Friday, November 23, 2007

Teachout on Mailer

Terry Teachout has a wonderful writeup on Norman Mailer. He also has an excellent response to those upset at criticizing the dead in another blog entry. From his NRO article:

Mailer has been writing badly for so long that it is easy to forget that a great many intelligent people once took him almost as seriously as he took himself. (Trivia question: Who called him “one of the few postwar American writers in whom it is possible to detect the presence of qualities that powerfully suggest a major novelist in the making”? Answer: Norman Podhoretz, writing in 1959.) And The Time of Our Time contains ample proof that for all his faults, the young Mailer really did have talent to burn. He could blather on for page after page about existential anguish, then snap into focus and toss off the kind of brilliantly exact description that made his colleagues sweat with envy. Here is Truman Capote, pinned down in one perfect sentence: “‘I didn’t want to do this show,’ he said in a dry little voice that seemed to issue from an unmoistened reed in his nostril.”

The trouble with Mailer was that he was drunk on ideas, a deadly tipple for woolly-minded pseudo-intellectuals. Sensing instinctively that liberalism had run its course, he made the mistake of assuming that radicalism was the only way out, and complicated matters still further by opting for a romantic radicalism rooted in sexual mysticism. As a result, his style grew bloated and slack, especially on the increasingly frequent occasions when he grappled with imperfectly digested philosophical concepts...

But even at his best, Mailer was addicted to navel-gazing, and his insistence on placing himself on stage alongside his subjects, though initially refreshing, ultimately proved disastrous. It is no coincidence that the two most successful pieces of book-length reportage to come out of the Sixties, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, scrupulously avoid the self-aggrandizement that was Mailer’s journalistic trademark (or that The Executioner’s Song, by far Mailer’s strongest piece of journalism, is also one of the few non-fiction books he has written in which he does not figure as a major character).

My only disagreement with Teachout comes later in the article when he states:

Yet Mailer had little choice but to write about ideas, for he had little else about which to write. The publication in 1948 of The Naked and the Dead left him “prominent and empty” at the age of 25, and he spent the rest of his youth and early middle age living in the glare of renown, making it impossible for him to accumulate the private experience out of which good novels are spun."

Well, maybe. Mailer in fact had a lot of "private experiences" to draw on. We can start with growing up in Brooklyn, going to Harvard at 16; spending 3 year in the Army, and being able to travel the world at the age 25 with money in his pocket. Certainly by 1960 at the age of 37 he had more than enough opportunity to "accumulate private experiences" to write a good novel. The fact is Mailer simply lacked the imagination and was too egotistical to create convincing characters who weren't Norman Mailer. Look at "Naked and the Dead". He spent 3 years in the Army, but his non-New York characters are simply unconvincing characters. One wonders how much interaction Mailer actually had with his fellow GI's.

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