A MAN IN FULL: Norman Mailer, The Free Library Of Philadelphia, Tuesday Night
BY EVA LIAO Full disclosure: I have never read a Norman Mailer book from cover to cover. And the perfunctory excerpts thrown into the textbooks of my contemporary lit college courses don’t really count. I do know, however, that after writing 45 books and providing decades of titillating fodder for the media — co-founder of the Village Voice, winner of multiple Pulitzer Prizes and devotee of Marilyn Monroe, not to mention the whole wife-stabbing incident — the guy has a reputation. He’s kind of like an older, whiter Salman Rushdie in that half the people obsessed with his salacious personal life and political views have never actually read past the first ten pages of his books. But all of that was a long, long time ago. For a moment or two Tuesday night I worried that perhaps this brittle 84 year old man was too old to be speaking in public as I watched him inch fragilely towards his chair with the assistance of not one, but two separate canes. But then he opened his mouth. A deep, gruffly voice came booming through the microphone full of life, and sarcasm and wit — and suddenly he looked 40 years younger.
Mailer, promoting his first book in four years, Castle in the Forest, has this time chosen Adolf Hitler as his subject — nothing really out of character for a man whose other subjects include Picasso, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jesus. So why Hitler this time around? Because according to Mailer, “he violates an understanding of human nature, a basic notion about humans: While other tyrants had structure, he killed with metaphors. Hitler was a depraved poet.” Mailer continued on, throwing punches and punchlines about every thing from religion (“If I were to be reincarnated I’d want to be a black athlete. But I’d probably just be a cockroach. But the fastest cockroach on earth”) to excrement (“The only things worth writing about are the things that haven’t been nailed. And scatology remains a mystery. I think shit is fascinating.”)
He condemned perma-war as a tactic for keeping society ignorant and afraid while those in power rig the systems of governance for maximum profits that fill the coffers of a select elite. As much of the audience nodded in agreement, Mailer chastised the most obvious culprit, television, for the lack of passion, imagination and engagement in current affairs (that don’t include celebrities) amongst the youth of today. “Mediocrity is taking over the world,” he repeated like a refrain.
Afterwards, while the many fans lined up for their autographed copies of old Mailer collectibles (posters, Life Magazines, withered books) I met a college professor who struck up a conversation with me. When I told her I wrote for a blog, she pretty much accused me of attributing to the mediocrity that Mailer was describing. The downside to attending events with an older crowd is that somebody always feels the need to list all the problems with “my” generation — to my face. The professor’s critique included the following: Young people these days are all confidence and no content, and that confidence is really just a mirage projected by a crass consumer culture. Young adults these days have no humility. And lastly, young adults do not and cannot know what elegance is, being that it takes years of studying the classics to develop that sense. Hence, our mediocrity.
I don’t deny that this woman had some valid points. Sometimes, I do worry about my generation and the ones to follow — what’s to become of us? But despite her cred (unsolicited she volunteered her credentials: graduated from Penn magna cum laude, ex-Penn professor, current PCC prof) I can’t help but think she just sounds old and bitter. Besides, judging from Mailer’s legend, he too was over-confident in his youth, cocky even. And the elders of his day said he was all hat and no cattle, too. So, the whole time she was berating me, I couldn’t help thinking that Mailer would have told this woman to go fuck herself — or offered to do it for her. Works for me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eva is 22 years old and from Los Angeles. Her favorite band is the Velvet Underground. That’s why we hired her. Eva goes to Temple. Some would call her an “intern,” but we call her Assistant Editor because we believe the media should empower young people, not belittle and exploit them. But that’s just us.