Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Norman conquest

I was going to tag these ramblings on to bottom of the previous post, but it was getting a bit long, so a separate one is probably called for. Those of you who read obituaries will have noticed that Norman Mailer died this week. Now I should lay my cards squarely on the table at this point and confess that I've never read anything by Mailer, but in a way that illustrates the oddity of his celebrity quite nicely: by far his most famous work of fiction (The Naked And The Dead) was one of the earliest things he wrote (in 1948), and I would guess it's not all that widely read these days; most of his most celebrated later work was journalistic non-fiction (The Armies Of The Night, Miami And The Siege Of Chicago, The Executioner's Song). The reality is he was far more famous for his life outside of his novels than for his literary output: the six marriages, the near-fatal stabbing of his second wife Adele Morales with a penknife, the drinking, drug-taking and brawling, the battles with feminists, critics, the government, the establishment, everyone.

For all that, Mailer's name is often mentioned in connection with that most nebulous of concepts, the Great American Novel. In the wake of his death, following relatively closely on the heels of the death of Kurt Vonnegut and less closely on the heels of the death of Saul Bellow a couple of years ago, John Walsh wrote a piece in The Independent today bemoaning the death of those writing, or at least attempting to write, the Great American Novel. Leave aside the meaninglessness of the concept and I still don't think I agree that the general state of the American novel is in any trouble. In addition to the people mentioned in the article such as Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Jeffrey Eugenides, David Guterson and Donna Tartt, there's the aforementioned Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, Richard Ford and, possibly slightly more contentiously, Chuck Palahniuk, Douglas Coupland, Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy, as well as the crazy experimentalists like David Foster Wallace and Mark Z Danielewski. Personally I don't feel like I'm in danger of running out of stuff to read any time soon.

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