UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

From fiction to fact : the literary development of Norman Mailer Campbell, Lawrence Sherwood


The thesis concerns the development of Norman Mailer's work, focusing particularly upon the nature and significance of his change in form, from novel to compilation to journalism, from fiction to fact. The argument is that the movement from one form or category to another represents an attempt to solve problems inherent in the previous form. The problem that initiates and underlies his entire evolution might be stated crudely as that of reconciling "reality" and "meaning" in a single work, though these terms should be understood as abstractions whose actual definition varies with different works. This desired reconciliation, it is argued, is not attained in the novels. Mailer goes through three general phases, however, in attempting to bring it about: his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, is limited by its naturalist format to a depersonalized, omniscient depiction of a seamless reality, alien to human value or meaning; his second phase, represented by The Deer Park, tries to correct this limitation by introducing a peripheral narrator, with the result, however, that meaning (or the potential for meaning) and reality appear as balanced but separate and mutually irrelevent terms; and his third phase represented by An American Dream, virtually abandons the real world altogether, devolving into a private realm of meaning centred about a hero-narrator. Mailer's fiction is seemingly caught in a bind where meaning and reality appear as opposing terms, so that the pursuit of one requires the relinquishment of the other. With Advertisements for Myself, however, published prior to An American Dream, his development branches in a direction that allows escape from this trap. This is the first of the "compilations", unique and self-contained forms consisting of a double level: a collection of earlier writings and a unifying, interlaced commentary. While relieving Mailer from the imaginative burdens of fiction, they provide a display for a scattered variety of alternate forms and styles, including the later journalism. More importantly, they present the construction and elaboration of a Mailer persona, the embodiment of a kind of Mailer-myth, and a potential hero who provides a basis for an eventual synthesis of reality and meaning. But the compilation itself is a transitional form, becoming obsolete as the persona becomes stabilized and the gap between its two levels vanishes. After this gestation period, Mailer achieves his greatest success to date with The Armies of the Night. Here, meaning derives explicitly from the "Mailer" character constructed in the compilations, rather than implicitly from a fictional narrative; and reality is secured simply through the reporting rather than through a mimetic realism. Mailer's fundamental problem of fusing reality and meaning is solved in this work (and to a lesser extent in his subsequent journalism) by means of a symbiosis of history and persona. The later journalism, however, exhibits a growing rigidity, as the Mailer persona becomes stereotyped and increasingly divorced from his subject, meaning divorced from reality.

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