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Mailer's Style Finally Finds its Subject
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.