Thinking about persona made me remember the first time I read Norman Mailer. Someone had trumpeted his Armies of Night as one of the most significant memoirs of latter half of the 20th century, so I picked it up. I was impressed by how pitiless the book was toward himself and thought the strange associative reveries were excessively cool, even if speaking about himself in this weird informal way made the tone wobble occasionally. But then again, Nixon spoke about himself in the third person awkwardly too, so maybe the zeitgeist was broadcasting a comeuppance. But it was definitely one those moments (like when I read Girl, Interrupted or The White Album) when you realize that you can get away with anything on the page if you’re clever enough.
Then I randomly picked up his collection of essays, Cannibals and Christians, and the self-interview portion stopped me cold. Definitely felt like a case of trying to make sure he only got forehand serves and not backhand ones (and also some weirdly heightened Freudian inquiries). I had to do a self interview in grad school, and I felt so skeezy doing it, and kept thinking about Donald Hall’s invective against McPoems: verse with jumpcuts designed to flatter the star.
[That started the worm turning. Ancient Evenings finished me off. I don’t think I even made it through a chapter. I have rarely felt so strongly like I was reading a bunch of data slathered into fictional form. The man never had any problems filling up a page, that’s for sure.]
What I found so disappointing in the essays was this constant jockeying to supplant other writers and control how their novels were compared to his. I got a lot of this in Bukowski as well: a constant undercurrent of “This is so hard, so don’t even try it, you young writers.” Kind of sad how much energy writers waste either resisting or giving into anxiety about their contemporaries.