BOOKS Norman X
By A. ALVAREZ
NORMAN MAILER'S last, book, a collection of essays and occasional pieces, was called The Presidential Papers. It was offered as a kind of corrective to the late President. From it, the theory was, Kennedy might learn something of the psychic realities of the States, something to offset the great mass of predigested facts which was his official daily diet. The idea was not quite as off as it sounds, for Kennedy—a Harvard man like Mailer, not much older, and with a gossipy interest in the cultural world—was the only 'American president who might really have read a book of this type, however quizzically. What was off, however, was something never explicitly
stated but sharply present in the tone of the writing: a continual, irritated buzz of implica- tion that Mailer was not so much advising Kennedy as competing with him, and that the book was a way of setting out his qualifications for the boss's job.
An American Dream* is Mailer's presidential novel. Kennedy appears in the first sentence and reappears just before the climax ('Kelly returned. "It was Jack," he said to me. "He said to send you his regards and commiserations . . . I didn't know you knew him." '). In between are drama- tised some of the qualities needed for the making of an Existential President. Rojack, Mailer's hero —.university professor, TV personality, ex- Congressman and war-time hero—is alive to his impulses and accepts the risks of acting them out; he is responsible to his buried madness. In one chapter he murders his wife with consider- able satisfaction and then, with slightly less, elaborately buggers her German maid. Sleep- lessly, he dispenses orgasms to lost girls and knock-out punches to their dispossessed lovers. He cons the police, squares up to the underlings of the Mob, and tests on his nerves the seduc- tions of suicide, gambling and physical daring. He also has a little thing going for him in extra- sensory communication, is in vague touch with the spirit world and has muddled thoughts on God and the Devil—mostly the Devil. All this, it is implied, has given him his skill in riding the power circuit of big money, political influence and smart espionage. When Mailer talked at the Mayfair Theatre the other night he referred a number of times to the Sexual Revolution. I think he fancies himself as its Trotsky, and this novel is his way of showing that he is qualified and ready for the job. His party will be the Hipocrats and his slogan, 'Psychopaths of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your cool.'
The trouble with An American Dream as a novel is precisely that in it Mailer has lost his cool. The tone is hectic, sometimes raucous and, above all, anxious. You would never guess from it that Mailer has written the most alive and intelligent prose of his generation, a style in which his swarming ideas and insights, imagina- tive depth and intellectual pressure work effort- lessly together, making The Naked and the Dead the finest book to come out of the war. He still has his moments:
She was bad in death. A beast stared back at me. Her teeth showed, the point of light in her eye was violent, and her mouth was open. It looked like a cave. I could hear some wind which * Andre Deutsch, 25s. reached down the cellars of a sunless earth. A little line of spit came from the corner of her mouth, and at an angle from her nose one green seed had floated its small distance on an abortive rill of blood. I did not feel a thing. Which is not to say nothing was happening to me. Like ghosts, emotions were passing invisibly through the aisles of my body. I knew I would mourn her on some distant day, and I would fear her.
He is trying to catch the present sensations as they come and chart them as they sink down into the psyche, to watch, as it were, the present reverberating into the future. But that fine control that used to distinguish Mailer's prose has gone: the sentence about the 'sunless earth' is romantic rhetoric, half-digested Kubla Khan, whilst poor, dead Deborah's snot is there merely to shock. It doesn't; it only undercuts what he says about not feeling a thing, since the reader is clearly intended to feel so much.
To shock, in fact, is the book's chief aim. But the shock works on two levels, one superficial and more or less frivolous, the other serious. Frivolity first: just as Rojack is continually making physical dares with himself—with drink, with sex and with suicidal situations, such as walking round the parapet of a skyscraper—so Mailer seems to be daring the American public to be outraged, daring Esquire magazine, who serialised the thing, to refuse it, to cut it, to protesst. But it can't be done; in America every- thing is acceptable, everything a success; the book has already made him half a million dollars. This accounts for that shrill edge of frustration, like a naughty child with a swampingly permissive parent. It is the stylistic parallel to a curious, undiscussed thread in the narrative : the fact that Rojack's father-in-law, Kelly, has slept with all the girls—including his own daughter—whom Rojack so strenuously makes in his wanderings. Hence the sexual exhibitionism—Mailer writes as though he had just invented the orgasm—has about it a compulsive desperation that flows pure from infantile sources : as who should say, 'How- ever omnipotent and overpowering Daddy is, you shall take notice of me.'
On this strip-joint level, the sexual revolution has already taken place. Since Lady Chatterley went ofl the best-seller list it has been possible to write frankly about any kind of sex; however complex or perverse. Nobody really cares what people do with each other in bed; after all, it's harmless, it's been said before and it is not political. Yet it can, in a devious way, become an instrument of politics : the sex novels and titillating films, the unchanging, bogus psycholo- gising about mutual orgasms, all those empty, smiling faces and mass-produced bosoms loom- ing from every billboard and TV screen, are the new opiate of the masses. So the more sex a book has the less it basically offends those blank, 'totalitarian' forces which Mailer fears are run- ning American life. When Kennedy went to the
White House Mailer wrote, 'America was faced with going back to its existential beginnings, its
frontier psychology, where the future is unknown and one discovers the truth of the present by accepting the risks of the present; or America could continue to go on in its search for totali- tarian security.' Rojack, I suppose, was created as an urban embodiment of this frontier psy- chology, a man whose life depends on being true to his present truth and risking his obscurest instincts. To insist on him as a superman with a phallus as big as the Ritz is merely a distraction.
Essentially, he is a post-Sexual Revolution hero. His athletic promiscuity is interesting only for its lovelessness. With Cherry, the nightclub singer, he works up a little strained sentiment, with Ruta, the German girl, he finds self- congratulation, and with Deborah, his wife, a piercing, vindictive hatred; but with none of them is there any tenderness. It never occurs to him that sex can involve giving, trust, renewal. The theme of the book is the violence of it all; the violence of the libidinal drives, but also the violence of frustration, prejudice, power and the whole seething, envious antagonism of New York City. The best scenes are those with the police and the negro singer, Shago Martin, where Mailer catches, almost without seeming to know it, the incredibly insulting tone of American life. In the final analysis, it doesn't matter if Rojack screws away like an automated factory; what matters is that he should sense the psychic outrage that this kind of frantic, loveless violence reeks on his self. He may be dressed up as a hero but he looks like a martyr to me.
Mailer's strength as a novelist and essayist has always been his sense of which issues are on the edge of erupting into the American conscious- ness. An American Dream was begun in September 1963. Two months later the private, bedroom violence he described was given over- whelming political expression when Kennedy was assassinated. Since then murderousness has pro- liferated like cancer in the States: Philadelphia, Miss., Selma and Harlem, It has status and recognition, it has class. It even has its own formal political parties and extremist platforms: the Black Moslems, the Klan, the Birchers. One of Mailer's finest pieces was his defence of hipsterism, 'The White Negro.' An American Dream might be subtitled The White Black Moslem—written, of course, by Norman X.
Violence and schizophrenia as values in them- selves is not a concept original to Mailer or America. Over here the psychiatrist R. D. Laing has, if I understand him rightly, been promoting much the same thesis: that 'madness' may give you truer and deeper insights into your own reality than 'sanity.' It is the gospel according to St. Genet. Mailer, however willing, finds it a strain; madness does not come naturally to him. He is above all an intellectual: Jewish, Harvard, New Yorker. For all his sharp responses and awareness, there is always behind every word he writes a hint of theory, a force which checks, tabulates and organises the material with
an often considerable intellectual elegance. The grand, controlled madness of Dostoievsky or Lawrence's absolute certainty of intuition are not his style. He is too cerebral and well-read ever to be able to rely wholly on his instincts; for even his present absorption with way-out experience he has formal existential excuses.
So An American Dream remains a political novel. It is written to shock people into recognis- ing the underforces that run their lives and society; it is written to change things a bit. Maybe it would have more chance of doing so if it had
been dashed off less like a pamphlet, impatiently, carelessly, to do a job; not so much a way of life, more a programme. Even so, there are touches of genius about it, as there are about everything
Mailer writes. It may not be the masterpiece he promised at the end of Advertisements for Myself, but it is a splendid fill-in on the most improbable fictional character since Moby Dick : I mean Norman Mailer.