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February 13, 2007

Mailer turns toward good, evil, and the mythic

Norman Mailer looked like a beggar who had ducked into Borders to escape the wind. I didn’t recognize him until a woman whispered his name. The fist-waving, cursing Mailer, who once stabbed his wife in the chest, walked feebly through the store with a cane. We have a past, Mailer and I. The summer after first year, I spent my afternoons at the Library of Congress reading every editorial Mailer wrote for The Village Voice.

Mailer turned 84 a week ago and was in town last Thursday to read from The Castle in the Forest, his first novel in a decade. The book is a rambling account of Hitler’s boyhood and family history told by a devil named Dieter. Breathing life into spirits both evil and good, Mailer creates a mythic structure to tell the tale of Hitler’s father and explore the root of Hitler’s symptoms.

“If I draw upon reserves of patience,” Mailer began in a restful tone, “it is because time passes here without meaning for me, and that is a state to dispose one to rebellion. Can this be why I am writing a book?”

The crowd of young writer-types was glued to Mailer’s words while I imagined Mailer bored at home writing the novel. The dedication to his twelve grandchildren was merely the start of Mailer’s goodbye. He continued to read like he was talking to a friend over coffee.

Mailer is the last of a dying breed—writers are no longer the celebrities he once was. Often in the newspapers for anti-feminist comments, Norman Mailer was notorious for fighting over petty bar tabs and always making a scene.

In The Castle in the Forest, Mailer tells us once again that humanity rests on the necessity of evil and imperfections because people are shaped by trauma as much as by good. The root of neurosis is the wound. It is the dialogue between good and evil that shapes a person who is never fully formed. For Mailer there is evil outside that shapes us and is well hidden, resulting in his decision to use a mythical narrative structure.

The book ends with Hitler as a cranky 14-year-old boy who has not yet shown a hint of evil, causing the reader to wonder why Mailer focused on such a historically uncertain period in Hitler’s life. The answer lies in Mailer’s life-long obsession with the trappings of the ego and its battles within a society that values the good and the perfected. The book is filled with long lists of family names and spirits, making the narrative often feel heavy and jumbled. One could read the fragmented narrative full of names and voices as an evocation of past generations who all contributed to the evil Hitler.

These past generations fuel the main myth of the text: a tale of incestuous love within Hitler’s birth line that drives the narrative. After a few pages The Castle in the Forest becomes an exploration of the purity and excess needed for incest to occur within Hitler’s family. But Mailer’s Hitler is not yet heinous because he’s suspended between the good-evil dialectic constantly shaping his development. The incest is the inherited trauma that will eventually turn Hitler into an echoed scream within history’s choir, sculpting mountains of dead and legions of hate.

Mailer’s decision to use a collection of myths and spirits to shape his text is ultimately a poor choice. In a recent interview with the New York Sun, Mailer said he had set out to write a sequel to his earlier novel Harlot’s Ghost, which makes sense given the spiritual forces throughout the text. However, this time he decided to write on the myths of Hitler and his boyhood, piecing together a novel with too much myth in front of the story. The Castle in the Forest succeeds only after the reader can understand the book is first about Mailer and then about Hitler. As a novelist and essayist, he is never far from his own idiosyncratic voice, but in this text it is almost as if the author is talking himself. Dieter feels like Mailer, an old devil telling a family tale.

I could see the old writer look out at young faces while reading. His eyes spoke of a deep history. Go out and throw a fist or two, they say, fight while you can. In an age where desires are scripted and mechanized by forms of new media, Mailer’s voice is from another time. It will forever echo long after he’s wandered back onto the street and disappeared into the wind.