Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Prisoner of Sex (1971)

It's fair to say this is one place where Norman Mailer really steps in it. The wide-scale rejection has been reasonably complete: the book is out of print, and used copies command low prices. At this writing it can be had for 25 cents plus postage. As someone sympathetic to Mailer—not so much for all his ideas as for his commitment to writing, and his abilities—I want to plead circumstances. Written in 1970, the year after he separated from his fourth wife, "women's liberation" was just then surging into popular consciousness, the place where Mailer made his living. The unfortunate result is this book, which adopts an unrelenting mocking tone. He seethes with a rage out of all proportion, giant and petty all at once. Here, for one thing, is where he obviously makes a point of using the word "lady" rather than "woman." And here is where some of his strangest ideas come to the fore, such as arguing masturbation as a kind of mortal sin against the soul. He veers dangerously close to Todd Akin territory, who, remember, told us in 2012, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down"—"that whole thing" meaning pregnancy. Mailer dresses it up in his high-flown language, but take away the metaphorical conceits (which I tend to allow him for the poetry) and it's pretty much where you're at when he's on the sweet mystery of life. He spends most of this short book (at least it's short) in a one-sided boxing match with Kate Millet and her book Sexual Politics, though other key figures of the time are also arraigned at the dock, including Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Germaine Greer. He may or may not expose some shabby work on Millet's part here and there, and he makes a spirited defense of Henry Miller, a writer I've never connected with. He may be even more interesting here on D.H. Lawrence. But they are only excursions he goes on, as Mailer mainly struggles with women and their place. Mostly he seems to be working out his own unpleasant psychological issues, ambivalent feelings about his mother and such, without appearing to have a shred of self-awareness. Thus, it's often just embarrassing, with admixtures of aggravation. Mailer is of my father's generation, though he's not much like my Dad. I do see some commonalities: the sense of losing their marriages a little from the changes to fundamentals they had absorbed entirely, mostly about (not surprisingly) race, gender, and sexuality. So here is Mailer trying to let it all hang out, just let it rip as usual, but he keeps tripping over increasingly ludicrous assumptions, such as that the purpose of women is to bear children—the single purpose, if it has to be reduced to that. He's opposed to contraception too, on ridiculous poetical grounds, similar to his problem with masturbation: the tragedy of all those wriggling wasted sperm cells that could be impregnating eggs. Mailer and this book are a real ugly mess, in short, but interesting in their way, like the mythical geek at the traveling carnival. File this under I read it so you don't have to.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Hi, Jeff, I believe I've written to you before that my senior thesis in English at Earlham in 1968 was a study of five Jewish-American novelists prominent at the time, including Mailer. For a few years after I completed the thesis, I tried to keep up with each writer's subsequent books, and I'm pretty sure I read "The Prisoner of Sex" when it was new, but it evidently didn't impress me, as I don't remember much of anything about it now; thanks to your review, I won't have to read it again to find out. I think that the arrival of women's liberation in the '60s was a surprise to a lot of American males, me included, as we'd been brought up (or in Mailer's case, had already lived it as an adult) with the idea that men and women had different roles, almost as a kind of natural order. Once I realized from the feminist revolt that patriarchy could be overturned, I was on board, but Mailer went the other direction, undercutting the general liberalism of his politics.

    As luck would have it, my current learning-in-retirement course here in Cincinnati is a term-long study of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises", the first time I've been back to the book since college, and we've had extensive discussions in class as to whether Hemingway was anti-Semitic, because of the continual negative comments by narrator Jake Barnes and his friends about the Jewishness of the character Robert Cohn. Hemingway describes Cohn as a champion boxer at Princeton, skilled in literary matters, attractive to women, all the attributes that Jake and his fraternity-brothers-of-The-Code ostensibly admire, but somehow they don't count when they're exemplified by a Jew. One theme of our course discussions has been that anti-Semitism was more or less routine in our society in the '20s, but that Hemingway overdid it a bit in his novel anyway. Hemingway was an enormously popular writer in the America of the late '30s and early '40s, right at the time Mailer was attending high school and then university. I've thought ever since my original studies of Mailer that he must have been affected by reading Hemingway then, admiring him and wanting to emulate that real-man macho lifestyle, yet always haunted by the Jews-not-welcome spectre of Robert Cohn. I think that early mixed message from Papa H. explains the origin of some of Mailer's masculine-to-a-fault behavior over the years, including the cranky goofiness of "The Prisoner of Sex". Mailer was married six times, and fathered eight children among five of his wives, as though his potency required constant verification, with his idol Hemingway's antipathy toward Robert Cohn always hanging over the bedrooms of his life. -- Richard Riegel

  2. Interesting post and comment. Thanks.