Review: Harlot’s Ghost

March 21, 2014 Comments Off on Review: Harlot’s Ghost


And now, after years of piecemeal reading, long hiatuses, and a rant I couldn’t keep down, I am not sure what I think of this book. Go figure.

Let’s start with this: I will not take back anything I said in my rant. Not only do Mailer’s characters talk completely unlike real people, they talk so completely unlike real people that I was totally alienated for several hundred pages. The narrator gradually acquires experience but he never grows up and is always kind of an idiot boy, even at the end.

But I wonder what I would have thought of this book if I had known from the beginning that it doesn’t really have a plot. It’s more like a three-hour movie shot on a handheld camera focusing on the back of someone’s head—around the sides you can see classified conversations and dull fiddly Agency politics, Marilyn Monroe and Fidel Castro, Florida and Berlin and Uruguay, but clearly that isn’t what the movie is about, it’s just the backdrop against which you watch the narrator’s head bob and occasionally make out with a stewardess.

By the end of the book it becomes clear that nothing is going to resolve the way you might expect it to. Instead of joining the weave in an orderly manner, the plot threads in this book swing in like comets, leave a blazing trail over a hundred pages or so, then arc back out into space, never to be heard from again. Getting to the end of the book was amazing, because the first thing you do (after reading a paragraph of Mailer’s afterword and decided nothing will ever be worth listening to him talk about himself and closing the book) is take stock of all the loose ends that were not tied up. But in the course of making the list you realize that none of them actually touched on what was important to the narrator—he hasn’t quite figured out himself just what that is—and that he is letting all these things go in favor of the mission he states on the last page …and the reader, at least, has to let that go as well.

It’s an odd way to tell a story. But it is not necessarily an odd way to tell a character. And for all their unrealistic bombast, the characters are very good: complex and multi-dimensional and uniquely shaped. The question I’m left with is whether the characters in this beautifully executed character sketch were worth getting to know. I have the bothersome idea that it is a waste of time to spend any energy on pretentious, self-righteous people who preen themselves on their intellect and take it for granted that they are high, high above the peons who comprise the rest of humanity. It’s true that these people are the most likely to be, say, extremely high-ranking officials in the Central Intelligence Agency, and arguably it is worth understanding the extent to which they are willing to play god, but, particularly taking into account that this is fiction, it is a profound waste of perfectly good life-time to follow their shenanigans.

The worst part is thinking that Mailer probably thinks he won. One character is a little unhinged toward the end of the book, and it ends without divulging whether he committed suicide or not. And as I wonder whether he did, I can hear Mailer laughing snidely and thinking with insufferable smugness that if I were an astute judge of character, I would know, without being told. Granted, I do sometimes worry excessively about what dead authors think of me, but I have such a strong impression that Mailer expects the reader to be SO IMPRESSED by how awesome his writing is, and what a subtle mind to come up with so many genius characters with amazing thoughts! and weren’t you just blown away by how he subverted all your expectations about the ending?! that I feel that I need to take a stand for all Harlot’s Ghost readers everywhere, and roll my eyes and say loudly that it was okay, I guess.

There are many, many things about it that are superb, but all those things that were stuck in my craw way back on page 600 are still stuck in my craw. I resent that the reader’s role is to be as obsessed with Harry Hubbard as Harry Hubbard is and to care about what Harry Hubbard cares about. This book is excellent but it is full of the kind of people I take pains not to know, and I don’t care to take on the worshipful role Mailer wrote for me.

I read an article once about what a perfect jerk Mailer was, and I thought, what an odd thing for people to get hung up on. Almost no one is famous for being a good person, and if you like the work they do or their acting or the way they write, who cares what they’re like? You’re not looking to them for moral guidance. But Mailer’s choice of major characters says a lot of very unflattering things about him, and I’m afraid I find myself hung up on them.

So…it was okay, I guess.


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