How Norman Mailer Wrote the Great American Novel

On January 17, 1977, convicted murderer Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad by the state of Utah for the execution type murder of two men, a gas station attendant and the desk clerk at a local motel in Provo Utah, both murders the result of the emotional pain that Gilmore was in as a result of his break-up with his girlfriend, Nicole Barret, a young mother with two young children; Miss Barret having ultimately rejected him due to his chaotic, haphazard behavior obviously brought on by having spent the vast majority of his youth and adult years in reform school and prison, where he had been locked up for various lesser crimes. Soon after the execution, following his trip to Utah, the great writer Norman Mailer wrote his masterpiece, The Executioner’s Song, that in which he provides a vivid account of Gilmore’s stunningly rapid fall from grace.

The story line of the book, which is some 1100 pages long and which takes place from the time Gilmore was paroled in the spring of 1976 until his final reckoning with the firing squad which took his life nine months later, is nothing short of a masterpiece of understated writing; depicting what the late Joan Didion in her review of the book described as the nihilism of this part of the American West, where people often have to live lives without much purpose, trapped halfway between the mountains and the desert, and where potential dread often reaches such proportions that, as Didion puts it, “People get sick for love, think they want to die for love, shoot up the town for love.”

In writing his account of these events, Norman Mailer did something that was completely unexpected by much of the literary community: He stopped being Norman Mailer. That is, in writing a number of his previous books, he often relied heavily on inserting his unique voice, and even his own persona and actual experience into the storyline. The Siege of Chicago, which depicted the climate surrounding the ill-fated Democratic convention of 1968, was written as a first-person account in which Mailer in many ways becomes an actual character in the narrative. As was the case with his previous book, The Armies of the Night, which depicted the storming of the Pentagon in 1967 as part of the anti-war movement protesting American involvement in Vietnam.

The Executioner’s Song, however, was written with an entirely flat affect, and with no traces of Mailer to be found anywhere amidst its pages. Written as a series of paragraphs spatially separated from one another in the context of different chapters, without any sort of commentary by Mailer on the events he is describing, it is the minimalist depiction of the events which are occurring in the lives of all the participants (e.g. friends of Gilmore and Nicole, fellow convicts, members of the legal and judicial community, journalists covering the story at a national level, etc.) which entirely matches the stark environment in which the events surrounding Gilmore’s trial  and execution take place.

Certainly, there have been other books in which the actual style of the writing so thoroughly matches the events which are taking place. One thinks of Ernest Hemingway’s depiction of the bored, inconsequential lives of American ex-patriates living in post- World War One Europe in The Sun Also Rises or Joan Didion’s account of the young Hollywood wife for whom life has lost all meaning in her harrowing novel from the early 1970s Play It as It Lays. Yet it might be argued that The Executioner’s Song may have even outdone these and other similar great works in fusing writing style with the realities with which the storyline is concerned.

Susan Sontag’s brilliant essay from 1966, Against Interpretation, argued that rather than indulge in endless interpretation of what important events in our lives and art mean, we need to hear more, see more, and feel more. Unfortunately, in our current Internet age in which social media has become that which rules us all, we have become subject to seemingly endless interpretations of what our experience online might tell us. Yet if we could somehow, like Norman Mailer did in his great real-life novel, return to allowing just the facts inherent in important situations or works of art to guide us, we might all be significantly better off.

The Death of Irony in the Digital Age

It was in 1964 that Susan Sontag wrote her notorious essay Notes on Camp, something which along with her provocative piece Against Interpretation rocketed her into the center of American culture in a manner which effectively fused the worlds of high-brow literary culture with the sparks of streetwise ethos which at the time had begun to smolder in Andy Warhol’s legendary Silver Factory.

The description of camp provided by Sontag in Notes on Camp was essentially a list of the elements of a culture in reaction to typical bourgeois society, something to which Sontag herself was in rebellion at the time. Only the descriptions provided were deeply ironical in the sense that they were to be taken as satirical representations of various elements of American society rather than as things in and of themselves.

Camp was a means of embracing certain things while at the same time keeping a comfortably ironic distance from them. For instance, so-called bad movies, such as Schoedsack’s King Kong, which the world of high culture viewed as being insignificant due to their lack of serious qualities, could now be seen not only as being enjoyable, but also having merit precisely because they were seen by most practitioners of high culture as being bad. In other words, what mattered was the irony of looking at something not only in terms of how good or how important it was, but in juxtaposition to a world that practitioners of camp sensibility saw as being overly serious.

Because there were unseen quotation marks around most aspects of camp culture, those which took the place of more serious literal discussions, camp irony soon became a powerful new form of intelligent communication among its practitioners. And because that type of intelligent humor is always an inside joke, understood only by those who get it, it soon came to exemplify for those who were in on the joke a higher form of intelligence.

Of course, this is also very much the function of irony in terms of intelligent communication with others; that the joke alluded to is always an inside one. That is, it is a means of putting others on who aren’t in on it. In so doing, pointing out how one’s position on certain ideas or issues is inherently understood by those who are in on the joke as being superior to other positions.

It is likewise a form of intelligence that is communicated primarily verbally through inflections in one’s voice, speech patterns that are tongue in cheek, or through such dynamics as the twinkle in one’s eye; which means that irony is never a means of communication that can be understood literally. Rather, like camp, it needs to be experienced in a manner that is both offhanded and offbeat; an indirect form of communication in which the way in which the message is delivered becomes just as important as the message itself; meant only for those who are aware enough to understand it.

When the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who has had both his arms sliced off announces that “It’s only a flesh wound,” the aware viewer immediately understands that what he is doing is casting an ironical eye toward all those battle or crime movies where the violence is both very real and very literal. That is, the filmmaker is putting on all those who favor violent movies with an indirect comment about them without ever alluding to them directly.

If irony is something that needs to be experienced primarily physically through voice inflections or facial mannerisms, the question then becomes one of asking what effect our current digital age, where people are communicating with each other primarily by typing words out of necessity into a keyboard or keypad, has had on ironical expression. Obviously, when communication is that which removes physical expression from the equation, it becomes much more difficult to express oneself ironically.

One prime example of how entirely literal expression has out of necessity replaced ironical humor and intelligence is the current Internet acronym LOL, which as everyone knows stands for laughing out loud; an abbreviated reference which makes it veritably impossible to wink indirectly and ironically at one thing while actually referring to another simply because it is out of necessity so inherently literal.

Of course, the next obvious question to be considered, it would seem, is that of asking what effect this incapacity to express oneself ironically when confined to the parameters of a keyboard has had on our social and personal communication with each other? And furthermore, is irony itself a necessary ingredient for intelligent conversation within wider societal parameters? That is, what might be missing when we are deprived of it in significant ways?

Naturally, the iPhone, personal computer, and the Internet are here to stay as our primary means of communicating with one another. Yet perhaps, just as the world of camp humor played an important part in the evolution of an underground culture that significantly threatened overly serious, high-brow culture in 1960s America, something similar might be made to occur in our current digital age which often seems to be devoid of the beauty and meaning of ironical humor and intelligence.


Lyn Lesch’s new book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier is being published by Rowman & Littlefield in December, 2021.