I quail at the idea of writing a single novel, let alone a string of huge books ringing with self-belief. So I respect Norman Mailer’s achievements as a creator deeply, though I have never particularly taken to his literature.
The one book I loved was Of a Fire on the Moon, which is based on an account of the first moon landing. Written shortly after the event, it managed to nail for me the sense in which the story defines the progress and history of a civilisation; something I needed since I was floored by the indifference of my young friends to the whole Apollo thing.
It contained a vignette I remember to this day. Each astronaut was allowed to carry one small container which was completely private, and theirs alone. It marked their individuality. Soon, they would learn to carry stamps, which could be sold later, but Neil Armstrong did something different.
In the 15 minutes while the module settled its feet onto the moon, he prayed, pulled out a wafer marked with a cross, and took Communion. I’ve always been moved by that, perhaps because I was raised in the same religious tradition. At the pinnacle of technological achievement, robotised by practice, defined in every gesture, kept alive by oxygen and physics, further from the herd warmth than any person has ever been, he reached back to the origins of human consciousness and lived out one of the great ceremonies of atavistic rebirth and sacrifice. In the spring comes the sun and the ripening corn.
I read Of a Fire on the Moon 35 years ago, after buying it from a brave Adelaide bookstore which (gasp!) imported American books, and defied the British publishing cartels. It gave us Pynchon, Ferlinghetti, Sontag, Didion and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
I remain indebted to the East Coast American writers for the fluidity of their prose, their joy in bravura, and their insistence on the value of the personal and the unstable subjective. The bombastically described “New Journalism” was hugely significant in the development of popular non-fiction, even though it quickly collided with its own limits. Mailer was one of its pioneers, publishing The Village Voice with Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf in 1955, and burrowing his quasi-journalistic way through such cultural fault lines as The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song.
In my smaller, Anglo-Saxon, petit-bourgeois, parvenu, immigrant soul, I have never been able to comprehend literary lions, those agonised, bellowing carnivores of the literary Serengeti, obsessed with fame, breeding and marrying and writing seemingly by priapic impulse. I see myself as a kind of short-sighted giraffe, munching leaves above it all, blurrily vague on the details, tripping knock-kneed and spindle-legged on bones and burrows. Mailer and his vastly gushing American mates demand their faces carved in stone on mountain tops, while I want to amount to the proverbial hill of beans. I am content to survive, and I celebrate those who want more.
The very title Of a Fire on the Moon is an example of something which is a collective signature of these writers. My eye is hooked by the phrase, and I long to edit it. In my memory, it is always called A Fire on the Moon.
In 1982, sitting on a polished floor of a house in Costa Rica, I went into a rant about prolixity and concision as national characteristics of American and British writers.
I read aloud Tom Wolfe’s description of Chuck Yaeger’s plane accident in The Right Stuff, a dancing, howling monologue in which sentences disintegrate into flying sparks. Yaeger battled to control the NF-104 rocket-augmented aerospace trainer as it fell over a hundred thousand feet. He finally baled out, with burning rocket fuel trapped in his helmet. When he landed in a ploughed field, he packed his parachute and stood at attention as an archetypical American farmer and his awed son raced to them in a pickup truck. The account was a fabulous arc of noisy fragments, which dropped us back to earth just as the magic lit up in the child’s eyes.
Then I read the first page of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. In a couple of paragraphs he describes a bicycle bomb exploding in a marketplace. The thing is a small masterpiece, transparent before the event, as we glide hypnotically into some of the deep collective reflexes which create the horror of our times. I can’t do either, but I know what I wish I could command.