matter of time before Melissa Booth found the back of my head with her cane. I made myself as small as I could in my chair, not an easy feat with so much osteoporosis in the room.
At last, after 45 minutes of waiting, from the rear of the auditorium came Norman Mailer. He walked slowly using two canes, his knees as brittle as cookies, his body matronly and small, his brow furrowed, his tremendous ears both containing hearing aids, his eyes as fierce as little knives. The applause followed him the full length of the room and all the way up to the stage before it stopped abruptly, as if the noise might disrupt his concentration just enough on the stairs to send him toppling. Squeaky thuds from the rubber tips of his canes hoisted him uneasily into the glare of the C-SPAN television lights, his frailty bringing some measure of sorrow to the moment. He collapsed into his chair just as David Ulin, book critic for the L.A. Times, sat down opposite him and readied his notes. An introduction was read clumsily from a podium while a glass of red wine was delivered surreptitiously to Mailer and hidden behind a short vase of flowers on the small table separating him from his host. The author was then handed an immense microphone that he held in his lap like a dead flashlight, and he waited for the interview to begin. I felt gloomy about what the next hour might bring.
Then Mailer spoke. Then the night was glorious.
There’s a story about Mark Twain going to visit James McNeill Whistler in his art studio and approaching one of the painter’s canvases resting on an easel. Leaning in to examine the detail of the work, Twain reaches out a finger to touch the face of the painting before being stopped by Whistler who shouts, “Wait! The paint is still wet!”
“That’s OK,” Twain says reassuringly, “I’m wearing gloves.”
It is one of the earliest examples of artistic celebrity trumping art, something that Mailer would, some 60 years later, master better than anybody else in his generation—elevating, in fact, the notion that the ego of a writer, when inflated with massive amounts of hot air, may be capable of carrying him to heights so great that he is required to look down to observe the culture of his time. And while such a perspective might, at first, seem an unforgivably arrogant position from which to comment on a society made tiny by such a lofty point of view and panoramic range of vision, it was the humanity of Mailer’s brain and the fallibility of his all too human eyes and the contradictions in his heart that made the artistry of his observations divinely lacking in condescension. In fact, he maximized the reach of his sympathies by offering their emollience to saints and sinners alike, something that no God wishing to subjugate those beneath him with the jurisprudence of a codification of their souls would ever do.
“He may have been a fool,” Mailer once suggested as a suitable epitaph for himself, “but he certainly did his best and that can’t be said of all fools.”
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.