"Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state." With this artful sentence, Normal Mailer begins his Book of the Dead.Our most conspicuous literary energy has generated its weirdest text, a book that defies usual aesthetic standards, even as it is beyond any conventional idea of good and evil. Like James Merrill, with whom he has in common absolutely nothing else, Mailer finds one of his occult points of origin in the visionary Yeats, but unlike Merrill, Mailer truly shares Yeats's obsession with the world of the dead. Merrill's spirits, in The Changing Light at Sandover, are representations of our lives, here and now. But Mailer has gone back to the ancient evenings of the Egyptians in order to find the religious meaning of death, sex, and reincarnation, using an outrageous literalism, not metaphor. What the subscribers to the Literary Guild will find in it is more than enough bumbuggery and humbuggery to give them their money's worth.
But there is also spiritual power in Mailer's fantasy (it is not the historical novel that it masks itself as being) and there is a relevance to current reality in America that actually surpasses that of Mailer's largest previous achievement, The Executioner's Song. More than before, Mailer's fantasies, now brutal and unpleasant, catch the precise accents of psychic realities within and between us. Ancient Evenings rivals Gravity's Rainbow as an exercise in what has to be called a monumental sado-anarchism, and one aspect of Mailer's phantasmagoria may be its need to challenge____________________