Sunday, March 29, 2009
Blood in the water
Yes, Mailer is dead. I’d honestly like to know if there’s anyone out there who’s read it all. (I haven’t. I read The Armies of Night, The Executioner’s Song, Cannibals and Christians, and what I could stand of Ancient Evenings.) Frankly, there was a lot of it, and if his oeuvre ever happened to topple over and trap you beneath it, you would be trapped there a long time. My dad once observed that you could tell you were reading a book by someone who had been married six times and was carrying a lot of alimony, because why would you use one sentence when you could use five? (Ancient Evenings was a particular offender in this regard. I appreciate Egyptian symbology as much as the next person, but the man wrote the textual equivalent of more jump cuts than MTV uses. Tom Robbins has a species of the same affliction. Rather than come up with a vivd metaphor and weight its effects, and modulate the intensity of your prose, both Robbins and Mailer will/would bully you with seven metaphors.) Which is not to say that Mailer (or Robbins) is without talent. I still think Armies of Night is a great book, and lord knows Creative Nonfiction would not be the same without his star in the firmament. But the one thing that I took away from the essays in Cannibals and Christians (other than the staggering amount of self-indulgence it takes to interview oneself) is that he was a man who was deeply, profoundly worried about whether or not other writers were better/more famous/got laid more than him. And unlike the rest of us who try to strangle such serpents in their crib, Mailer felt free to slag his contemporaries whenever possible and in whatever venue, on what I must assume is the theory that anyone who read them was someone who wasn’t reading him. I found this zero-sum outlook quite unattractive. I’m sure that it made him legions of enemies, and for someone who made a career out of dismissing the importance of others (like Bukowski, he seemed always ready to point out how difficult it was for him to write and why no one else should attempt it), I can’t say I’m surprised that everyone has their spray-can out, ready to deface the memorial he consciously built for himself. I never read someone else who so casually and transparently tried to hamstring his closest competitors. And, as always, the threat of physical violence (ala William Buckley’s clenched jaw mutterings) was never far away. This is not to say that Mailer deserves venomous eulogies, just that they haven’t materialized out of the blue. My complaint is that the obits that I have read really haven’t talked about him as an innovator of creative non-fiction, but instead focused on his PR machine.