Norman Mailer faces his Maker

May the good Lord be merciful to him.

I know nothing whatever of this man, and have never read a single word he’s written. However, the sff. net website where I maintain my never-to-be-sufficiently-updated boastpage has a link in its banner that reminds us of those who have passed away. This sff banner is how I found out the dreadful news, for example, that Dan Hooker, the agent for A.E. van Vogt estate, had passed away. Usually the banner deals with people touching the science fiction world.

I came across this obituary written by Roger Kimball, which was less than flattering to Mr. Mailer, thought it seems to have the ring of truth about it. Strangely enough, even though I have never heard of the famous Norman Mailer, I had heard of the obscure Jack Abbott.

Let me explain why I know the one and not the other. Norman Mailer, if he is as bad as Roger Kimball paints him to be, would be the perfect example of what about mainstream literature bores and disgusts me.

At a young age I concluded that modern mainstream books are written by authors too untalented and too unimaginative to write science fiction or fantasy: or, rather, I concluded that their fantasies concerned earthly and mundane things, daily preoccupations with envy, powerlust, adultery, buggery, misogyny. None of them had the imagination to follow Virgil to the frozen core of hell, or soar with Beatrice to speak with Aquinas in the heaven of the Sun; none of them had the talent to fly with Robur the Conqueror or to dive with Nemo, or visit the Morlock-haunted gardenlands of Eloi, a million years yet to be born. When set the challenge to produce an epic in the fashion of Homer’s ODYSSEY, the modern mind produced the dreary and disorganized mess of James Joyce’s ULYSSES, whose claim to fame it is overwhelmingly quotidian bleakness, it utter lack of heroism, virtue, humanity, beauty. Modern poets describe sunsets as “patients etherized on a table.”

I will let C.S. Lewis voice my antipathy for this particular bit of T.S. Eliot’s studied ungainliness:

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if eveningany eveningwould suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.

To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Now, as I age, I suspect my youthful conclusion, like many conclusions of youth, too harsh: and generously I am willing to admit that there may be some merit in these modern books invisible to me I am sure persons with severe sexual neuroses, or a dyslexia of the cognitive faculty, for example, might feel a sense of relief reading this bit of pagan glossolalia:

The visible signs of antesatisfaction? An approximate erection: a solicitous adversion: a gradual elevation: a tentative revelation: a silent contemplation. Then? He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation. The visible signs of postsatisfaction? A silent contemplation: a tentative velation: a gradual abasement: a solicitous aversion: a proximate erection.

I see no merit in this passage. It is pure artsy-fartsy phoniness: word-clever, inauthentic, heartless, gross. The same words could be rearranged at random with no loss and no addition of meaning. Ah! But perhaps the Emperor’s clothes are woven of such a fine silk that only those whose artistic sensitivities are exquisitely elevated can perceive them! If so, allow me to wallow in the coarse and common taste I would rather read about Peter Parker’s awkward teen romance with Kitty Pryde in ULTIMATE SPIDERMAN Annual #1.

On the other hand, certain modern novels, such as Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS or Melville’s MOBY DICK strike me as perfectly well-written, about something real, and if a little grim, understandably so. The modern age is a grim age. Indeed, the delight in escapist fantasy is precisely because of the grimness of modernity. The clanking wheels of the factory becomes the din of Mordor, and the pollution becomes the soot of Mount Doom.

So, if Norman Mailer had been widely lauded among the mainstream intelligentsia, I would never have heard of him, and rightly so. I have no interest in books of that kind.

But I had heard of Jack Abbott: because he is an example used in more than one article I have read of the irresponsible and corrupt nature of the intelligentsia, of their pure inhumanity.

I case you have not heard the story, Jack Abbott is a killer who wrote a book in prison describing his life as a murderer: IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST. The book won the praise of a highly-placed and influential novelist, who arranged his parole. Abbott was feted and celebrated at New York parties by the novelist’s friends. Abbott was in a restaurant, but, upon being told by a waiter the restroom was for staff only, knifed him to death. The waiter, the son in law of the restaurant’s owner, was a Cuban emigrant named Richard Adan.

That is all I knew of the story. I did not know who the novelist was.

Now, a room will look brighter or darker to you if you step into it from out of a dark cellar, or indoors from a bright noon. In this particular case, Mr. Mailer’s record looks dark to me indeed, since it turns out that he was the novelist whose influence sprung Jack Abbott. I suppose if I had been introduced to him from some other angle of his career, my opinion would be different.

I do not know if the character in Roger Kimball’s obituary is a just or unjust characterization of Norman Mailer. The mainstream is not my field: for better or worse, I live in the atmosphere of Scientifiction and Voyages Extraordinaire. But I do notice the parallels between Kimball’s complaints about Mailer and my own complaints about Heinlein. Namely: both Mailer and Heinlein had more than a streak of angry Hemmingway-style machismo in their writings, both had a combination of misogyny and free-love sexual libertinism, both were iconoclasts of the first water.

I wonder if Heinlein got his ideas from Mailer.