On an October evening in Massachusetts, Norman Mailer sat down at his typewriter and, with a few short paragraphs, defined an entire school of criticism that would remain dominant for half a century.
I awaken on my sofa. All of the windows in the house are open, and I forget if they have screens. I sense that someone has entered during my nap, that I hear a noise coming from the hall. It was not dark when I dozed off, but it is dark now. I stand up and stretch, my fear beginning to well.
The evidence of Mailer’s gift, of course, was that he himself never returned to the style that would make him famous. A few short paragraphs, a pagelong manifesto written hastily in the scope of an evening at the age of 26, then he would spend the rest of his career moving in and out of other styles. But in a single piece of criticism, Mailer had written paragraphs so electric, sentences so crystalline and bold, that he would never be matched, or even approached, by any of the ten thousand imitators that were to come.
I walk down the hall. All of the lights are on but there are shadows, in which something could easily lurk. I am starting to panic. In the kitchen, there are three windows, all open wide to the night sky. Not even pausing to see if they have screens, or if the screens are intact, I pull each of them shut. I dart through the house, closing every window. But with every one I close, I only seem to grow more afraid.
The most fitting aspect of all, perhaps, was Mailer’s chosen appellation for that dazzling voice, the one he spoke in for a single page and then never again. He wryly called it “The New Escapism.” And truly, he could not fully realize how well it applied. For what is striking, reading those five hundred words again, fifty years after they were written, is the feeling that one is having one’s very own thoughts gathered up by a burglar and ferreted away. That one is running about, frantically closing windows, but that Mailer has taken one’s every original thought, and condensed it into a single word or phrase. This brings along with it a certain fear; the fear that if one does not stop Mailer before the sixth paragraph, he will have made all further thought irrelevent; the very reason for mankind’s continued production will have vanished. Perhaps we should be greatly relieved, then, that he restrained himself from ever speaking again in this singular voice.
I notice a flash in the corner of the study; something bolts for the window. It is the last one open, and I am at it within seconds. I slam it down hard, but it is too late. Down the path I see a shimmer, and I can just make out the faint outline of Norman Mailer, bounding away and grinning.