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.”
One would be tempted to find a new name for this point of view—first person third, perhaps—and think of it as a technical innovation, but for two facts. Mailer winks at the first of these facts upon awakening in his hotel, the Hay-Adams, on the morning of the march, then never mentions it again. “One may wonder,” he writes, “if the Adams in the name of his hotel bore any relation to Henry.” Yes, one may, but nobody need wonder afterward where Mailer got the idea of writing about himself in the third person. By alluding to the author of The Education of Henry Adams, Mailer tips his hat, and his hand, to his fellow Harvard alumnus and consummate insider/outsider. The Education, published in 1918, may lack Mailer’s bravado and sheer joy in language, but it does use the same first-person-third technique to locate its author in an ambiguous social and historical position. (Adams’s book, by the way, also won a Pulitzer, presented posthumously in 1919.)
The other fact is that innovations, if they are indeed innovations, typically spawn techniques useful to succeeding practitioners of the form. But the technique of The Armies of the Night is so completely suffused with Mailer’s personality, his peculiar mix of ego and charm, of self-regard and self-deprecation, his intelligence and occasional clumsiness, that subsequent attempts by other writers to use the first person third have inevitably read as embarrassing, inadvertent homages.
Mailer recognized early on, before a lot of writers, that politics—most of contemporary public life, in fact—was turning into a kind of theater. Actions on the political stage had a symbolic weight that often outbalanced what might previously have been thought of as their practical consequences. This development was the wedge that eventually drove an unbridgeable divide between the Old Left, with its programmatic preoccupations and endless appetite for dogma, and the New Left, with its vivid sense of the theatrical. It was also the subtext of the 1967 march. The real dynamics of public life were shifting away from the old tabulations of political give-and-take. Instead, the cut of a candidate’s suit or the unfortunate presence of his five o’clock shadow would travel out over the television sets of the nation and affect people’s perceptions on a level that bypassed any substantial argument.