Monday, August 1, 2011

An American Dream - Norman Mailer

Cover of the first edition.
 'A devil's encyclopedia  of our secret visions and desires'.


 After the somewhat simple writing styles of the novels I have read in the last few weeks it was with relish I read, An American Dream, by American writer Norman Mailer. I like Mailer even though I haven't read a great deal of his works, but will state right now I loved his tome on the CIA, Harlot's Ghost immensely. It is a staggering 1300 pages long, and is Mailer at his complex best in bringing to light the criminal acts of the CIA from its 1940's inception to 1965. It was him as an American examining the CIA, its actions, and the stain it left on the American psyche. Sadly Mailer never wrote the sequel to this masterpiece, but even as one novel Harlot's Ghost is a stunner.

 I've also read The Castle in the Forest. It was nowhere near complexly written as many of his preceding works, and again, unfortunately, Mailer never completed his planned trilogy, dying in 2007. The trilogy was a fictionalised account of Adolf Hitler and his life, told through a narrator who is actually a devil. Castle is a fine work, and one that really enthralled me for its unique take, and angle on Hitler. I believe it was the last novel Mailer wrote before he died, and even though well into his eighties he was still able to produce a fine piece of literature.

 Norman Mailer divides opinions markedly. Some hate his writing, while others praise it. No matter how you personally feel about his works he is an important figure of American literature and is impossible to ignore. I prefer him over some of his contemporaries such as Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal for example. Capote for me never rose to the abilities Mailer possessed as a writer, and whilst he was imaginative, his style is somewhat bland. He never came close to Mailer's complexity, and I've always felt his best known work, In Cold Blood, to be somewhat over -rated. I like Gore Vidal's, Julian, but it smacks of Vidal writing his own version of Robert Grave's masterpiece, I, Claudius, and is again somewhat bland.

 An American Dream is considered by many to be a forgotten Mailer masterpiece. It was his fourth novel, and written in 1965. He wrote it in serialised form replicating the methodology of Charles Dickens . Each chapter was written against a monthly deadline for Esquire magazine. It is written in a poetic style, heavy with metaphor, which creates a hypnotizing narrative. It was extremely controversial in its day for its violence, and depiction of women. Main protagonist Stephen Rojack is a war hero, ex-congressman, university lecturer, and television personality with several popular published books. He is living the 'American Dream' of the title. He seemingly has it all, but he still feels like a loser, and comes to despise the banality of his lifestyle.

 He is married to a very rich socialite who is a a complete bitch. One night he strangles her, and tosses her body out of a high rise apartment to make it look like suicide. This is just after he walks in on his wife's German maid playing with herself. He proceeds to sodomize her, and Mailer plays out this sex scene over four long pages! It is a stunning piece of writing because at no stage does he use clinical words or vivid descriptions, but the reader is left in no doubt which orifice he is plundering. This is amazing stuff for 1965 considering the uproar when, Breakfast at Tiffany's, was released in 1961, with Audrey Hepburn playing prostitute Holly Golightly. Against Tiffany's, American Dream was light years ahead graphically, and must have been considered the height of filth in its day!!

 The narrative is very complex, and whilst Mailer gets somewhat abstract at times, it is still a masterful read. Mailer's sentence structure beggars belief, and I just held on to every word, sentence, and paragraph. Even though at times I couldn't understand what Mailer was on about, just the sheer beauty of his writing was enough for me. I've read quite a number of reviews on this novel, and its abstractness is a constant complaint. Because Mailer delves so thickly into use of prose the message of the novel is somewhat lost, and appears only in patches. It is a relatively short novel at 238 pages, but it still took me two nights to read.

 The complexity of the writing meant I had to keep on my toes, and not let my mind wander!! For me, even though I was lost at times, Mailer's writing kept me turning the pages. It was just a pure joy to read, and if anything else, for its flaws, the writing is not one of them. I felt the plot was similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald's, The Great Gatsby, in showing how the very rich have it all, and are bored by it, even though they wouldn't give it up. Mailer takes this further by having Rojack turn to luridness, violence, and depravity just in a effort to feel alive again after many years of having it all. His complaint id he began to feel suffocated by it. The premise is very good being somewhat copied in 2000 film, American Psycho. This novel has been adapted to film starring Stuart Whitman, and Janet Leigh, but I believe it was a poor adaptation, and has slipped into obscurity.

 An American Dream then is not what you would call light reading!! To our modern eyes the subject matter won't appear so controversial as it did in 1965, but if you look at the era it was written in, it must have been shocking stuff indeed! It has two sex scenes that are graphic without vivid descriptions. The sodomy scene must have raised quite a number of eyebrows, and yet Mailer doesn't use clinical words for what is going on. He superbly dances around it, along with the violence, by his complex word usage that leaves an indelible picture in the readers mind.

  This novel is a beautiful embodiment of literature, and why An American Dream is so utterly impossible to ignore. It is regarded as an important work of American literature. But the flaw is that, whilst I love its complexity, the premise is too often abstract, disappearing and reappearing, leaving the reader at times wondering what is going on. As a piece of straight literature it is superb even though it is considered one of Norman Mailer's lesser works.

 A short dazzlingly, breathtaking, albeit flawed, masterpiece. If you want something to really stretch your reading abilities then this is the novel for you! Amazon has this with 3 1/2 stars from 32 reviews. Probably a fair mark, and I guess due to its abstractness more than anything.

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