Sunday, March 25, 2018

Norman Mailer's "Harlot's Ghost" (1991): A Review

Imagine if you will a novel that's 1,300 pages long, with a killer set-up over the first hundred pages that makes you desperately long to hear the conclusion -- so much so that you are willing to brave all 1,200 pages that remain in order to reach it. Imagine next that this novel -- after all that time -- ends with the words "To be continued..." And imagine, finally, that you discover -- having gotten this far-- that in fact it never was continued. That the promised sequel was never written, and the author is now dead, so it never will be.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Harlot's Ghost, by reputedly great American novelist Norman Mailer. The novel does in fact weigh in at 1,300 pages, and ends in just this way. Brother. There is no excuse for this book, or for my having spent so many stretches of the last year and a half, off and on, gradually making my way through it.

The book is structured around two different manuscripts -- Omega and Alpha, both authored by our protagonist, Harry Hubbard, life-long CIA man. Omega, set in the 1980s, describes a 24-hour period in the life of present-day Hubbard, as he realizes that his life is in danger from the Agency he serves. We have in this section intriguing hints of his backstory, with the promise that it shall be revealed in greater detail. We are informed that there are CIA secrets at stake in this plot so dark as to make the revelations of the Church Committee seem like innocuous spy yarns. "There is a scandal forming that will prove worse than" the release of the "Family Jewels", we are informed by the titular Harlot -- code name for Hugh Montague, intelligence puppet master modeled vaguely on James Jesus Angleton, according to the Author's Note -- at some point in the course of Omega. This, surely, is gonna be great stuff.

These chapters also have the advantage of being vividly written. A description of Hubbard making the journey from downstate Maine at "the Keep" he inhabits on the fictitious Doane island alone is worth the price of admission.

Yes, it is an outstanding framing device, this Omega manuscript -- more than enough to keep one expectantly trundling along through the 1,200 pages that follow of the Alpha manuscript -- Hubbard's retrospective memoir-within-the-memoir of his life in the Agency.

At some point early on in this process of wading through the latter, I may have registered with vague unease -- flipping idly through the pages to come -- that the dates on the later section carry us to 1961, 1962, 1963.... and not much further. I may have looked in vain for the section heading that tells us where the Omega manuscript picks back up again.

But I guess I assumed that Norman Mailer, being a great American author and all, knew what he was doing. That somehow, he was going to find a way to wrap all of this up, as he'd implicitly promised to do at the book's opening. And besides, he had more than enough space in which to do so! It can't possibly be that he has found material to carry on for 1,300 pages and still have nothing that amounts to a resolution.

Alas, alas.... I think I was probably about two-thirds of the way or so through Alpha before I hazarded a peek at the Wikipedia entry. It's a good thing I waited so long, because what I discovered was not encouraging. It was there I learned that there was an intended sequel to Harlot's Ghost --"Harlot's Grave," that never materialized. Mailer lived for another decade-and-a-half after the publication of this book, but he never got back to this project, and in truth one can tell from the closing of the novel that he didn't really intend to.

Seldom before has one encountered such frank internal evidence at the close of a novel that its author simply ran out of steam and gave up. After taking us through the year 1964 in the Alpha manuscript, Harry Hubbard resumes his narration in the present day oh-so-briefly to announce that he is still in Moscow, in 1984, still in danger, and that interesting things are about to take place.

Then, just before the "To be continued," he announces, speaking of himself in the third person: "I might never finish the book of Harry Hubbard and his years in Saigon, nor the stretch of service in the White House when one lived through Watergate, no, nor the commencement of my love affair with Kittredge[.]" (Surely, you will tell me, that's just the character Harry Hubbard talking, and has nothing to do with any confession of authorial exhaustion on the part of his creator, Norman Mailer.)

And boy, if it isn't a shame. Saigon and Watergate and all of those other things sound pretty interesting, were part of what was promised at the beginning, and were very much part of the reason one devoted so many a cumulative waking hour to reading this far in the book.

You will suggest -- perhaps it was an artistic statement? That there could not be a resolution, only the deepening of fathomless mysteries, for this is part of what Mailer is trying to tell us in this novel -- which is in large part about the layers upon layers of disinformation in which the Cold War superstates conducted their perpetual campaigns? After all, does not Hubbard portentously share with us, just a few pages from the end, his "first piece of universal wisdom: there are no answers -- there are only questions"? (*yawn*)

Maybe. Or maybe Mailer got bored -- and it seemed a shame not to make something publishable out of 1,300 pages of manuscript. I suppose that one can get away with this sort of thing, after all, once one has authored The Naked and the Dead and co-founded The Village Voice. Which editor is going to tell you no? And does Mailer not tell us himself in the Author's Note, "I have done enough indifferent writing over the years..." Might not some of it have found its way into the pages of this tome?

That's not to say there isn't a lot of good stuff in here. It kept me going through its whole length, after all. And as much as this book may be unforgivably over-long, one clears a path through it at a surprising rapid clip. By the end of it, one understands why Mailer thought it still needed to go on for another 1,000 pages or so. One senses vaguely that after all this time, still nothing has really happened. The novel has yet to get started.

This is not a novel, you may have gathered, particularly dense with insight and characterization. Meaningful incident is not crowded into it, such that one feels one has been treated to a genuine epic by the end of it. The number of significant and well-realized characters is small -- in the single digits, at best. So one can clear hundreds of pages at a leap, look back, and count on a few fingers the number of things that actually happened -- that were memorable at all. At long last, when the book is closed, one doesn't really have the sensation of having completed a more strenuous task than reading, say, a 300-page Nabokov.

I somehow knew, when I first laid eyes on it, that this novel would go down easily in this way -- for all its faults. Our first encounter took place a couple weeks before the Trump election, when I was browsing the stacks of a used book store in Concord. Something that smacked of corruption, conspiracy, and the shattered American Dream seemed just what the doctor ordered. But I asked myself: Josh, do you really need a 1,300 page novel by Norman Mailer, regardless of how compelling and timely its subject matter may be?

Yes, yes I do, I realized -- a few days later. I dashed back to Concord in the hour between when I got off work and the bookstore closed, and -- mercifully -- it was still waiting for me on the shelf. I have long since developed a belief that inner promptings to read certain books have the force of destiny. They must be obeyed. If you do not do it now, you will do so eventually.

And indeed, I didn't read all of Harlot's Ghost in the first weeks or even months after I purchased it. I got as far as the end of the Omega frame, then let it sit, revisiting it on a few dull free evenings over the next year. It was only once I had borrowed a quotation from its early sections for a sermon last month that I finally got up the inner resolution to finish the damn thing -- due to my private laws of literary quotation, which I have discussed previously. Over the last couple weeks, therefore, I really bent my head to the task in my free moments and polished off the rest.

Part of why I knew this novel would ultimately be readable, if nothing else, was the same set of reasons why one can confidently pick up any John Updike novel and say to oneself: "Well, this won't take too long, and one won't entirely regret it." As with an Updike novel, it's just popular and middle-brow enough that one knows the plot will bounce along with at least a few nods to the necessity for suspense and intrigue -- i.e. with some recognition that the author's duty is -- among other things -- to be interesting. As with an Updike novel, it's also just literary and high-brow enough that one doesn't have to feel guilty. One's Protestant pride in self-improvement is still gratified, even as one is enjoying oneself. Plus, it's evident that a lot of research went into it, and is stuffed full of facts -- like an Updike novel -- so one can comfort oneself that one is learning something, if all else fails. Mailer, like Updike, was also the recipient enough times of the "Bad Sex in Fiction" award that one knows one won't be allowed to nod off for too many pages without some mortifying yet fascinating primal scene intruding.

Speaking of which, let it also be known that at least half of the pleasure to be derived from finally dipping into the work of any Great Author whom one has been taught to regard with awe from a distance -- especially if they be of the mid-century American male variety -- is that one so often discovers, upon opening them, that they are utterly preposterous. They are also witty, and insightful, and entertaining, in many instances; there is a reason these writers attained their reputation. But they are also so blatantly constrained by fragile egos and so full of testosterone poisoning that one is amazed and horrified it was ever controversial to point these facts out, and that the feminist critics had to cut so much against the grain to do so. Both sides are there, in Mailer, Roth, Updike, Styron, and the rest. One reads with appreciation for both the glory and the ridiculousness -- the poignancy of the one, the comedy (often unintended) of the other.

To come down to specifics, I knew by reputation going in to this novel that Mailer's particular fixation is with anal sex, and that he finds a way to work it in everywhere. I always wondered what that would mean in practice, but now I know -- it's exactly what it sounds like. I tried in the early stages of reading the Alpha sections of Harlot's Ghost to total up the number of utterly extraneous references to sodomy, and I eventually lost count -- though my copy of the book is now rather embarrassingly marked up to highlight just these passages, if any future visitors wish to take a look.

Don't get me wrong -- anal sex is as legitimate a subject for literature as any other aspect of the human experience. But Mailer finds ways to bring it up without respect for its effect on characterization or the integrity of the plot. We have one early scene involving Kittredge -- the Yankee Mayflower-descended Radcliffe-graduate crank psychologist who ends up as the mate of both Hugh Montague and Harry Hubbard (this novel is a WASP nest if ever there was one, but more on that below). She announces within minutes of meeting our protagonist for the first time that she and her then-fiancé Hugh -- since they have agreed not to have vaginal sex prior to marriage -- have compromised in the interval by practicing what she calls "the Italian solution."

This is from the lips of the same character who -- a couple hundred pages later -- will stand up in the midst of a comedy set by Lenny Bruce and try to smash his face with her handbag, for daring to make reference in public to conventional intercourse. (Side-note here: based on the limpness of the jokes in this scene, Lenny Bruce has either been massively overrated all these years, or Mailer just does a terrible impression.) Is it plausible this is the same woman in both scenes?

No more consistent is the characterization of Hugh Montague in this regard-- constrained, blue-blooded prude, he nonetheless cables to his protégé Hubbard in one scene with the unsolicited advice: "In my experience, responsible people allow but one deviation from the progenitorial compass, to wit, the age-old practice of bugger-up." Harry Hubbard acknowledges the anomalous character of this message and wonders about its sender's sanity. But this does not redeem its appearance in the novel, as it plays no role in the plot, and is never mentioned again.

Ah, but perhaps this lack of consistency of character was intentional on the author's part? Is not one of the great themes of the novel the two-faced quality of all human beings, the Alpha and Omega within each of us, the duality of humankind, thus using the duplicitous nature of the main characters' profession as metaphor for the divided nature of the self?

Maybe. Or maybe Norman Mailer got bored again, and his mind returned to its default state. I hear -- by reputation only -- that Mailer found just as much reason to write about anal sex in his novel about ancient Egypt as he apparently did in his novel about the CIA. And pretty much anything can look like a Theme if you squint at it hard enough. But more on this below.

Far and away the worst offender in the superfluous sodomy category, however, is Hubbard's classmate Dix Butler. Yes, this is actually the character's name. It should tell you everything you need to know about where Mailer's brain is at.

From this character come the vast majority of the novel's unnecessary references to, and incidents of, anal sex. We learn through this portrayal that Mailer, to our dismay, has command over the full lexicon of middle-school synonyms for the practice. If I never again read the word "corn-hole" in my life, it will be too soon.

You might think that in a novel about the CIA, of all things, by putative left-leaning social critic Norman Mailer, of all people, there would ultimately be more interesting and pressing matters to attend to than this. You might think that surely in this novel that is long enough to be an epic, we will have great and moving world-historical moral conundra; that we will have dilemmas with potentially apocalyptic consequences. You might think that with our protagonist in hand as a well-educated, well-read young man with an earnest patriotism, we might have some compelling accounts of how his ideals are called into question by the exigencies of his time, perhaps even how he loses his faith in his government and the powers that be when he witnesses, say, the coup against the democratically elected government in Guatemala.

But no. The moral conundra are described largely at second-hand by Kittredge writing to Hubbard, in well-researched but dull descriptions of Kennedy Oval Office meetings that can better be got out of any history of the period. Harry Hubbard -- who ultimately turns out to be a fairly blank and unimaginative cipher, despite his promising signs of depth in the Omega section, and whose company we do not ultimately relish for this many pages -- appears to have no real flicker of conscience at all about the situations in which he finds himself, or about the free governments his cronies have helped to subvert. Patrice Lumumba is mentioned in a brief and derogatory passage -- no reference is made to his eventual overthrow and murder with CIA collusion. Guatemala is treated as nothing more than a theater for the masculine triumph of E. Howard Hunt. The people in any Third World nation whose lives and societies were thrown into catastrophe by these Ivy-educated adventurers do not figure in the novel at all.

Castro and a single fictional Uruguayan double agent are essentially the only characters with any prominence in the novel who are not American whites, and even they serve ultimately not to pose any interesting challenges to U.S. Cold War ideology, but rather to serve as further excuses to bring up Mailer's real twin fixations -- i.e., masculinity and buggery. The important thing about Castro in this novel is that he is "macho," and all the U.S.-based walking human testosterone secretions in the novel can't stand this about him, and are desperate to assassinate him in order to show who's boss. The fact that the lives of the rest of the billions of human beings on the planet are at stake in these erectile fencing matches does not seem to matter to any side ("There's no escape./ The big pricks are out," as Harold Pinter wrote in his poem, "Democracy.") We'll come back to the Uruguayan double agent below.

We don't ultimately learn much about the CIA or mid-century American history from this book, moreover, that we hadn't already gleaned from a school textbook or pop culture. The Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy assassination, and similar events are the ones that figure most prominently -- even the Marilyn Monroe suicide/murder conspiracy theory gets substantial play (apparently another Mailer obsession, in his other works). And apart from the Agency's increasingly preposterous Fleming-esque assassination attempts against Castro (and there is at least one good scene in which a character mimics Castro and pokes some good fun in the process at the CIA for trying to model itself on James Bond far more than Bond was ever based on real spies) -- there is very little wrestling in this book's pages with the long history of CIA misdeeds.

True, there are some mildly intriguing gestures throughout the novel toward the ideological split that began to emerge within the agency between those -- like Allen Dulles and the fictional Montague -- who sought to create an actual intelligence agency, and the adventurers like the very real E. Howard Hunt -- convincingly presented in the novel as a snob, arriviste, and self-mythologizer -- who quickly gave up on this unfulfilled mission once actual intelligence-gathering had proved too difficult -- and turned the CIA instead into largely a paramilitary organization, whose chief purpose was to organize covert ops, subvert sovereign states, and orchestrate coups d'état. Montague argues with Hunt in one scene, for instance, that the CIA should have left the Arbenz government alone in Guatemala -- that it would have become "a third-rate Communist state that would soon have been looking to us for aid." This is about as far as any character goes, however, in questioning the moral legitimacy of overthrowing other people's elected governments.

True again, Kittredge does in one letter begin to express moral doubts about the level of equanimity her husband Hugh is able to maintain, despite his role in a conspiracy to land American aid worker and Communist sympathizer Noel Field in Stalin's bad graces -- and thereby into prison and assassination in Eastern Europe. She notes that by doing so, Hugh helped touch off a bloody purge in the Stalinist ranks that ultimately rivaled the atrocities of the 1930s. "I began to brood upon the possibility that when a death is monstrously unfair," she writes, "it can send out a curse upon human existence from which we do not necessarily recover in full."

Which -- I mean -- sure. I'm glad there was something that caused a ripple of disquiet in the conscience of these Yankees. But why was it this crime, rather than the horrible things the CIA did more directly to people? There is no real discussion in the novel of the 1953 coup in Iran. Some of General Lansdale's doings to break a Communist insurgency in the Philippines are presented in gory detail -- but again they appear here more as instances of masculine cunning than a violation of conscience. There is nothing about the CIA's role in alleged torture or psychological manipulation. There is nothing about the illegal detention and long-term solitary confinement of Soviet defector Yuri Nosenko on U.S. territory, where he was denied due process and the protections of the Constitution. MK-ULTRA and the "suicide" of Frank Olson are mentioned briefly -- but more as a colorful anecdote in another Kittredge letter than as grounds for questioning the nature and moral character of one's profession and the cause one serves.

There is one scene during Harry Hubbard's stint in Berlin that one thinks at first is going to finally present him with an actual moral quandary. He and the aforementioned Dix Butler arrive at a bar in Berlin where they find a CIA informant suspecting of being a double agent who is trussed on the floor, while men stand over him and urinate on his face. Hubbard is stricken and repulsed. One imagines for an instant that here at last is going to be our moral reckoning.

But no. It's ultimately not clear from the rest of the scene -- at least not to me -- whether what they witness in the bar is actually a case of CIA abuse, or some sort of consensual sex act, and if Hubbard's disgust is at the fact of his agency being implicated in torture, or at the spectacle of some kind of BDSM.

Either way, however, our hero Hubbard and his pal Dix Butler spare little time at all thinking about the informant on the floor. They quickly use this moment as a segue into the really important question -- whether one or the other of them -- or both of them -- might in fact be gay. Butler concludes the discussion by dropping his trousers, turning around, and begging Hubbard to penetrate him.

Do people actually behave like this? Maybe they did, back in the 'Fifties, when everyone was seemingly high all the time on the fumes of their own machismo -- as well as on the inner terror that this machismo might all be an act. But even if so, it has not been a part of my own experience of life.

Toward the end of the novel, there is another quite similar incident. This time, Dix Butler subjects the Uruguayan double agent Chevi Fuertes to manhandling and physical degradation. Hubbard is again disgusted, when he is told the details. But the true revelation of the scene, the real shocker -- once again -- is not that CIA thugs torture people -- that is passed over quickly -- but that Chevi and Dix (*gasp*) have also been sleeping together this whole time. "You will judge me adversely for being a homosexual," says Chevi in a letter to Hubbard, "yet it is you who is more of one than any of us, although you will never admit it to yourself because you never practice!"

Mailer seems incapable of keeping his head in the game long enough to tell us anything important about the CIA and American history, before getting sidetracked by the contemplation of his own sexuality. During Hubbard's training at "the Farm," for instance, we are treated in one section to a list of the courses that he and others must pass -- Codes, Flaps and Seals, Locks and Picks, etc. At last! one thinks. Here, finally, is interesting stuff. But Mailer passes quickly over the details of what is actually entailed in any of these courses, and is soon diverted onto his usual obsessions by the fact that "locks and picks" correspond symbolically to human coitus. Come on, man! Stay with us just a little bit longer. I want to hear more about what they learn in spy school!

Apparently, it's too much to ask. The obsession with one's own imperiled masculinity is too omnipresent. For Harry Hubbard as for our other characters, the dread of "turning queer," the panic at the thought of waking up one day and finding that one was gay all along without realizing it, looms very large. As it does for Stingo, in William Styron's Sophie's Choice. As it apparently did for many a blubbering male ego expected to live up to the impossible macho ideal of the post-war era.

It's sad for them that this was so. But it's not something most of us will relate to, particularly, who were born on the other side of the feminist revolution. If it's right what people say, and gender is essentially a performance, then all we can feel is glad that the curtain has rung down on that particular mid-century act.

Come thus far, then, and it seems that what Harlot's Ghost is really about is not much more than what pretty much any novel starring the "gentleman spy" is about. It is a fantasy of masculine power and WASP privilege.  For all its literary pretensions -- and despite being written by a Great Author -- on this level at least the book is Fleming-style fare.

Much as James Bond is portrayed as a product of good breeding, Harry Hubbard attended Yale, and the ancestry of he and his mate extend back to the Mayflower. Harry's legal first name, moreover, is "Herrick." We have already met the no less insufferably dubbed "Kittredge" and "Hugh Montague." Hubbard's extended family is full of "Shalers" and "Coltons." And so on.

Hubbard's father, meanwhile, "Cal," is a mid-century masculine ideal -- big-game hunter, friend of Hemingway, deft hand at every expensive sport. His son is forever in his shadow, and of course at a young age -- we are told -- catches his father in the midst of an exotic sex act (did you think you'd have to go for ten pages in a Norman Mailer novel without one?).

Well, okay, so we're in familiar "gentleman spy" territory. Even if that's the case, however, there are more interesting ways to do it than this.

I don't denigrate the idea of the gentleman spy novel. I've nursed a plan to write one myself a couple times, as many of us do. It's hard to deny that there is a certain romance -- the stuff of great tragedy -- in the fact that the the worst crimes and follies of American imperialism in the 20th century were often committed by Harvard and Princeton men, whose humanistic educations had taught them how to construe Virgil but almost nothing about the modern world over whose destiny they would soon exert much control.

The consequences of this in real life were often more novelistic than anything one finds in Mailer. Take the fate of James Forrestal, for instance -- who fell to his death from a window, whether by assassination or suicide, while he was allegedly in the midst of translating a passage from Sophocles and had just gotten to the word "nightingale" -- which happened to be a code name for a Nazi military unit in Eastern Europe with which he had become entangled through his intelligence work.

But even if we are to have fiction on this subject of the Harvard-educated destroyers of civilizations, rather than the non-fiction that is often so much more bizarre and surprising than the former, Greene's Quiet American is a much more satisfying rendition than Harlot's Ghost. I'll take Pyle over Hubbard any day.

Is there anything to be said, then, in this novel's defense? Well, as already suggested above, there is some sense in which the incessant harping in the novel on the twin ideals of WASPhood and masculinity -- and the impossibility of ever fully living up to either, in their total and unforgiving mid-century varieties -- preserves a certain thematic unity with the novel's portrayal of spy-craft. One that is interesting to note, at least.

Our protagonist Hubbard seems on the one hand, after all, to be the embodiment of both 20th-century ideals of the normative American male -- well-bred and masculine, the "gentleman spy." But he also senses himself to be -- in some way -- an imposter in both roles. His family has at least partial Jewish ancestry, for one -- with Harry himself as one-eighth Jewish, from his mother's side. And we've seen already that he, like the other male characters, lives in a world in which one's presentation as heterosexual is forever endangered. When he arrives at the agency, one of the questions to which he is subjected on the polygraph is whether he has ever had a homosexual encounter -- which he has, at school. Someone remarks at one point in the novel that gay men in such a world make the best intelligence agents, because they must spend their working hours living a double life already.

In a novel that is all about doubles and divided identities, therefore (and flipping back to the book's front matter, I realized on rereading why Mailer chose the epigraph he did from Theodore Roethke, as it contains the words: "Which I is I?") all of this makes sense. And it means thematically that Arnold Rosen -- another of Hubbard's classmates at the Farm -- is perhaps Harry's reverse self. If Hubbard has a largely invisible Jewish ancestry, hiding beneath a Yankee WASP mantle (and even bellows out a anti-Semitic slur against Rosen in a moment of anger) -- and if he is also a heterosexual who lives in panic of "turning queer" -- then Rosen is a Jewish homosexual in the Agency, who eventually converts to Presbyterianism and forces himself to marry a woman for the sake of his career. Each becomes the other. Each plays both sides of the divided self.

It is intriguing to find, then, that in an Author's Note at the end of the book, Mailer all but admits that Hubbard is also a sort of WASP alter ego of himself. Much as the Protestant Updike had his Jewish Bech, so Jewish Mailer from Brooklyn invents his Herrick Hubbard of Maine.

Preempting the criticism at the book's close that he could not possibly have written an accurate narrative of the CIA, having never worked within the Agency himself and learned its secrets first-hand, Mailer observes that the Agency occupies such a prominent place in our national imagination that he has a certain right to it as subject matter. Just so, he argues: "A Russian Jew of the nineteenth century who happened to be a consumed with interest about the nature of the Orthodox Church would not have had to be on intimate terms with a priest to feel that his comprehension of Russian Orthodoxy was possessed of some accuracy. He would, of course, have required some inner link, some sense that he, as a Jew, if he had been born into Russian Orthodoxy, might have become a monk. In turn, it would not have been all that impossible for me to have spent my life in the CIA provided I had come from a different background and with a different political bent."

Well! That's two pretty big "provided thats" right there. But still, he makes an interesting point.

One starts to sense, then, that as much as the novel is a male WASP power fantasy, it is also about the illusory nature of both identities. The perfect mid-century male-- the ultimate normative specimen of 1950s suburbia -- did not exist. He was a product of a disinformation campaign as elaborate as those Harlot concocts to beguile his opponents. A passage toward the end of Erving Goffman's book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity comes to mind. Goffman has spent most of this extended essay referring to humanity as divided into two groups: the "normals" and the "stigmatized." In the closing chapter, however, he pivots to an acknowledgement that these groups cannot actually be pointed to and defined in the outside world. There is, rather, a sense in which each person plays both parts in turn, in different situations. None of us exists wholly without stigmas. None of us is placed outside of every "in group."

"[E]ven where widely attained norms are involved," writes Goffman, "their multiplicity has the effect of canceling many persons[.... I]n an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, height, and a recent record in sports."

Goffman suggests that, at last, the "stigmatized" and "the normals" are not two different groups of people, but two sides of every self. We, in our "normal" identities, fear becoming stigmatized not because it is outside our experience, but because it has been an aspect of our secret self all along.

This is what Hubbard experiences in his terror that it will turn out that he does not in fact live up to the masculine heterosexual ideal that his father "Cal" embodies. That he will, at last, discover that he is the non-practicising homosexual that Chevi accuses him of being. "The painfulness, then, of sudden stigmatization can come not from the individual's confusion about his identity, but from his knowing too well what he has become," writes Goffman.

As much as Harry Hubbard may outwardly appear as Goffman's "complete unblushing male," therefore -- in fact he is not. Every Hubbard has his inner Rosen. Every Rosen is able to present as a Hubbard. The hyper-masculine, womanizing Dix Butler has also been sleeping with men this whole time. Hugh Tremont Montague confesses to Kittredge a lifelong inclination toward buggery. And so on.  As theologian Thandeka quotes psychologist Donald Nathanson in her book Learning to Be White, "most people who seem to 'have it all' are pretty much fake."

This -- at least -- is the most earnest case I can make for why the sodomy obsession might make some thematic sense in this novel.

The novel may be hinting -- perhaps in spite of itself -- that the mid-century American identity ideal was unattainable. That whiteness, heterosexuality, WASPhood, masculinity and the rest are illusions to which no individual human being ever lived up in their totality. We are all aware in secret of our deviations from our society's privileged norms. As a result, we put up each day a false exterior. We are dealing in Norman Mailer's novel, then, with something like Luigi Pirandello's observation in One, None, and a Hundred Thousand -- i.e., that of "the impossibility of any human creature's being to others what he is to himself." (Putnam trans.)

And this insight about identity, in turn, is mirrored by the false fronts that the characters put up as CIA spies, by the treachery they show toward one another (particularly Hubbard and Kittredge, who eventually will run off together and betray Harlot), and at last by working as double agents -- or triple agents. William Harvey eventually turns out to be sharing CIA secrets with the FBI (these two elements of the U.S. surveillance state in Mailer's novel, plausibly, do not get along). And the great revelation we seem to be working toward at the end of the book (spoiler alert) is that Harlot himself has been double dealing with the Soviet Union all along -- playing both sides against one another in a coordinated harmony of disinformation, along the lines of his inspiration in counter-intelligence work, KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. As Harlot hints in a lecture to Hubbard and his fellow trainees early in the novel (by which I mean 444 pages in): "[L]ies often develop structures as aesthetically rich as the finest filigree of truth. After a time, how could Yakovlev and Dzerzhinsky know they were dealing with a truth or a lie?"

It all fits together so beautifully, don't you see? Or -- it would. If Norman Mailer hadn't gotten lazy. He fails to carry it off in the way that would be required. The big Harlot-as-KGB-agent reveal is simply dropped into the closing pages, without much preparation, and with no time or space left to grapple with any of its implications or consequences. (Apparently, those are the things that would have come after that "To be continued..." -- if it ever had been continued.)

The "Alpha and Omega" language in which Mailer describes the theme of human duality -- and in which the two narratives devices are framed -- derives from the psychological theories of Kittredge that are presented within the novel.

We want these theories so much to provide a profound insight. They really ought to give us a fresh take, if the novel is to be successful, on its fundamental themes of internal division and the deception of oneself and others. But ultimately, they fail to do so. At first, Mailer tries to cover up for this with a certain amount of third-party "character shilling." Someone remarks to Hubbard at one point of Kittredge -- "they say she's made Freud twice as complicated as he used to be, although of course that's hard to believe." Is Freud so very complicated?

When we have gotten more than half-way through the book and the promised "Alpha and Omega" theory has still failed to be elaborated beyond its dull rudiments, however, Mailer himself seems to lose interest in it. Perhaps to lose faith as well. The theory's lack of content even becomes something of a plot point. Kittredge starts to fret in her letters to Harry that her colleagues whisper that her theorizing is not worthy of continued funding -- that it amounts to nothing more sophisticated than the familiar idea of the conscious and unconscious mind.

Mailer doesn't really give us much reason to doubt her colleagues' assessment. Once again, his energy  seems to have flagged. And in fairness, who can blame him? This book can be a slog. But you'd think he might have found space in 1,300 pages for something a little bit more like an insight. The fact that we are all self-deceivers and have multiple selves may be true enough. But why? What's wrong with it? What to do about it? Who cares? Harlot's Ghost offers few answers.

Perhaps the chief reason, at last, why the novel's thematic matrix fails to carry real conviction -- even though it has a certain structure and coherence that is pleasing to discern -- is that Mailer's characters in fact are quite one-dimensional. The whole intellectual edifice of the novel's themes depends on the idea that each of us has layers beneath layers, that the full depths of our selfhood are difficult to plumb. All of this would be much more convincing, though, if it were presented through characters who did in fact seem to possess moral depths, who betrayed some complexity of thought and feeling. It's one thing to tell us about the layers of the self. But they are notably lacking in the people in this book.

Hubbard, for one, tells the reader several times that he is not really interested in politics. He even notes with a flash of embarrassment that he made a rather odd choice of career, therefore -- to juggle the fate of nations in his hands, when the questions of whether socialism or capitalism is actually the more desirable system, say, or whether a social democratic government in Latin America represents the same evil as a totalitarian Marxist regime, fail to inspire in him much thought.

This, at last, is where the gentleman spy fantasy so often runs aground. If these people are so brilliant and well-educated and well-bred, after all, and we are meant to partake of the romance of that, how then is the author to portray these same individuals engaging in all the many predictable, stupid, and unimaginative cruelties of 20th-century U.S. foreign policy? How to place them inside the actual history of the CIA, which has often not only been a destructive force in the world, but an incompetent, negligent, and quite unromantic one as well.

One can solve this authorial problem, I suppose, by just making one's protagonist strangely incurious and apathetic, like Hubbard. The downside is that the reader finds it hard to care what happens to him. Or, one could make one's protagonist a person of genuine internal conflict, who has doubts about the world into which he has been thrust.

There were moments when I thought this novel might achieve the latter. Maybe it would have, if that second half of it had ever been written. Harlot even gives an interesting speech at one point on the subject of how it's the best Christians who are in the greatest danger of going over to the Communists.

But -- at least in the story so far -- none of this seems to make that much of a dent in our Harry Hubbard. For all that he is the narrator of a book all about the duality of the human self, he seems to be remarkably free of inner turmoil. At least not on the subject of the Agency he serves.

We ultimately wish, then, that we could have gotten some actually interesting revelations about these ostensibly multi-layered souls. Something more profound than just that yet another heterosexual man confesses to a secret fascination with "buggery" -- which is usually all the layers amount to, with Mailer.

Most of us these days are no longer striving to live up to the impossible mid-century Hemingway ideal of manhood anyway. I for one am not filled with internal division about my failures as a big-game hunter and bull-fighter. The stigmatization of homosexuality, meanwhile, that so obsessed Mailer and his contemporaries, plays far less of a role in our society than it once did (though it would be wrong of course to say it has vanished).

The American national security state, however, and the often unaccountable power it wields in this nation and abroad, is still very much with us.

One wishes that Norman Mailer -- in his 1,300-page opus on the CIA -- had found some room to tell us something about that.

No comments:

Post a Comment