Customer Reviews: The Gospel According to the Son: A Novel
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on August 21, 2001
Hmm. Norman Mailer has imagined himself into a fundamentalist Jew in Roman-controlled Palestine, a small-town carpenter who believes himself to be the son of God. Right away, we must believe him, as the point of view is established as first-person omniscient. Not everyone is going to enjoy a story that puts words in Christ's mouth and thoughts in His head, and that takes issue with the Gospels.
But everyone is curious about Jesus; he was, after all, a great man. Mailer seems to have read much that allows him to invest his story with details of life and culture that bring it down to earth, as it were. In spite of that, the whole tone is "spiritual": his Jesus seems to be rather a stiff. He is painfully serious, with his eyes on the Lord Above at all times. Remember, though, that he was raised in the Essenes, a very strict group of ascetic fundamentalists. Still, Mailer carries you right along, as his chapters are short and his prose rhythmic and simple. Yet you get no sense of release out of this book, no sense of joy: Christ was in the grip of a tragic necessity, as was His Father.
Anyway, this is a nice corrective to the usual universalist reading of Christ's life: he was, after all, a Jew and preaching in a contemporary tradition, though his message would undermine it. (He claimed to respect the Law, yet viewed the Sabbath as optional, for example.) He wished to talk to those influential Pharisees who controlled religious life, and who thought punctilious observance of a mass of regulations would get them into...heaven(?). His was a mystical corrective to a mechanical accounting system (reminds one of Luther, in a way). Yet finally, within two or three hundred years, his monotheistic, sin-centered message was a direct challenge to that intricate supernatural ecology that held sway, in its multitude of forms, over the known world. The Christian church, as we know, won. And, in winning lost the point, of course, which is that losing is winning. But all that is to be expected, and Mailer, who is gently blasphemous throughout (perhaps to be the more devout-who knows?) has Christ commenting on our times as if they were the worst of times, and God, his father, sore-beset. He makes no bones about the limits to God's power.
This is, to be sure, a novel, a fiction. It is a retelling of one of the great stories of our culture. Of course, Jesus here spends a fair amount of time complaining that the Gospel writers who told his story distorted it; to some, this book may seem to do the same with much less justification. I disagree. The temptation in using the life of Christ for fictional purposes is that its great symbolic power can elevate a mundane text and obscure the faults of a deficient style. Mailer is a better writer than that. To be sure, his book's entire interest grows out of his choice of protagonist, but he gives back to the story, and so to the culture at large, a real addition of meaning. He fleshes out Jesus' life with authentic homely details, and plausibly shows how the world might have looked to him. In this he is doing as a novelist no more than theologians and preachers have been doing since the Year 1. But the story is never over: it is likely that upon finishing Mailer's book one will be tempted to go back to the Gospels for another read. I know I intend to.
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on December 2, 2001
Norman Mailer's novelized story of the life of Jesus is one that, not surprisingly, stresses His human side -- and as such, it is understandably going to be received with misgiving and even derision from certain groups of the faithful. Nikos Kazantzakis' beautiful novel THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST was ridiculed by fundamentalist Christians as well.
The Jesus depicted in these pages is not the idealized image seen in the paintings that hang in Sunday School classrooms all over America. His hands are rough and often dirty; he doesn't always go about in shining, spotless garments; his disciples are rough, uneducated men, 'ugly and misshapen of body; some were misshapen of nose; the hands of many were thick and broken; the legs of others were crooked.' In Mailer's story, Jesus is often plagued by doubts -- doubts about His own divinity, doubts about His ability to complete His mission, doubts even about the nature of His mission. He is wracked from time to time by temptation as well -- and not just during His 40 days in the wilderness, when He is tempted by Satan. There are even times when He feels separated from His Father.
These are but a few of the aspects of this story that will likely anger and offend those whose belief is so literal and norrow that it is confined to the printed word of the Bible. If the book is read with an open mind and heart, however, it is easy to see that Mailer is not casting doubts upon the divinity of Jesus -- he is merely allowing us to get closer to the human side, which in turn can bring us closer to an understanding of Jesus the man.
The Gospels were written many years after the Crucifixion, by men who did not know Jesus personally. They were based on accounts of accounts of accounts -- and as such, it is unbelievable that exaggerations and additions to the story would not occur. This is why many people look to the suppressed (by the Church) Gospel of Thomas as a more reliable, contemporarily composed look at Christ and His teachings.
This does not mean that the story of Jesus is untrue, or of any less importance than the deepest of believers attach to it -- but it is a danger (and this is true in ANY religion) to attach too much importance to words. Mailer's work is fiction -- I didn't get the idea that he was trying to pass it off as anything more -- but a fiction that is extremely respectful to its inspiration, and very relelvant as a tool for our further understanding of Christ. It's not intended to replace or contradict the story of Jesus as told in the Bible -- it's more like a conversation between seekers, with Mailer on one side as the writer, and us on the other side as the reader. It's one side of a dialogue, and if it can spark some thought and contemplation, then it's a valuable one.
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on November 12, 2005
This book is a remarkable feat of scholarship, especially in its ablility to remain highly readable despite its scholarship. We find here a very human portrayal of a man struggling to literally embody God, and, despite the scope of such circumstances, we are oddly able to empathize with Jesus. He confronts his extraordinary situation, paradoxically, as an ordinary man.

The spareness of the biblical style helps us forget the author and the complex theological and historical weight that the story carries. We are able to focus on the personal, day-to-day, hour-by-hour inner life of Jesus, the man.

If you expect quirks and controversy, forget it. If you expect either a born-again, hysterical excitement or a ponderous intellectual examination, take a pass. But, if you are looking for an intimate look at the plausible humanity beneath the religeous and emotional furvor, then read this book.

Mailer's account is particularly comprehensible to the 90's mind in that he allows us to see Jesus coping consciously with the dangers his "celebrity" as a miracle worker begin to pose. In our celebrity conscious, media saturated time, we are perhaps more ready to appreciate the "crowd-control" aspects of the story of Christ, and the practical and psychological impact that those factors must have had on Jesus' day-to-day decisions.

So how can a jewish author in the 1990's create a plain spoken text in biblical dialects that becomes an exciting "page turner" even though we all know from page one exactly how it is going to turn out in the end? No matter how unlikely, Mr. Mailer has accomplished that feat. Read it with an open mind and your mind will open still further.
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on August 3, 2002
I had never read in the genera called "Life of Jesus." I had heard good things about this book, and it was well reviewed by many sources I trust. I've not been disappointed. It tells about Jesus' ministry in a Mark-like fashion (i.e. minimal interpretation, more a description of events) but with a twist: Much of the time we are treated to Jesus' own introspections about what he is doing and what he is wrestling with. Obviously this is fiction, but the deeper question is where along the spectrum of reporting among documentary, interpretation, and fiction do the gospels lie? Mailer has also read in some ancient Jewish and Christian sources and has incorporated things that, ceteris paribus, Jesus would probably have been aware of as his own ministry progressed. The style has a hauntingly minimalist grammar to it, pithy and saying-like, which we come to often associate with the words of Jesus. This makes the work all the more effective. This was my first Mailer book too, so I'm not a groupie, but I've come to respect this author already.
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on June 2, 2002
When a friend leant me The Gospel According to the Son, he sent it with these words of warning: `When I first read this it seemed too simple, too straightforward. Mailer's cheating by just putting words into a character's mouth. Read it twice to realise just what it is about.' The upshot of this advice was that I am now in possession of a novel that is every reviewer's nightmare and every writer's dream - how can you make so much out of so little? In some respects this is the ultimate compliment for Norman Mailer, a man for whom the words `egotistical' and `arrogant' have almost become pseudonyms, because whilst the biblical research is meticulous his philosophy is profound. Instead of writing The Gospel According to Norman Mailer, this is a truly humanist piece of literature, which is probably why the more religious audiences took exception to it. The contrast between the human and the divine is marked but not to the point where the writer becomes didactic or intent on exposing his character's flaws for an effect. There is a constant feeling of control throughout the text rather than having to try and anticipate a sudden outburst of authorial emotion. The audience can remain comfortable in the knowledge that what they are reading is a deeply human portrayal devoid of pandering to history since the research is evident but doesn't influence character construction.
The `plot' itself is a straightforward progression from a young carpenter plying his trade to a deeply introspective preacher who is fully aware of his mortality and realises that he is troubled by the problems of the human condition in the same way as everyone else is. From a personal perspective there are two scenes that are particularly memorable; the 40 day exile in the desert in which the conversations with the Devil are definitely reminiscent of Satan's eloquence in Paradise Lost but also reflect the concerns and doubts of a young man embarking on a life-changing journey. Principally he seems unsure of just how valid the words and advice of his father really are but it is the constant casting of doubt into the mind that captivated me throughout this series of exchanges. The scene of the crucifixion is prose to be savoured since the impetuous youth has now been replaced by a more meditative, mature, reflective adult who accepts his demise with the restraint of one facing the inevitable. Both of these are indicative of the beauty that Mailer's writing holds, both on the level of a simplistic minimalist and also as a novelist fighting against the desperate urges to abandon his objectivity of the character and infuse his own personal agenda into their words.
It's true to say that this style takes a bit of adjustment from the more established novelists, but their quality of prose would struggle to capture a novel of this quality. Mailer's projection of the psychological profile is also on a par with Dostoyevsky's Napoleonic hero, Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment. Historical fiction must usually lie within certain boundaries of but this breaks them irreparably and does so with such aplomb and self-assurance that you cannot help but turn the final page before beginning to contemplate the inspirational writing you have just had the pleasure of devouring.
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on February 5, 2005
This book is respectful of the silence and space found in the gospels. It is a fine novel- intentionally simple w/out being simplistic. I found it more meditative than dull, but then again I like dull things.
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on December 24, 1999
I picked up this book because Norman Mailer had written it. Not that I had ever heard of it or knew what it was about. What an enjoyable experience! I loved the struggle Christ had with his humanity and divinity. I think that truly captured what it must have been like or at least a glimpse at a possibility. My only critisim is the ending, I either didn't get it or it seemed weak compared to the rest of the book. The final two pages? But all in all a good read, quite profound and I am giving it to my son for Christmas!
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on November 7, 2001
"Only a novelist as daring as Mailer would attempt to retell the story of Jesus in Jesus's own words. . . . Its penetration into Jesus's human heart rivals Dostoyevsky for depth and insight. Its re-creation of the world through which Jesus walked is as real as blood. Ultimately, Mailer convinces, more than any writer before him, that for Jesus the man it could have been just like this; and that is, in itself, some sort of literary miracle".
Publishers Weekly
(Quoted from the back cover of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SON, paperback)
I cannot think of a more perfect book to read and give as gifts for the Holidays, to people of all faiths OR lack thereof.
I have heard for years that Norman Mailer's ego, with its supposedly massive size, has this way of getting in the way of his message and transcendant literary skill in everything he writes; as if there is a watermark of his opinion of himself printed on every one of his sentences that becomes visible when you hold them up to the light of day. Though that isn't my excuse for not reading any of his work before this, I can only imagine how much jealousy lay in the hearts of those who proclaim this as a caveat whenever his work hits the market and touches the surface of the universal human heart after reading THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SON. Far from attempting to completely de-spiritualize or Freudian-ize Jesus into spiritual insignificance, Norman Mailer attempts--and for me is successful--at something far more creative, courageous and important.
Mailer, with THE GOSPEL... allows for new spiritual and compassionate eyes to see the Christ, via giving the documents describing the life and Tao of Jesus in the New Testament a completely different context and perspective. He reveals the hidden dynamic of the unconscious deification of the writers of the synoptic gospels--and their writings--that not only runs centuries deep, back into the early stages of the Catholic Church, but perhaps is the genesis of the environment which necessitated the appearance of the Son of Man and his revolutionary message among the Hebrews in Jerusalem in the first place--centuries before he came. And then Mailer returns THEM, not Jesus, back into the very human, epic poet/journalist-symbols of the Ancient Near East Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul originally were; making an unconscious debate over THEIR message (as opposed to Jesus') masquerading as love of Christ, intellectual sophistication or piety--yea or nea--irrelevant. All by trying to tell Jesus's story in something of his own words.
Nietzsche has said in HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN that it is the degree to which one can display a most positive vision or illusion of ONESELF that decides and structures both the opinion we have of people, places and things in the world and the way in which we express it: the Narcissistic impulse of man's ego. Mailer's courage is in revealing this truism's agonizing power, as it may have infused the very religion to which much of Western Civilization has turned to rise above such ego-burdened ways. But his talent shows itself in how this work is nearly devoid of lambast or criticism of those caught in such paradims over the millenia and today, as it enters the loving, complex, but forgiving heart of his subject--the subject of it all. He does this by making us hear Christ; not from the point of view of people who wrote about him many decades after his death/ascenscion, but from an artistic one, a representation of the voice of Christ himself. An artistic representation so compassionate as to, in some passages, incomparably touch the heart and reawaken the soul.
The courage to attempt this would be in and of itself--even in the context of hubris--worth congratulating regardless of success. The compassion to lift oneself beyond judgement and culturally acceptable evaluation and go straight to the heart of such a profound subject, and then write a new yet familiarly compassionate view of the man/spirit, would also be laudable even if it failed to move you. And the erudition necessary to make ancient Jerusalem, Rome, Cairo, Bethlehem and Gallilee come alive alone would make it an enjoyable read, even if the subject and purpose of it all was lost and missed. Norman Mailer didn't just combine all three of these essential gifts and distill out most of the possible downsides associated with them with THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SON. I counted only about four or five times in all 200-odd pages of the book (totalling maybe ten or fifteen lines of text) where the presence of a 20th century man with his own opinions about life, religion and his own significance bled through the gentle, non-sentimental, purely magnificent poetic prose.
Norman's personal trinity of courage, compassion and erudition created this vehicle, via which he let his spirit/muse and it's Gabriel-like message for us rise above the confines of his ego. (And, again, as I've never met him, that ego may still be being overexaggerated by those in a culture that, unlike the eyes of the Christ, cannot see the many ironic forms of it's own arrogance.) As such, this book--if only for a moment (smile)-- can have you doing the same for the Holidays.
I rate this so close to five stars that I might as well call it that: a five star beautiful achievement. A masterpiece.
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on November 5, 2014
For those who are open minded enough to think that maybe...just maybe, Jesus actually did think as an average human on fleeting occasions. Followed his path on instinct rather than as depicted...I loved it.
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on December 9, 2013
I tried to read this book but it was so boring. I wanted to understand more of the way of life during Jesus' time but ended up just watching documentaries on the History and Discovery channel on Netflix.
If you are able to get through this book good for you.
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