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Mailer, Norman

Entry updated 12 February 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1923-2007) US public figure, controversialist and author at the centre of American intellectual life for many decades after the publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), though his influence waned in his last years. Mailer's work was never identified with genre fiction, but all of his later fiction contain elements of Fantasy, with frequent evocations of an imaginative world containing spirits, paranormal phenomena and magical correspondences. Even a work as early as Barbary Shore (1951), which largely comprises a psychodrama between a secret policeman and a former revolutionary, takes an unexpected leap into Fabulation when the "little object" whose return the secret policeman seeks proves to be the revolutionary's ideals, and the novel dissolves into allegory. The Deer Park (1955) was first projected as one of seven volumes that would constitute the successive dreams of an artist manqué whose compromised existence was reflected, though reshaped by mythopoeia, in his dream-life; "The Man Who Studied Yoga" in New Short Novels 2 (anth 1956) edited by Wallace Stegner, a long story written in 1952, was the prologue to this (later abandoned) novel cycle.

Much of Mailer's career was devoted to his "long novel": an enormous work that would force "an entrance into the mysteries of murder, Suicide, incest, orgy, orgasm and Time". Most of the major works he published since 1955 comprised successive fragmentary attempts to write this book. "Advertisements for Myself on the Way Out" (Fall 1958 Partisan Review) and "The Time of her Time" in Advertisements for Myself (coll 1959) are fragments from one such assault, which was evidently to be a Posthumous Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] narrated by a murder victim. Communications with the Moon, as declared by the near-insane protagonist's father-in-law, lead in An American Dream (1964) to the former's exposure as an Avatar of the Devil. Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) – a short novel fraught with Telepathy and magical thinking (see ESP) – was written, Mailer later acknowledged, as the prologue for a long and violent novel about a senseless crime, not seemingly connected to the "long novel", and from the writing of which he finally recoiled. Ancient Evenings (1983), which was as massive as The Naked and the Dead, proved to be another posthumous fantasy: it is the recollection, by one of the seven souls of a murdered young man in Ancient Egypt, of hearing his great-grandfather relate the wonders of his long life and three earlier lives through a late evening in the company of the Pharaoh. Harlot's Ghost (1991), even longer, presents the memoirs of a CIA agent whose career spans the history of that organization – a frame story involves the apparent ghost of his dead mentor. Again, both novels are the opening volumes of uncompleted sequences. Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984) is a murder mystery charged with spirits, clairvoyance and Magic; there may be some transgressive ironies in The Gospel According to the Son (1997) through a presentation of Jesus's autobiography as though it was literally true, including a virgin mother and his Resurrection, but they were hard to profit from; much more successfully, The Castle in the Forest (2007) tells the story of the young Adolf Hitler (see World War Two) through the eyes of a Demon whose task is to shape the psychopath's development to ensure that he does not stray into decency, which would spoil the twentieth century for Satan.

In The Last Night (December 1963 Esquire; 1984 chap), a tale of specific sf interest, the only hope for the survival of Homo sapiens in 1999, after Ecological degradation and radiation poisoning has doomed the planet, is to arrange for 10% of humanity to escape the solar system, in Spaceships. The catch is that the power necessary to give the ships escape velocity can only be generated by detonating the planet.

Much of Mailer's nonfiction comprised exceedingly ambitious attempts at the "nonfiction novel", an appellation that revealed more insecurity than proleptic savvy about the course of literature in the late twentieth century. The texts themselves normally eschew the kind of strategies characteristic of Fantastika, and tend not to literalize fantastic events. However, Of Women and Their Elegance (graph 1980) consists of a text with accompanying photographs as "narrated" by Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962); and the earlier Of a Fire on the Moon (August 1969-January 1970 Life; 1970) examines the Apollo 11 Moon landing from various angles, drawing ambitious conclusions about radical changes, now imminent, in the very nature of Homo sapiens.

Mailer's career as a novelist was long shaped – perhaps deformed – by his struggle to resolve his own artistic sensibility with the tenets of the great literary Modernists who reigned during his formative years. The place of his fiction in his large and uneven oeuvre – and of the role of the fantastic in his fiction – remains to be assessed. [GF/JC]

Norman Kingsley Mailer

born Long Branch, New Jersey: 31 January 1923

died New York: 10 November 2007

works (selected)



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