Off the Cuff: May 2007

I was away when he was in town a month ago, and by all accounts, I missed out on something important and highly entertaining. Norman Mailer came to the Free Library to talk about his new novel, The Castle in the Forest, which takes on the boyhood of one Adolf Hitler, who is beset by a demon. (You could never accuse Mr. Mailer of pursuing light themes.) In a spirited evening moderated by our editor, Larry Platt, Mailer, our greatest living American writer, also talked about his career, and something much deeper: what it means to try to change the world around you in a significant way. His goal as a young novelist just after World War II — Mailer sat down to write The Naked and the Dead at age 23 — was to make an impact, to “settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of my time,” as he once put it. Nobody thinks like that anymore.

I’ve read a transcript of that evening, and I’ve been pondering how Norman Mailer is a dying breed. He is 84 years old, and he is still trying, in his inimitable way, to change the world around him, to make “a revolution” in “consciousness.” Mailer was the Peck’s Bad Boy of public discourse for several decades, of course, but along the way his mating of novel-writing with journalistic technique changed the way we look at the world. I’m thinking of seminal books like The Armies of the Night, about the war protests of the late ’60s, and The Executioner’s Song, his intense look at murderer Gary Gilmore. It’s amazing that he’s still trying, by grappling now with the meaning and reality of a young Hitler. Mailer’s unwavering energy and drive to understand and examine our world stands in sharp contrast to the dearth of public-spirited artists and intellectuals coming of age now. It’s sad that we seem resigned to settling for mediocrity most of the time, in what we read, in the look and feel of our cities, in the way we live and think. Norman Mailer addressed some of these problems at the Free Library.

He was asked, for example, about the effects of “corporate materialism” on American life.

“It seems to me that it’s up to us as humans [to] say, ‘We’re sick and tired of looking at immensely ugly buildings whose function is merely to produce money,’” Mailer answered. “We’re sick and tired of marketing products that don’t necessarily improve that much but nonetheless are marketed marketed marketed. We’re sick and tired of having our children affected psychologically and reflexively by commercials all the time. We’re sick and tired of being rendered more and more stupid each year. [But] until there’s a deep inner rebellion in people against what the corporation is doing to our existence, nothing is going to happen.”

That is the way Norman Mailer thinks. He has a clear-eyed view of the state of things – “The mediocrities are taking over the world,” he had noted sadly earlier that evening – yet he’s still hanging on to the belief that it can change, that we can change it. Though Mailer also has a sober view, at this point, of just what effect his 41 books have really had. “I think I’ve had an influence on the consciousness of our time,” he recently told London’s Observer Magazine, “but I haven’t changed it. No, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all gotten worse. Ugly high-rise architecture, plastic, and the automobile have prospered. Bad writing, you name it — anything ugly has prospered.” Mailer is more resigned than bitter, though. “When I was young,” he mused, “we used to think … that novels would change the world. No — it’s television that changes the world.”

I’m sorry I missed seeing the last of a dying breed, who, through the sheer force of will and talent and ego, was determined to have an impact on how the rest of us live. Where, I wonder, are the Norman Mailers of this generation?