Sunday, July 19, 2015

Advertisements for Myself (1959)

Norman Mailer's fourth book, a collection of essays, articles, and stories, is a product of unadulterated narcissism, so purified that it somehow comes around the bend of unseemly ego and redeems itself. I encountered it first in 1975 and even then took it as a guilty pleasure, an untoward yawp, like the bellowing of an animal, and altogether too much. I kept my sessions with it private, reading it only at home and never carrying it about. But even so I read every word and I've been through it a couple more times since. It is as honest (and repulsive) about the life of a writer as anything I know, and it is often hugely entertaining. There's something about the absurd degree of Mailer's commitment, in tandem with his undeniable talent, put in the service of textbook Freudian patterns of delusional emotional need, that is impossible to look away from. The one-time literary wunderkind, after publishing his first novel The Naked and the Dead at the age of 25, is glimpsed 10 years on as a pitiful addict for human attention, very nearly a geek pure working up to biting the head off a small animal, sitting in his squalor and sculpting his own shit, seeking and rejecting approval more fiercely than ever. Advertisements has two tables of contents (the first following the chronological structure of the book, the second more of an index by literary type, whose hairs split fine), and practically every little piece is surrounded by pellet discussions that revisit his state of mind then and explore how his state of mind has changed (or not) since. "The author," he writes in explanation, "taken with an admirable desire to please his readers, has also added a set of advertisements, printed in italics, which surround all of these writings with his present tastes, preferences, apologies, prides, and occasional confessions." It sounds unbearable—some of it is, and for many all of it is, so caveats, people—yet for me it is more often exhilarating. There is nothing else quite like it. In some ways Mailer serves as a kind of inadvertent bellwether of the literary fortunes of 20th-century America. Born into a time when the novel was the most noble and status-rich aspiration for anyone with ambitions of a literary career, Mailer watched those times change in front of his eyes, even after he had played by the rules and made a precocious beachhead with that first novel. He wrote two more novels in the '50s (Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, which I've never managed to get through) before drifting into the crisis that is the prodigious wellspring of Advertisements—whither lit (and incidentally what about me me me)? In many ways the shards and fragments speak for themselves, as shards and fragments. But they can be nicely composed and artfully executed—Mailer's talent carries the day, and seeing it in such ruins is deeply unsettling and beautiful at once. I think of this still as one of his best books, certainly his first great and truly iconoclastic work, in contrast to The Naked and the Dead, which is a very good novel that owes everything to obvious suspects such as Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. Advertisements for Myself is utterly an original. For the first time he'd finally managed that.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Wonder what impact this had on the budding rock crit game? The reality is record reviews but the dream is writing your Mailer-ian magnum opus ab some fill-in-the-blank pop artist.