A Review of Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night”
In Literature on 04/16/2013 at 14:38
“The Armies of the Night” is a novel that challenged the conventional idea of what a novel could be. The book’s subtitle “History as a Novel, the Novel as History” might have seemed like the hype of the publisher, a throw- away line meant to fill space on the front cover of the paperback. And yet, to write a highly stylized version of historical fact is exactly what Mailer set out to, blending “a truly unique sense of perception” with “a traditional journalistic endeavor.”
In October 1967 masses of engaged citizenry marched on the Pentagon, risking “being beaten, arrested, buried in a stampede”, in protest against the war in South East Asia. Mailer, a vocal critic of the war, walked in the vanguard of the movement and war arrested and detained. With this simple scenario as its basis, Mailer crafts a unique style of fiction in “Armies of the Night.” It is this fiction that he described in the book’s chiasmic subtitle “History As A Novel, The Novel as History”. So in the sense of deliberately effecting an alchemical transformation out real events into aesthetically moving work, the novel has something in common with “In Cold Blood” published the year before. And yet the two books could not be more different.
Throughout “In Cold Blood” Capote’s own involvement with the characters of the book, which was considerable, remained invisible to the narrative. In “The Armies of the Night” Mailer places a character named “Mailer” at the center of the action, writing about this fictitious self in the third person. Casting the narrative in this way adds an inescapably comic tone to the book. It isn’t clear if it was Mailer’s intention to write a book that would turn out to be so funny. Looking at yourself in the third person, with any degree of honesty, is liable to produce a good deal that is humorous.
The novel begins with Mailer attending a gathering on the evening before the march. The gathering is held in an old hotel, attended by groups that have now became legendary: SDI, SNIC, and other not so famous member of the Rainbow Coalition. Every so often a name will come up, in among others that have been forgotten, which still resonates today.
The first section of the book deals with the march on the Pentagon itself. There is a great deal of lead up to it. Even though this part of the book is one in which there is very little action, Mailer’s narrative voice keeps the interest high. He himself is very high on whiskey drunk from an old mug. Mailer stays drunk and reflects on his drinking for the first hundred pages of the book. He goes so far as to urinate on the floor of the washrooms of the theater where gathering before the march is being held. If that was not enough, he boasts about what he has done in order to make some point or other about the way that the protestors are provoking middle class platitudes.
“Armies of the Night” succeeds as a survey of the American left at the end of the 1960′s. In the second section of the book, Mailer goes into the exact political meaning of the entire episode. He takes painstaking care to explain how difficult it was to build the coalition and steering committee for the protest. An incredibly delicate political balance had to be struck between the more liberal faction of the protest, who were responsible for bringing out large numbers of people to swell the ranks of the protest, and the radicals, who were responsible for spearheading the movement itself. Mailer also includes an interesting Nietzschean interpretation of what he saw as the reason why so many middleclass students motivation for being involved in the protest. Mailer reflects in the voice of the average (male) protestor, “I will steal your elan, and your brawn, and the very animal of your charm because I am morally right and you are wrong and the balance of existence of such that the meat of your life is now attached to my spirit, I am stealing your balls.” It takes a very singular mind to have thought of anything like this.
Mailer’s interpretation of why the middle class student protestors are involved in the march on the pentagon probably reveals more about his own personal involvement. From the beginning Mailer was interested in struggle, the type of macho struggle of a man against his own or external nature. There is a lot of Hemingway in Mailer, whose first novel “The Naked and the Dead” couldn’t have had a more tough-guy moniker. Tough guys like Mailer and Hemingway, as Orwell noted of Jack London, their spiritual grandfather, are psychologically more in tune with fascism than socialism. Nevertheless, their moral equivalent of war ends up being in the name of the common man, of the abused and the oppressed and in the name of the promise of a better future, rather than in the name of nationhood, blood and soil. Mailer was getting himself arrested and detained as a kind of self-overcoming. He wanted to prove he had elan, vitality to himself. “The Armies of the Night” is a document of this struggle with himself.