Mailer’s most significant discovery in Armies was the technique of writing about himself in the third person, as if he were a character in a novel. “Norman Mailer,” the character, is treated as a mock-heroic protagonist making his way through a complex network of competing interests and sensibilities during that weekend in Washington. Because we get a vivid sense of him early on, we gladly accept the topspin he puts on his perceptions as he serves them up.
He earns a powerful narrative leverage, starting with the very first sentence. “From the outset,” he writes, “let us bring you news of your protagonist.” This lone sentence is followed by an extended excerpt from Time’s snarky report on Mailer’s pre-protest monologue at the Ambassador Theater.
It is a shrewd and effective opening gambit. There is a clearly stated “us” and “you,” so an immediate dramatic relation is set up between the narrative voice and the reader. The voice is bringing us “news”—we love news!—and it is about “your” protagonist, drawing us into a subliminal complicity. Within a page we learn that the “us” who is bringing the news is, in fact, our protagonist himself, a man of many parts, apparently, perhaps containing Whitmanesque multitudes.
The Time excerpt is studded with value judgments masquerading as straight reporting: the upcoming march is referred to as “Saturday’s capers,” and Dwight Macdonald, who shared the stage with Mailer, is “the bearded literary critic.” When the excerpt is done, Mailer quits this curtain-raiser with a single sentence, “Now we may leave Time in order to find out what happened.” We are hooked. And we have been introduced to the book’s underlying principle: the notion that a reporter who is willing to characterize events without first characterizing himself or herself is inherently suspect. One can’t approach the truth without first turning an eye on one’s own subjectivity.
The second chapter, the book’s official beginning, puts this principle into practice immediately. “On a day somewhat early in September,” the narrative begins, “the year of the first March on the Pentagon, 1967, the phone rang one morning and Norman Mailer, operating on his own principle of war games and random play, picked it up. This was not characteristic of Mailer. Like most people whose nerves are sufficiently sensitive to keep them well-covered with flesh, he detested the telephone. Taken in excess, it drove some psychic equivalent of static into the privacies of the brain.”
Since we know that we are hearing this from Mailer himself, we are, again, complicit in the narrative; a game is in progress, and we are being shown the rules. We are going to get our events via a mind that is nothing if not subjective, and yet paradoxically objective about its own subjectivity. We will get descriptions of action (he picks up the ringing phone), background context for the action (it was not characteristic), observations delivered from an unexpected angle with a Mark-of-Zorro flourish (the oversensitive nerves with their sheathing of flesh), and an insistence on sharp detail in metaphor (the static being driven into “the privacies of the brain”). The author will juggle these ingredients in quick succession, always with huge linguistic gusto.
Mailer’s prose obsessively amends its own perceptions, makes parenthetical observations, qualifies, anticipates, demurs, constantly tries to stand outside itself. He was, in fact, a species of performance artist, discovering metaphors en route and mingling them with dazzling audacity. Here he is, riffing on his discomfort at a party thrown by some liberal backers of the march: “The architecture of his personality bore resemblance to some provincial cathedral which warring orders of the church might have designed separately over several centuries . . . . Boldness, attacks of shyness, rude assertion, and circumlocutions tortured as arthritic fingers working at lace, all took their turn with him, and these shuttlings of mood became most pronounced in their resemblance to the banging and shunting of freight cars when he was with liberal academics.” If your sensibilities are ruffled by a mixed metaphor, comic grandiosity, or long sentences, steer clear of Mailer.
Through it all, Mailer is crucially aware not just of his own motivations, but of how they might play to the public. “Mailer,” he writes, “had the most developed sense of image; if not, he would have been a figure of deficiency, for people had been regarding him by his public image since he was twenty-five years old. He had, in fact, learned to live in the sarcophagus of his image—at night, in his sleep, he might dart out, and paint improvements on the sarcophagus. During the day, while he was helpless, newspapermen and other assorted bravos of the media and literary world would carve ugly pictures on the living tomb of his legend.”