Norman Mailer's God is like a novelist

October 21, 2007|By David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin,Los Angeles Times

Earlier this year, at a Writers Bloc event in Beverly Hills, Calif., Norman Mailer acknowledged that he believed in God. This belief, he explained, was qualified; his vision of the deity was as one who is fallible, far from omnipotent, less a Supreme Being than a supreme artist of a kind.

Noting that his own creations had often gotten the best of him, Mailer said he didn't see why the same might not be true of God.

This was a classic Mailer performance - contrarian, contradictory, brilliant and somehow unsatisfying. At its core was the sense that, for him, God remained a conceptual construct, that he had thought out this position but did not feel it, that he was relying on intellect as opposed to faith.

Mailer's new book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation, may best be read in such a context - although, in truth, it's probably best not read at all. Framed as a series of Socratic dialogues between Mailer and his friend and literary executor Michael Lennon, it's an empty effort, full of sophistry.

"I am obviously ignorant of most of the intellections required of a competent theologian," Mailer admits in an introduction. " ... [W]hat will be evident to anyone who has studied such matters is how truly untutored I am." But while that's accurate enough, I suppose, it's also disingenuous, for the problem with On God is less that it's uninformed than that Mailer has no fundamental empathy for the subject at hand.

Throughout the book, he confuses God with religion and views both exclusively through a Christian/Catholic filter, as if this were the only available lens. Rather than discuss the spirit, he ruminates on the saints and purgatory, blaming Satan for technology and espousing a half-hearted belief in reincarnation because "God hates to give up on an interesting artistic possibility."

That's all well and good, but it doesn't much address the universe's essential unknowability, the fact that we are all ultimately in the dark. Mailer is less interested in asking questions than in promoting his cosmology, which owes a great deal to the written word.

"My notion of the Devil depends to a good degree on Milton," he notes at one point, later suggesting that "as literary works, the Old Testament has some faults, and the New Testament a good many." The implicit idea here - literature as the highest calling - is driven home by Mailer's habit of continually referring to himself as a novelist, as if that puts him on a pedestal with the artist God.

For all that, he remains a major American author, whose ego, oddly, informs both his finest and his most problematic work. Mailer is a creature of the world, of his historical and social moment, whose best writing has to do with the particularity of his time.

"I [have] had the good fortune to be able to write about my time as if it were our time," he wrote in 1998, and it is this quality of being at the center of the zeitgeist that gives efforts like The Executioner's Song and The Armies of the Night their immediacy. God, however, is a more amorphous concept, and Mailer's inability to deal with that condemns On God to failure by closing the book to the vagaries of faith.

David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times.

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