Showing posts with label An American Dream. Show all posts
Showing posts with label An American Dream. Show all posts

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sometimes crazy is merely crazy

Too many books are called "unfilmable" as a matter of habit; each of us, I bet, can offer an example of a novel that" could not be adopted" that found a splendid movie interpreter. "An American Dream," though, is one of those books that truly does not lend itself well to what we regard as good moving making source material. This version was so redacted as something resembling a Saturday Night Live sketch rather than a vision of one's breakdown and journey into the psychic wilds. 

AAD was Mailer's best use of Lawrence's influences and his unique ideas about religious existentialism. It was a brooding, baroque and sensationalistic embrace of the irrational, the madness poet Allan Ginsberg declared that we must not hide, the intensely focused idea that the impulses beyond the Norm can actually deliver us, individually and collectively, from greater insanity that erodes our humanity, and worse, our masculinity by the repulsive inch. Crackpot theories of all sorts proposing extreme and unsubstantiated cures for the ailing psyche were resonating in Mailer's mind at the time he took on the endeavor to write An American Dream on deadline, a chapter a month for Esquire magazine, the goal is to write quickly for equally quick cash. Mailer took the challenge and never looked back, the result being what would be an utterly ridiculous novel saved only by the sublime and frenetic flights of language the author's fevered pace produced as each deadlined reared. It isn't surprising that Mailer had a few of his own, a spikey concoction took from Marx, Wilhelm Reich, Lawrence. It was a crime novel, a novel of metaphysical mulling, a tale of a spiritual quest, a black comedy, a confession, a serial about the dysfunctions of the wealthy.  The things that irritated readers in the novel--murder, sodomy, a battle with a black musician with a definite hoodlum style--are nonetheless presented with the frenetic brilliance of Mailer's prose, a rushing stream of continuous simile, metaphor, and allegory of a man in the throes of a breakdown that leaves a good amount of wreckage in his wake. At the same time, he pursues the impulse to learn how to be brave and love genuinely by extraordinary measures. 

The film, the skeletal and deadpan rendition of the admittedly lurid plot, gets none of Mailer's tone, nuance, or inclination precisely. This was Mailer's testing his theories about violence and transformation from "The White Negro" and what it revealed to Mailer, I believe, was that the kind of spiritual transformation through an embrace of an anti-social and psychotic definition of "courage" resulted in Mailer didn't expect, which caused Mailer to re-think his notions about the curative properties of his imagined road to genuine masculinity. It seems that the gulf between Saint and Psychotic was larger than he first thought, that the psychotic is in a state in which they remain psychotic and become a threat to themselves and the communities in which they live. 

Do the pure products of America go insane, as WC Williams has remarked? In any event, his next novel, "Why Are We in Vietnam," a cannily refurbished telling of Faulkner's short tale "The Bear," puts to men in the woods hunting pray with far too much firepower and reveals characters trying to make nature bow to their will and weapons, with a narrator, DJ, telling the tale in a surreal mix of idioms--disc jockey, black hipster, a southern baptist preacher, literary scholar--ranting on about God and men and penises and caca with no direct connection to anything outside nature if only to insist in a diffuse ramble that all returns to earth as waste. And the question in the title is answered only on the last page, but with no direct answer but this ."Hot damn! Vietnam". Do the pure products of America go insane? Mailer answered by imagining his notions of achieving masculinity through blood rites: as pure American products, we were in Vietnam because we had to be. We end up being the things we choose to become, with results that run afoul of our ideas of resulting benefits.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"An American Dream" by Norman Mailer

An American Dream
a novel by Norman Mailer (Vintage)

Image result for an american dream mailer
Mailer's meditation on violence and evil will not be everyone's idea of a good novel to read on the beach. Still, 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 complete this, he commits a series of violent and insane acts in an alcoholic haze; challenges sent to 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 girlfriend, 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 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 a psychotic break instead.

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. Stephen Rojack's character 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; Rojack 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 storylines, nothing is left, an emptiness that can only be filled with increasing 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 to shriek and burn so splendidly, as there is the sense that he is in a dream within which he must confront and conquer every blatant and disguised dread. The crash and slam of the plot dynamics--bear 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 crashing down upon you. 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 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. 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, the elegant, the surreal, the jazzy and slang-infested, the terse and the verbose, in a spectacular, intoxicating sweep. The novel's point was to reveal Stephen Rojack’s festering self-doubt despite 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 an 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. Fantastically incandescent novel Why Are We In Vietnam: if Stephen Rojack was the result of a psychically emasculated man given to floating voices and lunar impulses in the wan hope of being delivered from what is killing him by the inch, only to become a more complicated expression of those mechanisms that generate the larger, global evil, Why Are We in Vietnam? Takes a more expansive view. The question isn't answered, nor is Vietnam even mentioned until the book's last page. 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, 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 end 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 empowers 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 Vietnam, 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 whose work stands tall in the era he wrote.