Mailer’s review is very fine to a point—he is an exceptional critic—but he cannot get past the point. He is sympathetic to the use of grossly offensive imagery to shock audiences into some awareness of the technological horror of their spiritual condition. He has always relied heavily on obscenity in his own fiction with that end in mind. But he can find, in Ellis’s sadistic narrative, no there there. “If one is embarked on a novel that hopes to shake American society to the core,” he complains, “one has to have some¬thing new to say about the outer limits of the deranged—one can¬not simply keep piling on more and more acts of machicolated butchery. . . . Blind gambling is a hollow activity and this novel spins into the center of that empty space.” It is a little like watching Ernst Gombrich trying to elucidate the iconography in a work by Jeff Koons. The idea that a work of literature should have “some¬thing new to say,” or even that it should have an interesting way of saying it, is just one of the aesthetic values that Ellis is trying to show his contempt for, along with every other value of ordinary civi¬lized life. Mailer thinks that Ellis hasn’t imagined horror; he has only copied it from schlock movies. “We are being given horror-shop plastic,” he suspects. We are. That’s the idea. Lenny Bruce was the last obscene man in America. Even Mailer cannot be obscene any longer. Everyone has heard it all.
The other interesting selection is an interview with Madonna Mailer conducted for Esquire in 1994. Madonna seems so clearly Mailer’s kind of girl, and he works like a madman to get her up to his conception of her. But to no avail. He cannot shock her, and he can¬ not persuade her to regard herself from anything like a Maileresque point of view. There are many choice moments of crossed frequen¬cies. Madonna is, of course, a leading spokesperson for safe sex.
Mailer: Well, condoms are one element in a vast, unconscious con¬spiracy to make everyone part of the social machine. Then we lose whatever little private spirit we’ve kept.
Madonna: On the flip side, couldn’t you say: If it makes everybody stop and question who they’re sleeping with, then isn’t that a good thing, too? . . . Maybe it’s a way of getting people to think how much they care about this person they’re sleeping with? You know what I mean?
Oh, he does, he does. Flatter her sense of self-importance as he may, Mailer cannot shake her free of the cant of liberal sexology.
Mailer: Well, you’re a revolutionary. What will this revolution be in the name of?
Madonna: In the name of human beings relating to other human beings. And treating each other with compassion.
The Time of Our Time rests its case for Mailer’s importance on Mailer’s views. This seems the wrong square on which to place the chips. Those views made few converts in their time, and they de¬serve none now. As motives for fiction, they have not proved endur- ingly stimulating. Mailer’s novels seem today to enact a panic about masculinity that has a very midcentury flavor to it. The sort of gen¬der roles central to Mailer’s imagination have disappeared from the repertoire of contemporary identity. His importance lies in another corner of the board altogether.
One of the most interesting literary developments in the last forty years has been the challenge to the way we think about nonfic¬tion. The notion of the realist novel as an impersonal mirror of real¬ity (to the extent that anyone ever seriously entertained it) was exploded by the modernists, who placed artifice clearly in the fore¬ground of their work. A novel by Joyce or Woolf or Nabokov is, above all else, written. Transparency is not the claim. But imperson¬ality and transparency remain, to a great extent, the claims of con¬temporary journalism. Anyone who has had the smallest thing to do with journalists knows that newspaper pieces are not called stories for too little (to borrow a Mailerism). But to make a point of this is to invite a defensive reaction. We cannot seem to acknowledge that writing, of whatever kind, is a technology like any other, a human in¬vention for human uses. We cling to the belief that there must be one kind of writing that is a clear window on “the facts.”
Great cultural anxiety is therefore always triggered when “real” material is treated in a style that does not seem conventionally ap¬propriate to nonfiction. This is the flip side of the anxiety triggered when works of fiction like American Psycho represent, without ex¬plicitly condemning, antisocial behavior. In both cases, the fear is that people are unable to separate the textual from the real—the fear, basically, that people do not know how to read. But the activity of reading a book is not the cognitive equivalent of being hit over the head with a brick. It is, like the activity of writing a book, a process of selection, a continual assertion and withdrawal of assent to the representations being made by the language. In the end, what mat¬ters isn’t the literal accuracy of every word; there is no such thing as literalness where words are concerned. What matters is whether the writer has, in the reader’s judgment, got it right. There are many ways to get there.
Since 1960, American literary culture has become fascinated by these issues. The names usually mentioned in connection with the mainstream interest in them are Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote, who are credited with inventing the New Journalism, which was de¬fined by Wolfe as journalism that uses the techniques of fiction, and the nonfiction novel, which was the term Capote cleverly chose to categorize In Cold Blood (1965). Wolfe and Capote certainly popu¬larized the idea that expectations about fiction and nonfiction could be challenged in entertaining ways. But they did not, except for the purposes of self-presentation, have much that was interesting to say about what they were doing, and their work, from a literary point of view, is of relatively minor interest.