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An Enigmatic Development David Anshen The Castle in the Forest Norman Mailer Random House http://www.randomhouse.com 496 pages; cloth, $27.95; paper, $16.95 When I heard that a new Norman Mailer novel was on the way, I was thrilled. A good read seemed assured, and I hoped that Mailer would finally write the brilliant novel that would settle, once and for all, his place in literary history. Despite major accomplishments such as The Executioner's Song (1979), Why are We in Vietnam? (1967), and An American Dream (1965), among others, there has never been the truly great novel anticipated by many critics and promised by Mailer since the early days of his writing career. Instead, Mailer's literary output has included profound and perceptive essays, uneven novels sprinkled with brilliance, journalistic writings of various kinds, and some highly entertaining biographies. Indeed, Mailer has done just about all types of writing, usually very well, affording the reader great pleasure. But Mailer's favorite type of writing, the novel, remains elusive in his body of work, and none of his novels since The Naked and the Dead (1948) have succeeded on the level fhat Mailer openly craves. He has been quite frank throughout the years about his sense of frustration thatnone ofhis novels have been unqualified masterpieces . This is not a case, however, ofselfish desire for self-aggrandizement. It is to Mailer's credit that his sense of dissatisfaction is linked to the high value he places on the importance of novel writing. Who else believes in the potential political and aesthetic power ofnovels enough to brag publicly that his novels will create a "revolution in the consciousness of our time" or be revealed as a failure? Also to Mailer's credit, he has always been open to the possibility that another writer would serve up such a novel. The central issue is Mailer's faith, virtually unique in contemporary society, that novels can be this important. We all are supposed to acceptmat writing is insignificant; nobody reads anymore, and in our TV/Internet culture, the masses have been successfully dumbed-down. Mailer has been the most outspoken and even outrageous opponent of such complacency. Therefore, it is with a sense ofreal disappointment and more than a bit of surprise mat I conclude that his new novel, The Castle in the Forest, is almost completely a failure. The novel has a provocative premise. It offers a devil's eye view—the narrator is a minor demon—of Adolf Hitler's formative years and environment. The writer who has shown such insight into historical figures such as John F. Kennedy, Gary Gilmore, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, and Lee Harvey Oswald, decides to take on the worst historical monster of all time: Adolf Hitler. Mailer dares to imaginatively reconstruct Hitler's background and family life in order to explainhis personality. This canonly be applauded, in my view, despite the frequent objection that figures such as Hitler should not be understood, because, we are told, to understand their evil is to minimize it. A related objection derives from the claim that art should avoid depicting horrors beyondrepresentation, as exemplified by Theodor W Adorno's well-known statement that art after Auschwitz is obscene. Despite these objections, we are left with the nagging fear that more must be done to understand fascism or its horrors may return. Perhaps never before in American history has there been such a sense that imperial adventures combined with uncertain economics and increasing erosion ofcivil liberties are leading to greaterpolitical authoritarianism. The final results of these unpleasant political developments in American society and culture remain unclear, but they further the impetus for careful consideration of recent political tragedies. We still need more information about Hitler, his personality, and the social fabric which allowed his rise to power, if we are going to truly bury fascism. Mailer seems as likely as any creative writer to further our grasp on Hitler through a persuasive imaginative reconstruction. The Castle in the Forest is almost completely afailure. The novel is definitely not without merit. It would be inconceivable that Mailer could write more than 400 pages on anything without their being some...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2153-4578
Print ISSN
0149-9408
Pages
p. 18
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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