News of the first Norman Mailer novel in ten years has leaked. Never one to deliver a short, sensitive volume filled with quiet observations of everyday people, the 83-year-old author has written a detailed fictional biography of Adolph Hitler and other members of Hitler’s family.
I have mixed feelings about Norman Mailer. I like it that he’s politically outspoken, uncontrollable and unpredictable. He’s great in panel discussions and in front of audiences. But, while I am not generally devoted to political correctness, I can’t get past Norman Mailer’s rabid sexism.
A 60’s-era interview with Paul Krassner in The Realist comes to mind. Now, I love Paul Krassner and The Realist, and I understand that Mailer was trying to live up to his reputation as a professional asshole in this interview. The subject turned to masturbation, and Mailer declared that masturbation was misunderstood to be healthy when it is in fact traumatic and damaging to men, because it is an essentially isolating act. He then counseled men to do anything necessary, even if they had to commit rape, in order to avoid having to masturbate.
Now, like I said, I know this is Mailer’s schtick, but this goes too far and it makes me not want to read his books. Let’s also consider the fact that Mailer actually stabbed his one-time wife, Adele Mailer, in 1960 at a Manhattan party. What’s most offensive is that this was so obviously an act of proclamation. He stabbed his wife at a party. Why is it that both Mailer and William S. Burroughs committed their infamous acts of violence towards women in front of audiences? I wonder.
Norman Mailer, William S. Burroughs, hmm … Harlan Ellison. They’re all jerks, and in my opinion Burroughs is the only great writer of the three.
So if Mailer’s not a great writer, what is he? He’s a pretty interesting personality, and he’s probably a victim of Larry-David- style cultural Tourette’s syndrome. He’s an innovator in the form of postmodern historical fiction, predating Don DeLillo and William Vollmann. Personally, I don’t sit there reading his books, but I’ll always sit and listen to him if he shows up on Book TV, because that will be a good half hour.
Sarah Weinman dismisses Mailer as lately irrelevant in GalleyCat. But I think we can at least give Norman Mailer this much credit: he was never in step with his times, and even at his best he was probably not relevant to his times. He was a stuffy, fancy “famous author” in the 50’s when the better writers were running around being beatniks. He spent the age of women’s liberation as a loudmouthed naysayer. Norman Mailer has never been cursed, or blessed, with relevance to his times.