Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Review: The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, The Novel as History, Norman Mailer (1968)

This book is cultural commentary of the most interesting kind. Through the lens of an anti-Vietnam War protest held at the Pentagon in 1967, Mailer discusses the spiritual malaise afflicting his country.

The book is replete with humour, as the author makes himself the principal character and makes wry observations about his colleagues and muses on the nature of America. Opportunities for irony abound in this scenario. And although the book deals with historical events far removed from us, now, the action and humour never flag.

Especially the first part, where Mailer finds himself conscripted, partly against his will, in an undertaking he is wary of. But having just published, in 1967, Why Are We in Vietnam (a novel this time), he feels obliged to support the cause. Having become involved, he injects himself vigorously into the flow of events, making speeches, swearing, drinking, ruminating on the failings and strengths of the other luminaries involved (including the poet Robert Lowell and the linguist and activist Noam Chomsky), getting arrested, passing time in gaol, thinking about his beloved family. The scenes in the bus that is to carry the arrested demonstrators to gaol is unsurpassed.

The second part of the book, The Novel as History, although less compelling than the first, still refuses to be easily outmoded by the temporal differential separating us. And it is not quite certain, anyway, how this part of the book differs from the first in tone. In scope, it draws back from the character ‘Norman Mailer’ to watch the protest from a higher vantage point. We see the planning of the march, the various groups involved, their antics, the brutality of the U.S. Marshals and soldiers, the waning of the torch, and the last gasp of outrage.

This very important addition to the canon of the New Journalism is very much worth reading, if only for the power of Mailer’s doughty prose and his great capacity for cogent observation.

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