Novelist/social commentator Norman Mailer passed away this week. When an older friend of mine informed me of this Monday night, my initial reaction was, “Yeah, so what?” I have never read anything he wrote, and I didn’t have the impression that he was all that relevant anymore — if he ever was (can any modern novelist have much social impact anymore, like Upton Sinclair did with The Jungle, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for slavery?)
But I saw some clips of Norman on the Charlie Rose show the next night (the best interview show ever, hands-down), and I changed my mind about him. Suddenly I did care. In the interviews– pulled from about twenty years worth of conversations with Charlie– Mailer was an intensely intellectual guy, but still in touch with some sort of “common sense” way of talking.
For example, in defending his “autobiography” of Jesus, The Gospel According to the Son, he implied it was something he took on as a challenge: could he (a Jew, I believe) harmonize the Jesus of the four gospels and portray Jesus the man’s real life and attitudes in a way that modern people would want to think about in a new way. He intentionally wrote it in a non-novelistic style, simplifying his language to remove most of the verbal “fireworks” that people had come to expect from Mailer. The critics and the religious establishment didn’t get it, or didn’t care, and apparently the book flopped. But you can’t fault a guy for trying to update one of the central figures of human history. If nothing else, it showed Mailer had some serious balls. He even pointed out a great truth about Jesus that most serious theologians miss: Jesus talked more about the evil of money than just about any other subject.
One other thing Mailer mentioned in passing came back to me today as I read an article in geez magazine called “Children Without Childhood” by Jesse Nathan. Mailer was discussing advertising and marketing in the modern era, how commercials never sell the product anymore, but instead sell an idea or a lifestyle. (Not a new notion, but an accurate appraisal.) Then in the magazine, I read the following:
“… advertisers have successfully orchestrated a shift in power. Where once they aligned themselves with parents in order to sell products to the children, marketers now explicitly target childrten — turning parents into what one executive calls “unmanned tollbooths” — hoping th kids will nag their parents into purchasing various kinds of junkfood, brand-name clothing and electronic gizmos. Worst of all, the strategy works…”
By including junkfood in the list, it made me think of the third grade girl I saw yesterday who was parading around the room at school, so proud of her new pencil eraser. While other kids had gotten rubber $50 bills or rubber crayons for their eraser/prize, this girl had one with “Chito” on it: the tiger with sunglasses on that Frito Lay uses to market their Cheetos snacks to preteens and teens. It pissed me off for a minute or so, that multinational corporations with no intent but profit can so easily get their stuff into our schools while we’re not paying attention.
So that’s what Norman Mailer, Jesus, Chito, and a third grade Latina in Chicago have in common. Rest in peace, Mr. Mailer. We’ll miss your insight.