Premature Review: Harlot’s Ghost
February 4, 2013 Comments Off on Premature Review: Harlot’s Ghost
RRRRGH. What an obnoxious book! I’m on page 796 of 1128 and I am going to finish it but by god I won’t do it quietly. Norman Mailer is supposed to be a 20th-century literary giant, but I will probably never voluntarily pick up another one of his books. I was very excited because the first 80 pages were gorgeous, lyrical writing concerning the narrator’s life in Maine, his love for his wife, an ambiguous suicide, and the ghost that haunts their house. It’s beautiful, nearly magical-realist, and reminiscent of Nabokov, in that it’s awfully pretentious but so so good at what it’s trying to do that you can ignore it. (I can, anyway.) But that whole chunk turns out to be just a preface to the rest of the book, which is much, much, MUCH longer and in large part worthless. It goes back to the narrator’s childhood and how he ended up joining the CIA (his father and godfather are both major figures) and what he does after he gets there. It’s strange—the plot is good but I find an almost complete disconnect between the story and the writing. Not to mention I don’t have any personal stake or even background in the Cold War or the Bay of Pigs or the Kennedy assassination and therefore have a hard time finding the period intrinsically interesting—I need an entertaining foreground.
The main issue is this: people just don’t talk like that!! Mailer does, actually, give the characters discrete voices, which is astonishing given how alike they all sound. They are all pretentious, pontificating, self-absorbed people who talk the same way in person, on the phone, and in writing. This is true of the narrator and his godfather and his wife, which makes sense given their characters, but it is also true of the narrator’s über-macho, thoroughly-Company father as well as the narrator’s lover who is having simultaneous affairs with him, JFK, a mob boss, and a millionaire. The chapter I just finished consisted of a letter from the father, who writes, “Found myself in low spirits over Thanksgiving. Kept thinking of Mary, my old sweet whale of a wife, and now she’s lost to me. She is thinking of getting married to a little Japanese businessman who is probably sitting on more wealth than the state of Kansas, and here am I, old blow-spout of the other half of this beached-whale duo, feeling egregiously elegiacal. Clark Gable died last week, and I discovered to my surprise that I had always felt a large identification with the man. Now, comprehend it. I really don’t know anything about Clark Gable…” And goes on about how he never realized how much he liked Gable except that from time to time he would have imaginary conversations with him. It’s not that your father might not suddenly send you an uncharacteristically confessional letter that takes forever to get down to the business he’s supposed to be writing to you about and in fact that would be incredibly interesting, character-wise, but NOT if he talks like this! Of all the people who can understand the phrase “egregiously elegiacal,” the subset of people who are capable of easily producing that phrase to describe a specific state of mind is probably pretty small, and the sub-subset of people who have the temerity to actually let that phrase out of their mouth (or pen) is smaller still. Ridiculous that every character in this novel seems to come from that same subset regardless of upbringing, intelligence, or place of origin.
It drives me up the wall. If Mailer wants to make the narrator a puling self-absorbed pedant with self-esteem issues and a penchant for luxuriating in descriptions of his own state of mind the way a drunk will sit in his own urine, then okay. If he wants to include a couple other characters cast in a similar mold, then okay. But they cannot all be the same! You could have the narrator describe reading the letter, thinking, “My father appeared to have been in an egregiously elegiacal mood,” but when the letter writer describes himself as egregiously elegiacal after pages and pages of wiretap transcripts where the trashy chick describes breaking up with Frank Sinatra (who earlier called her “kind of scintillating” but perhaps “too square for me”) by saying, “Frank, I adored the tenderness you offered. But I made the mistake of thinking that such intimacy was for me. Last night I realized that you feel kindred emotions for all women. They are part of your music. It just broke my heart when I realized it wouldn’t be me alone,” and pages and pages of letters where a character describes her impenetrable theory that every psyche is composed of two opposing parts, and native Uruguayans holding forth (in English) about “the fluvial nature of corruption” and saying things like “A modest stream helps to flush away the filth even as it elucidates the seductions of light” on top of all the pretentious language that the narrator uses to describe everything else in the book, it’s so unrealistic I can’t keep reading. Scintillating? Kindred? Elegiacal? No, sorry, I don’t buy it. Not only do people not actually talk like that, but they certainly don’t quote themselves talking like that on the phone. The girl’s quoted accounts of her affairs to her friend are tightly structured and include graceful mid-sentence speaker tags, although if you actually listen to the way anyone talks, especially to a close friend, that’s not how it works. Yes, it takes skill to pinpoint an emotion, state of mind, or abstract philosophical concept with perfectly precise words. (“Egregiously elegiacal” is actually a fantastic description of a mood.) But as a novelist, it takes much more skill to pinpoint these things in a character without using ridiculously highbrow language that is not in their idiom. Authors like Barbara Kingsolver can do this, and it’s like watching someone make a polished jewelry box with a hatchet. It’s a miracle. And if they can do it without your noticing, well, that’s the greatest magic in fiction.
Mailer has made one overt concession to different conversational styles, which stands out hilariously. One of the FBI transcripts has the friend ask what the girl wore to a party, and she replies, “I chose a turquoise blue for my gown, and shoes to match.” And her friend says, “Oh, my God, with your black hair! It had to be stunning. I can see your green eyes setting off that turquoise blue.” “It took some thought,” says the girl. “I’m so envious,” replies her friend. “Did you meet anyone new at the party?” Everything about this is funny to me. It’s clear that Mailer has absolutely no interest in fashion, absolutely no clue what girly-girls talk about, which is totally forgivable except when you’re trying to write a believable girly-girl. It’s funny that he thought what they were saying was so frivolous and unimportant that he never realized how stilted and graceless this dialogue is. He probably dashed it off and never looked at it again. He didn’t even bother to add an elision in the transcript (as he does several other places) noting that the girls chatted about clothes for ten minutes. Or even five minutes. And even I, who am not actually a girly-girl, found the description out of character and hopelessly inadequate. What kind of gown? How was it shaped, how long was it? Did it have a foofy skirt? What kind of neckline? What jewelry did she wear with it? Tell me all about the shoes! Real girly-girls would have so much more to say than “what color was your dress?” “blue” that this was probably the moment where I completely lost patience with and faith in Norman Mailer. I no longer expect the writing or the storytelling to improve, although I am curious to see what happens when we get to Dallas 1963.
It will be a long slog but I will finish it. I just couldn’t wait that long to vent about the stupid pretentious writing. But to balance out the bitterness of the rest of this post, I will now share my very favorite passage from the opening, about driving home along the Maine coast. Maybe after you read this you will understand how very disappointed I am. Enjoy.
On that moonless night in March, returning to the Keep, I took the road from Bath to Belfast, the road that goes by Camden. In every cove was fog and it covered one’s vision like a winding sheet, a fog to embrace the long rock shelf offshore where sailing ships used to founder. When I could no longer see anything at all, I would pull the car over; then the grinding of the buoys would sound as mournful as the lowing of cattle in a rain-drenched field. The silence of the mist would come down on me. You could hear the groan of a drowning sailor in the lapping of that silence. I think you had to be demented to take the coast road on such a night.
Past Camden, a wind sprang up, the fog departed, and soon the driving was worse. With this shift in the weather, a cold rain came. On some curves the highway had turned to ice. Going into skids, my tires sang like a choir in a country church surrounded by forest demons. Now and then would appear a shuttered town and each occasional streetlight would seem equal to a beacon at sea. Empty summer houses, immanent as a row of tombs, stood in witness.
I was full of bad conscience. The road had become a lie. It would offer traction, then turn to glass. Driving that car by the touch of my fingertips, I began to think once more that lying was an art, and fine lying had to be a fine art. The finest liar in the land must be the ice monarch who sat in dominion on the curve of the road.