Review of Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost (from Jan. 2009)

Mailer is weird. He’s not my generation, so his preoccupations sometimes seem quaint or at least remote. His peculiarly sexist blend of the Dionysian and the Hemingwayesque is hard to take (worse: every time I begin to suspect that feminist critique is directed at a fantasy, I think of Mailer and say “well, except Mailer–he’s exactly like that…”) He has cranky “philosophical” ideas he thinks are important but which are just plain silly (there’s a recurring idea in this book about how everyone has two, count ’em, two, sides to their personality). More specifically, this is the longest book (1000 pages plus) ever to end with the words “to be continued.” Yet I could not put it down, while I read it I could do nothing else, and I never wanted it to end. First, like Frank Herbert or J. R. R. Tolkien, he creates a total universe rich in detail, but it’s reality as seen through the eyes of the CIA. This is neither the fun and breezy spyworld of Ian Fleming, nor the rich, rumpled and sad spyworld of LeCarre. This is spyworld as the innards of an extremely intricate and ultimately insane cult. That alone is riveting. Second, Harlot as a character is utterly fascinating, both in his own right and as the embodiment of this cult, part stodgy Protestantism, part Manifest Destiny American patriotism, part Machiavelli, blended with a New England sense of elitism and entitlement. His rants are like an intellectual car crash: you can’t help rubbernecking at them. (By contrast, the narrator is a bit of a bore and ultimately a mere device). Last, and I cannot bring myself to type the spoiler, the completely unexpected ending left me in a zombie trance for about a week (on reflection it ought not have worked, but somehow it did, and the sensation of total disorientation is so striking that you feel that this trip was all worth it just to experience that). There are many books that I’ve read over the past fifteen years that I won’t bother mentioning, but I’ve never quite forgotten this one, and that’s rare.

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