Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Harlot's Ghost by Norman Mailer

'One would with difficulty discover which is worse: a successful or a failed C.I.A. mission'.

But all the missions dealt with in this novel are stupendous failures and only Bobby Kennedy * and a couple of KGB higher-ups attract any sympathy.

The book is perhaps the Moby Dick of Mailer's generation in terms of structure and bedrock themes: the question of salvation, whether by faith, works or grace-although the latter is now more like sheer luck than the old notion of providence. The C.I.A. is like the whale, an anomaly of nature representing the abundance and freedom of the American scene, pursued by people cut off from their roots and afflicted by various obsessions which have their usual random, self-delusionary flavor.

Realism rules, probably at the expense of literary excellence though the fact that the whole novel is delivered in dialogue is no mean achievement. Some chapters, like 33 in the final part, reflect truly superior craftsmanship and artistry. It is an honest book for, about and by Americans. The author's neutrality is exceedingly mature.

" Whom? Whom does all this benefit?" ( Vladimir Lenin) are the final words.

*Bobby quotes Aeschylus, from Agamemnon: "He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God"

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