Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"An American Dream" by Norman Mailer



An American Dream
a novel by Norman Mailer
(Vintage)

Mailer's meditation on violence and evil will not be every one's idea of a good novel to read on the beach, but An American Dream is a fully realized male fantasy wherein one set-upon, White, alcoholic , protagonist berserks himself into sequential delirium fueled rages to rid himself of the crushing banality of the culture that he feels is killing him by the inch. To do this, he commits a series of violent and insane acts, in an alcoholic haze; challenges sent him by the moon (really) whose successful completion might give him a hint of the freedom he dreams is beyond the neon-lit tarp of the Manhattan skyline. This pilgrim's progress is nothing short of an obscene fantasy, wherein our hero, a decorated war hero, former congressman and talk show host, strangles his maddening estranged wife, buggers the German maid, steals a Mafia Don's girl friend, and proceeds, in 24 hours, to lie and deceive the New York City Police Department, the Mob, with intimations that the FBI and CIA are involved invisibly in the mess he created. The plot, of course, is lurid, absurd and the product of a particular time, but Mailer's novel comes at a time when the Hemingway cult of quiet, a manly stoicism managed through a singular, privately held  code of honor, was exhausted of compelling narrative potential. Mailer’s idea was to see what would happen if the man who might have been the Hemingway hero, suffering his hurts in some poetic privacy, had instead a psychotic break.

Gone, we see, is the hard-carved minimalism of the Hemingway style, with Mailer offering a delirious metaphorical ride through the ugly side of individual realization. His character, Stephen Rozack, is akin to King Lear in the rain, gone insane precisely because he no longer has the staging guiding his eye and thinking. In the clutch of his tantrums, the world finally seems to pull back its shroud and reveal the shape and purring function of its true nature; Rozack sees cities of diamonds, rains of falling stars, he smells and tastes those things never served on a plate. Mailer's great chains of metaphors deliver a dissolving sensibility that sees, fleetingly, the way everything is connected ,the hand of an anonymous God directing His actors in ways unannounced and never explained. Rid of the props and story lines, there is nothing left, an emptiness that can only be filled with increasing amounts of destruction. This is a riveting , wild, and enthralling exploration into the romanticizing of prescriptive violence.

Troubling, agitated, problematic for great numbers of readers, a brilliant novel despite its flaws. It may be even because of the flaws--the unreal dialogue, the haphazard cramming of a week's worth of events into a single 24 hour period--that bring the long runs of sentences shriek and burn so splendidly, as there is the sense Roszak's state is a dream within which he must confront and conquer every blatant and disguised dread. The crash and slam of the plot dynamics--bare in mind that there is very little slack space here where one is allowed to rest and gather their wits in the midst of this ludicrous plot--get an intensity of feeling just right, that the world and the things in it are crushing down upon you, and your only option in the delirium is to obey the first fleeting voice that commands to respond, attack, destroy that which is killing you by the psychic inch. Mailer had written in his infamous essay "The White Negro" that it was one's moral responsibility to "encourage the psychopath within oneself" so to be able to experience greater and more expansive perceptions, to generate a new knowledge violently dislodged from murderous conformism. In An American Dream, he conducts a fictional field study of his theory by setting it loose in the plot of a novel, and the results are exhilarating as they are nearly unspeakable.

Tom Wolfe, I remember, was not a fan of the novel, suggesting in a review that Mailer “lards up” his prose with too many allusions, metaphors and similes when he ought to have taken a hint from James M.Cain and fashioned a terser, blunter style. He used Mailer’s running metaphor of boxing and compared him to a fighter who needed to get out of his corner faster. I differ with Wolfe’s conclusions and tend to agree with the late critic Richard Poirier’s reading of the novel, which considered “An American Dream” a compelling delirium of language styles fused together , the elegant, the surreal, the jazzy and slang-infested, the terse and the verbose, in a spectacular , intoxicating sweep. The point of the novel was to reveal Stephen Rozack’s festering self-doubt dispite his nominal accomplishments as both war hero and media figure, and his deranged attempts to save what he considers his soul. Mailer’s novel is a the interior view of a breakdown,an interiorized version of Lear’s final speech.


A reader who might be intrigued by Mailer's fictional realization of his existential anti-hero/hipster/White Negro wouldn't be wrong to think that the author himself is disturbed by the furthest reach of his imaginative takes on the purgative value of sudden and decisive violence. Indeed, from this point on, Mailer's ideas about violence and power come with more caution, nuance, and in a brilliant turn to begin his moral argument about the cause of aggression in the culture, he penned his brief, obscene and fantastically incandescent novel Why Are We In Viet Nam: if Stephen Roszack was the result of an psychically emasculated man given in to floating voices and lunar impulses in the wan hope of being delivered from what is killing him by the inch, only to become only a more complicated expression of those mechanisms that generate the larger , global evil, Why Are We in Viet Nam? takes the more expansive view. The question isn't answered, nor is Viet Nam even mentioned until the last page of the book, yet by the time you reach the end of this brief and ingeniously offered account of an Alaskan bear hunt, we've gone through something primordial, a cultural conditioning that produces a need for violence at the most rudimentary level of the culture.

 Mailer's habit of romanticizing violence and macho performances ends with this second book, and the serious shift into the causes, conditions of our troubles begins in earnest, leading Mailer through a fantastic series of novels and nonfiction. He  dared what other literary writers only feigned and actively engaged the world in ways and manners that he thought would make reality surrender some of its secrets. The hope, of course, would be that he might be able to change the way men and women viewed themselves in a political reality that had stripped the individual of all creative drive, and hence empower them to change the substance of their world. Grand ambition, yes, and a failed enterprise, but in the attempt are left a string of brilliant books -- The Naked and the Dead, The Executioner's Song, Why are We In Viet Nam, Armies of the Night, An American Dream, Harlot's Ghost,-- that, among others, form a body of work at once daring, daunting, vain and arrogant, preening, breathtakingly on target, raunchy , clipped, rich and rolling and lyrical like the grandest music. An infuriating writer, yes, but even so one who's work stands tall in the era in which he wrote.