Was Norman Mailer the last tough guy?

Mailer married six times and had nine children; there were innumerable affairs, parties and arguments. He published 44 books. He never stopped. After one of his children is born, he leaves the hospital and that night begins an affair with his sister-in-la

Norman Mailer: a Double Life
J Michael Lennon
Simon & Schuster, 960pp, £30

Norman Mailer spent the summer of 1997 rereading the books he had written over the previous 50 years: novels about the Second World War, Hollywood and ancient Egypt; literary journalism on US politics, anti-war demonstrations and space exploration; polemics against feminism and biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lee Harvey Oswald and Picasso. There were short stories, screenplays and poems. Mailer was approaching his 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the publication of the novel that had made his reputation, The Naked and the Dead.

To mark these two occasions, he was planning a book. This was published the following year as The Time of Our Time, a huge anthology of pieces taken from across his career. The extracts are arranged not in the order of their composition but according to the year of the events they describe: so a scene from Mailer’s 1991 novel about the CIA (Harlot’s Ghost) is presented alongside an essay that he wrote in 1959. In doing so, Mailer reshaped his many writings into an idiosyncratic biography of the US in the 20th century.

J Michael Lennon’s new biography of Mailer tries to tell the whole story of the writer’s life. This is no humble ambition. Mailer married six times and had nine children; there were innumerable affairs, parties and arguments. He published 44 books. He never stopped. After one of his children is born, he leaves the hospital and that night begins an affair with his sister-in-law. He is commissioned to write 20,000 words for a magazine article and given a month deadline. He writes 90,000 words instead, which the magazine, Harper’s, publishes – “the longest piece ever published in an American magazine”, according to Lennon – and which then wins the Pulitzer Prize. Mailer was maximal. He ran for mayor of New York twice. He was interviewed 700 times.

Mailer lived his life in order to gather material. He was 19 when the US entered the Second World War and he wondered whether a better novel could be written about the Pacific campaigns or the war in Europe; he started planning his war novel before he was called up in March 1944. During basic training, he took notes “on the sex lives of the other soldiers”. He fought in the Philippines and listed the names of the soldiers he met; they turn up in The Naked and the Dead.

This hunger – to get life into literature –was a constant. He followed The Naked and the Dead with two more novels but soon became frustrated with the restrictions of fiction. In the late 1950s, after an unhappy period in Hollywood trying to write screenplays, he turned to journalism and non-fiction. The so-called New Journalists of the 1960s –Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion –made their pursuit of the story part of the story and wrote themselves into their reports. Mailer’s innovation was an extreme version of this.

In October 1967, he participated in a demonstration at the Pentagon. His account of the march and its aftermath, in which he was arrested and briefly jailed, was published the following year as The Armies of the Night. In it, Mailer uses what he called the “third-person personal”: he refers to himself as “Mailer”. This became his signature technique. In The Fight (1975), his superb account of the boxing match in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, he is “Norman”. In the book’s most moving and revealing scene, “Norman” goes for a midnight run with Ali and his frank, funny account of his pride and nervousness at exercising with the boxer makes Ali seem both greater and more human.

This technique dissolves the barrier on which literary biography depends – between a writer’s life and works. The colourful, confessional presence of Mailer in his books suggests that the writer’s personal life is one more part of the performance and this in turn puts his biographer in an impossible position. Mailer asked J Michael Lennon (his amanuensis for On God) to write this biography and was interviewed frequently by him. The result is that this book reads at times as a weird paraphrase of the story inside Mailer’s head. We are told, for example: “He had the feeling that he’d be busy when he got home in August.” Here, the biographer is the spokesman for Mailer’s inner life; elsewhere, Lennon falls into a pastiche of Mailer’s mannerisms and obsessions. Strangest of all, Lennon refers to himself in the third person: he quotes himself and then identifies the speaker as “Lennon” or “Mike Lennon” without noting that this is himself. This biography, then, is Mailer as rewritten by a lesser Mailer.

Mailer did not write only about himself. His finest book is The Executioner’s Song (1979), which describes the crimes and subsequent execution of a murderer called Gary Gilmore. Mailer does not, however, appear in it. Instead, the book is 1,000 or so pages of beautiful, subtle ventriloquism, as he inhabits the perspectives of the killer, his victims and his lover and then the lawyers and journalists who swarm around the trial. It is possibly the greatest work in all American non-fiction but it reads so like a novel that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

This was Mailer’s gift: in shaping and compiling the great mess of experience and daily life into powerful stories that thwart simple categorisation – or biographical analysis.

Daniel Swift is a senior lecturer in English at the New College of the Humanities

Fighting spirit: Norman Mailer at a New York gym in 1978. Image: Michael Brennan/Corbis

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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