On God Norman Mailer

Continuum, pp.221, 16.99

Norman Mailer spent his life hunting for a subject big enough to suit or satisfy his titanic ego. The post- humous On God suggests he finally hit the spot. The Almighty is made to come across as an embattled novelist — as a version of Norman Mailer himself in fact — ‘a mighty source of creative energy,’ whose most developed works are human beings, though ‘think of the excitement of God when the dinosaur came into being’. Yes indeed — the mighty brontosaurus can readily be seen as Mailer’s evolutionary ancestor. Earlier in his career, however, God wasn’t quite so competent and went through a long apprentice phase marred by failures — fish ‘with hideous eyes’ and ‘worm life, frog life, vermin life’. As for insects, these must surely be the Devil’s contribution. In Mailer’s view of Creation, ‘the Devil was meddling in it from the commencement’.

God and the Devil are a pair of warring twins, locked in a permanent cosmic struggle — good versus evil is an obvious example of the antipathy. Mailer also mentions pleasure and pain and order and disorder; and it is through a combination of demonic and divine machinations that the personality is formulated. The odds go one way — you get Hitler or Gary Gilmore; on another occasion — a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King. Saints, by the way, were devised to wear the Devil out. Sadly, it is the Devil that is currently triumphant. ‘Bush is one of the Devil’s clients,’ we are told. ‘The Devil may be winning right now in America’.

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Mailer has always been very bullish. I’ve long admired the hulking energy of his thought and imagination. If he had a shortcoming it is that he kept falling for the Hemingway stuff about pugilism and trapping big game. He reminded me of one of those Celtic actors embarrassed by make up and costumes and who go on the booze as compensation. The literary life being similarly not really manly, Mailer went in for silly brawls and contests, knocking himself unconscious if nobody else could be bothered to enter the ring. In On God, however, he talks with such confidence about ineffable matters that cannot ever be proved, his soulmate isn’t Richard Burton or even Oliver Reed, but former Priestess at the Court of Tutankhamen and fabled Lost City of Atlantis resident, hippy-dippy Shirley MacLaine. When Mailer says our mission is ‘to travel out across the stars, not necessarily in spaceships but by our spirits,’ I thought the copy editor had dropped a line from the actress’s seminal Sage-ing While Age-ing into the text by mistake.

God, Mailer insists knowledgeably, categorically doesn’t like church. Sundays must be so boring, if Mailer’s own experience was anything to go by. ‘I might just as well have been a shell on the surf’s edge,’ he says. Prayer is another total waste of time. ‘I don’t think God listens to prayer.’ Particularly off-putting to the Deity is the posture of Muslims — ‘Kneel down, present your buttocks to the sky, and recognise you are totally weak before the wrath of God.’

Anything suggesting weakness gets Mailer’s thumbs-down. Love and charity, for example, he’s not keen on, because the people who go in for such wishy-washy things are often ‘timid and cowardly … Cowardice is a poison.’ Mailer himself was married about a dozen times and attacked one of his wives with a potato knife, so he’ll know what he’s talking about for once. He is also worried about the morality of plastic. ‘It seems to me,’ he says, ‘that plastic is a perfect weapon in the Devil’s armoury, for it desensitises human beings.’ That’s a new one — that we should be frightened of our Formica work-surfaces. But Mailer is certain of it. When women started having plastic around the home, this was ‘the point when the ballgame was lost’. The same goes for flush toilets. ‘The flush toilet was a rarity before 1900,’ and mankind was the better for it — more interestingly connected to the reality of earth and mud, or something. Clearly the producers of I’m A Celebrity — Get Me Out Of Here missed a trick. Norman Mailer would have adored being in the jungle, slopping out with pop babes on the wane.

If plastic and lavatories are inert, ‘an inkling of non-existence,’ Mailer’s conception of Heaven is that it will be sheer Hell. It is a place renowned for its antiseptic ‘boredom, repetition, and slowness,’ a celestial bureau- cracy run by monitoring angels who are as grey and translucent as tax inspectors. Luckily, he doesn’t intend hanging about there long, for Mailer deems reincarnation to be a scientific fact. After a brief spell in Purgatory, which he describes as a ‘set of many unhappy holding tanks,’ he’ll be right back either as a black athlete or ‘the fastest cockroach on the block’.

Though you’d think derision would be higher on the list, what Mailer most fears is soullessness. There is no need for the soul, however, in a modern world of technology, which has brought us traffic jams, atom bombs, and mood-disrupting drugs, plus the aforesaid plastic and water closets. By trying to improve upon nature, says Mailer, and impose ideological political systems upon free society, we have ended up with gulags. When the ‘power in the universe’ is a drive towards totalitarianism, again it is the Devil running amok. The ‘divine presence in existence’ has been suppressed.

I have to say, I almost prefer these mystical and transcendental burblings to the bleak, nihilistic, cold reason and rhetoric of Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens — though one look at any of these spud-faced people, Mailer included, is enough to disprove any theory of Intelligent Design. Well, Mailer will be up in the clouds, gassing now with his sizeable subject — unless he’s off cavorting with Marilyn Monroe, on whom he also wrote a nutty book; or was he manifested in that cockroach I just cheerfully stamped on? I hadn’t liked the look it kept giving me, frankly.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated