Norman Mailer felt flaky as I ran my fingers over his sunburnt cheek. Something singed right then.
You would not expect an Indian woman to identify with an old American man getting off on his own words. It is not just about déjà vu. The realization suddenly dawns that what we don’t even notice or choose to ignore in fact hides within its façade a number of complicated layers. Put self-denial in the context of the social unit and you will see how universal Mailer is. While talking about individual angst, the dysfunctional nature of society and even larger political issues, what he really wanted to say was that beauty hurts. Things get too perfect only when it is time to die.
He was constantly perfecting the art of immortality, such was his penchant for flaws. That afternoon when sweat was melting my body and I found him lying on a stained cloth spread out in the dusty street, I knew what the demon within me looked like. It was those years in our ‘anglicized’ lives when as students of English Literature we veered madly from Shakespeare to Chaucer and then, for a reason I still cannot fathom, American Literature. While e.e.cummings and Langston Hughes did not harm us with their verse, prose writers gave us a peek into life in the ‘melting pot’ with huge doses of xenophobic poison lacing it. America was a ghetto soliciting intellectual sluts.
Saul Bellow was a gentle version of Woody Allen and Woody Allen a crooked take on Manhattan. Ernest Hemingway gave us the Yankee version of bullfighting and old men’s treacle that held itself back to congeal. Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee took us through the journey of ‘ornery’ people doing absurd things.
Norman Mailer was not among the books we had to read and dissect. Advertisements for Myself was the perfect beginning for one who was seeking to sell a virgin soul, to get spoilt by worldly desires. The book was dirt cheap, the binding almost giving way; I held it together with a rubber band. This man was making me feel good about myself by just hitting out at everything not because he wanted to hit but because he wished to feel the steel of the knife in his hand, the thrill of it and the thought that maybe he might bleed a bit, just enough for red to blotch his world of black and white.
He was The White Negro long before Bill Clinton became the “first Black President”. In the latter there was political marketing; the former was internalization. Mailer for all his strong opinions never sought to belong. He wasn’t ever of a piece. He would throw in our faces the hipster, faking even the fakery. Mailer’s subliminal influence seethes through the fire-spitting at empty egos that bring out repressed instincts by subverting them. He chose shock value partly to scandalize and partly to wake people up. He did not want to show the mirror; he wanted to show the excess and the vomit.
He knew that the American dream was a failed one and even likened it to the Roman Empire. The failure lay not due to the likeness but in its inability to strike a balance between morality and ideological promiscuity. He stood in the middle, as an essayist and journalist, but he never quite got a bird’s eye-view. One of his rather unusually facile statements is, “I decided the only explanation is that God and the Devil are very attentive to people at the summit. I don’t know if they stir much in the average man’s daily stew, no great sport for spooks, I would suppose, in a ranch house, but do you expect God or the Devil left Lenin and Hitler and Churchill alone? No. They bid for favors and exact revenge. That’s why men with power sometimes act so silly.”
He was himself a product of and the buffer for this failed dream. It was part of his strength to take an event and work on it quietly till it became a piece of contemporary history to be brandished as impotency. Decades later, rapster Eminem’s words would fit his modus operandi like a glove, “Bitch I’ma kill you! Like a murder weapon, I’ma conceal you in a closet with mildew, sheets, pillows and film you Buck with me, I been through hell”.
Mailer’s fame began with The Naked and Dead. He said rather unnecessarily, “Its success rips away my former identity”. He had none. Or, he hated what he had, remnants of being a prisoner of sex and simulation. The book was to assimilate him into an almost perfect alienation.
For those of us who experienced World War 11 as parchment history, that too as a British colony, it gave us war on the battleground and the war within. The cadres cussing snaked through our minds like Edenesque’s temptations.
It was based on his experiences in the army but critics called it a lashing out, an anger that he nursed. It is often the minutiae in a writer’s life that form the terrain on which he pitches his stories. In such cases, the soil gives away under the pressure of myth.
That Mailer used reality is precious irony. He was whetting the appetite for events and managing his discontent. His love for Communism was like smoke from cheap cigars, a rancid sweetness in the air. He threw around terms of endearment towards it. Hope was Marx. Marx was cheap. Mailer was cheap. He used a rusting filthy little pen-knife to stab his second wife. Perhaps his conscience would not have permitted something more ominous. Had she been fatally wounded, it might have been a huge insult.
The provocation was that she called him a faggot. Not a shirker where insults were concerned, Mailer tended to be graphic, as when he told William Styron, “I will invite you to a fight in which I expect to stomp out of you a fat amount of your yellow and treacherous shit.”
In the machismo there is an element of voyeurism rather than exhibitionism. The war between Truman Capote and Mailer is far too well-recounted, but accusing him of “failure of the imagination” was completely wrong. If anything, the Mailer reality was a suspicion. He did not linger long enough to be called a story-teller, but his prose chopped through the skin and reached the bone. Over it, he created his own edifice.
His biographical sketches are master-strokes of cutting through the person to create his own version of the persona. Picasso, Henry Miller, Muhammad Ali, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jesus and what I see as a retelling of Marilyn Monroe as a Biblical Madonna.
He did this with the women, making their ennui of feeling rooted seem like a caricature. A careerist who aches to be a woman. He caused a tumult when he wrote The Prisoner of Sex, where he propounded the theory that perception of the world is predetermined by gender. Germaine Greer denounced him as the “masculine artist in our society”, which must have made him feel quite happy and prove with precision the very thesis they were debunking.
Years later as I watched the film American Beauty, my mind flew out to Mailer, the man, the writer, traces of his characters. In the movie the idea of displacement within the comfort zone is what struck me. Why is the man not happy? When he says that the daily masturbation is the highpoint of his day, it would be easy to classify it as frustration. However, it is a metaphor for getting it out of his system to experience the unbearable lightness of being.
Why does he hate so much? He has no answers as to what went wrong, and how and why. You want to weep for him not because it is a terribly poignant moment, but you can see that he has at last discovered that he is best as a good-for-nothing. This was the America we saw through Mailer, the puerile fantasy of a nubile body covered with rose petals, almost telling him that the silken touch and momentary fragrance cannot be rooted to anything.
Psychos and freaks reveal something about the way society is structured. Does one have to remain an outsider to be truly contented? Does being snubbed act as a spur to freedom? America in the form of a seductress, ostensibly so confident that anyone who does not look at her is dysfunctional, tries too hard not to be ordinary, and in that becomes it. It is these insecurities that make Mailer’s every work seem like the first time. He convinces us that nothing is what it appears to be.
Everyday things were the moral issues of the time for him. The bubble may burst, but the plastic bag, indestructible, will continue blowing in the wind.
FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based writer-columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org