Book Review: Of A Fire On The Moon

Of A Fire On The Moon, by Norman Mailer

This book was given to me by a coworker who remarked that Mailer’s body of work is highly uneven in quality and that this book is considered to be among his better ones. This book itself contains plenty of evidence of the unevenness in Mailer’s writings, showing a certain amount of self-absorbed navel gazing [1] but also some excellent writing. The book begins slowly enough, with Mailer writing about legal trouble as a result of stabbing his wife (!) and a failed political campaign for mayor of New York City, and about his complaints about the lack of warmth and human personality among the aerospace engineers and technocrats of NASA, and about his complaints over the lack of creature comforts in Houston as a result of moon fever. Fortunately, though, after about a hundred pages or so this whining gives way to about two-hundred and fifty solid pages of discussion of the moon landing from the point of view of the astronauts, the machines and their engineers, and the mysterious moon itself. After this the book rapidly closes with more commentary on Norman Mailer, his drinking buddies, a political pornography mash-up that is juvenile and repugnant, and some closing thoughts on the dissolution of his marriage. If one trimmed off most of the material in the beginning and end, the book would be better, but one suspects it would no longer be a book by Norman Mailer.

If I may be permitted to say so, without being too hypocritical about it, Norman Mailer would have been a much better writer if he wrote less. One can understand the fact that some people have a compulsion to write a lot, but this is the sort of book that works best if you actually care about the life and psyche of Norman Mailer, about his hatred for Wasp culture (something, ironically enough, that he shares with the equally self-absorbed M. Scott Peck [1]). If one does not care about him as a person, and to be honest, with his obsession with comments about sex, drinking, left-wing politics, and bodily processes of elimination, and the occasional manly comments about sports, he is not a very sympathetic sort of person, one is limited to caring about him because of his insights. However, fortunately for the reader, Mailer actually happens to have some very sharp insights about the subterranean dread of the mind of the person of the 60’s, which in many ways holds up today. His commentary about the psychology of the machine and the way that it strips away privacy and dignity are spot on, even more so today [2] than they were when he wrote them. He was also prescient about the gloom of space, the way that those who are drawn to the sea are also drawn to the mystery and depths of outer space, at least I am personally drawn, perhaps disastrously so, to both.

In many ways this book is dated, filled with the perspective of someone who was deeply troubled but also capable of very shrewd insight into others. However, ultimately this book is a product of its time, and contains a great deal of worth because it was written at the time of the moon landings, from an eyewitness to the fretting and worrying on earth about the safety of far-flung astronauts, about the risks and dangers those men faced and the fact that their surface-level restraint and blandness masked a deep inner reality of distress and suffering that took a toll on their marriages and even their health. In linking together the story of the moon landing with the wider politics and culture of the age, we are reminded of the dark moral cancer that was at the heart of the dawning of the age of Aquarius (which is the name of Mailer’s alter ego in this book), a cancer that could not be excised even by the noble effort it took to bring men to the moon. Even more to the point, the very banality of the discussions between the astronauts and mission control, and of the press releases of the reporters who were able to see the astronauts be recovered in the ocean, demonstrates that the moon landing took place, for the banality of technological advance, like the banality of the evil of Communism or Fascism is the surest evidence of their reality, for any second-rate screenwriter would have been able to clothe such horrors or such glories in much better language than the participants themselves did. By the very grubbiness of the language of the moon mission, by its impoverished language, and its tedious jargon, the mystery is explained as to why NASA failed to capture the wider imagination of the American public, for it lacked the skill in language to tell a compelling story to a public who was not attracted merely by numbers and technology alone. Mailer, who could have helped to provide that compelling story, was too busy talking about pornographic movies, the sex lives of overweight tourists in Florida, and his own abortive political career to fully give life to a dream of interstellar exploration and colonization. Such an opportunity to shape human history, however, is a rare one, and hard to fully take advantage of.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/book-review-in-search-of-stones/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/08/07/book-review-big-data-work/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/08/08/book-review-dataism/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: Of A Fire On The Moon

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy | Edge Induced Cohesion

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