Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Mailer unbound

Blimey, Norman Mailer is annoying. At least he was in 1970. For all I know he is now a sweet old man (though I somehow doubt it). But his writing in A Fire on the Moon is wonderfully frustrating. Such a collection of reportorial virtues; such interesting things to say; such an odd result.

It begins weirdly enough, with a first chapter hilariously entitled A Loss of Ego (let us assume he intended the joke to be on him) which presents the author in the third person, in two different guises. That said, there is some terrific reporting, and a beautifully clear impression - unusual at the time - of the Apollo programme as a great adventure which is marred by being in the hands of people who can only communicate in NASAspeak.

But whatever "Norman", or "Aquarius" (!) says is quickly drained of interest by being so consistently overwritten.

Favourite example so far. On p146 he is trying to pin down the difference between physics and engineering. He fires off a whole string of attempts, of which one is:
"Phyics was the quiet remark, 'Give an object an escape velocityof 36,000 feet per second and it will be able to leave the gravitational field of the earth'. Engineering was the fifty years of rockets digging furrows in cornfields and catching fire on the pad from leaky valves".

That's great. But then there is a needless elaboration of the same point. Then there's a further lengthy contemplation of physics and chemistry as partners in a marriage arranged by a computer, with an amazingly drawn out meditation, with dialogue, on how to arrange for the two partners to have sex in spite of a mutual lack of attraction... All this takes a whole page more, by which time the force of the remark where he actually nailed what he needed to say is not so much lost as dissipated forever. Overwritten, in fact, falls far short of the effect.

This, alas, is not a moment's abberation but typical of what I suppose we have to call Mailer's style. The result is a book full of readable things but which for me is ultimately unreadable, in spite of its advocates' urging.

Now if one could put these things into a database and run through a do-it-yourself edit, who knows what great books might be hewn from the sedimentary layers of Mailer's prose here? But life is too short...


Blogger Jon Turney said...

late night typo ... that long par should have said "physics and engineering", not chemistry, of course.

1:30 AM  

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