A new biography of Norman Mailer misses the markby Alexis Forss / November 8, 2013 / Leave a comment
Never one to follow Orwell’s dictum that the best books are the ones that tell us what we already know, Norman Mailer spent his career repeatedly charging over well-trodden ground, always galvanised by a belief in the acuity, uniqueness and urgency of his perceptions. JFK, Vietnam, Iraq, Hitler, Picasso, feminism, Monroe and Christ would all have their secondary reading lists expanded to the tune of at least one work by the man who, by the mid-1990s, needed every penny of his $750,000 annual income to meet his alimony, child-support, mortgages, agent’s fees and IRS arrears.
Graydon Carter, writing in the last month, provides us with the scale of the cacophony against which any new addition to Maileriana must plead its case: “No fewer than 15 biographies, quasi-biographies and remembrances, by admirers, literary historians, wives and a mistress, have been published since 1969 … My rough calculation puts the total number of book pages already devoted exclusively to Mailer at more than 5,000.” That these appraisals began to appear before Mailer turned 50 hints at the shadow that he cast over post-war American letters. Already during his lifetime he had become all things to all men: Philosopher of Hip, Bard of Pugilism, Hemingway’s Heir, Bête Noir of the Feminists, and much besides.
The guiding spirit behind J Michael’s 947-page authorised biography, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, is Flaubert’s: “when you write the biography of a friend, you must do it as if you were taking revenge for him.” Lennon—whose credentials as a friend of Mailer’s are established by several third-person author cameos—goes about the business of revenge by reporting Mailer’s grossest excesses in a ludicrously straight-faced manner. In refusing to be phased by Mailer’s outrageousness, Lennon avoids unpacking what Harold Bloom called his most persuasive fiction: Mailer himself. Lennon’s book ultimately succumbs to Mailer’s diagnosis of non-fiction’s tendency to “digest the material, absorb it, and return it to you as vitamin pills.” This will not do for Mailer. Here was a writer for whom irony was, in Julian Barnes’s formulation, both the Devil’s mark and the snorkel of sanity. His life was a clamourous fugue of competing ambitions, overlapping affairs and polyglot obsessions—not the stately march that Lennon describes. Lennon’s greatest misprision is his failure to grasp that the frisson unique to Mailer—one that we do not get from Styron, Vidal,…