The Gospel According to the Son
by Norman Mailer
Random House, 242 pages, $22
It’s just too easy to start with a gibe at The Gospel According to the Son, Norman Mailer’s new attempt to retell the life of Jesus as a novel narrated by its hero, the Son of God Himself. There is a nearly irresistible temptation to begin a review with something like, “There was a time when Mailer was famous for thinking he’d make a better President than Kennedy, but things have reached the point where he now seems to think he’d make a better Christ than Jesus.” And across the landscape of America’s journals and newspapers, hardly a reviewer—with the notable exception of Frank Kermode in the May 15, 1997 New York Review of Books—managed to resist the temptation.
The most sustained attack on the book may have been the six-page essay by James Wood that the New Republic ran as its May 12, 1997 cover story with a stained-glass caricature of Mailer and the headline, “He Is Finished.” “It would have been perfectly proper,” Wood begins by insisting, “if Mailer had knocked Jesus off his throne, as a serious writer should try to do. But . . . Mailer has attempted a ‘gospel,’ full of holy wind. His Jesus is not a human being; he exists only in the frail rigging of Mailer’s insistence that he is alive.” And he concludes, “Each new book by [Mailer] is worse than the last: he has become a bibliographer’s definition of nostalgia. He remembers that one must be daring as an artist, but he has forgotten to what end.”
The wittiest assault on the book was undoubtedly the review by Father Paul Mankowski—a Jesuit teaching Semitic Languages in Rome and a contributor to these pages—who wrote in the May 26, 1997 Weekly Standard, “Mailer obviously wants to shock us. . . . Yet he is so far behind the heterodoxy curve as to be unaware that his shattering innovations are little more that the platitudes of New Age suburbia, and have long been superseded by those ‘weekend spirituality workshops’ in which feminist nuns and retired orthodontists are taught how to deconstruct the New Testament and make pumpkin bread.” Fr. Mankowski’s review is a parade of hilarious zingers: “Mailer’s Jesus (Yeshua to his pals) turns out to be a Jewish seminary student who has converted to Methodism but isn’t sure why”; “He generally speaks in the kind of eco-aphorism that Hollywood screenwriters put in the mouths of Comanche elders when they want them to sound like sages”; “Mailer’s Yeshua turns out to be a Messiah Lite.”
The fact remains, however, that though the pugnacious Mailer has undoubtedly led with his chin, mocking the man is taking the easy way out. His mistake was not the one he has been accused of making: a manifestly unsuccessful attempt to humanize Christ, an absurdly anachronistic foray into the search for the historical Jesus. His mistake was rather in supposing that America’s literary community still took him seriously enough to look for some significant intent in his writing. What Mailer explores in The Gospel According to the Son—in a hopelessly flawed but I think nonetheless interesting way—is the possibility of two natures, God and man, abiding at once as the same being. His attempt is not blasphemous (indeed, Mailer doesn’t know enough theology to be either pious or impious). But he does know about being famous, the young phenomenon whose The Naked and the Dead brought him enormous recognition in 1948 at age twenty-five. And though, as he himself remarked to one interviewer, “celebrity is a long, long, long, long way from the celestial,” he has at least the sense to see what few celebrities manage to see: that the celebrated public persona is neither entirely identical nor entirely other to that private self who stares back in the morning mirror.
More than anything else in The Gospel According to the Son, Mailer’s semi-King Jamesian prose ought to have warned reviewers that the author is not attempting to write the sort of revisionist, anti-Christian account of the gospel given in Ernest Renan’s Life of Christ (1862), with its humanist account of Jesus as an innocent young moral teacher declared divine by his ignorant or cynical followers, or in D. H. Lawrence’s strange fantasy, The Man Who Died (1929), with its pseudo-Nietzschean account of Jesus as a man who realizes on the Cross that his denial of sexuality has been a denial of life.
Mailer’s touch with what he imagines to be biblical prose is far from perfect. Too often it reads like a translation committee draft from midway through the process that turned the Authorized version into the Revised Standard, and he makes some classically undergraduate kinds of errors with the language, rendering, for instance, the Gadarene swine as “the swine of Gadarene”—which is, as Fr. Mankowski observes, like saying the “physics of Newtonian.” The Mailer who can write a sentence like “his eyes were blue like the faded blue of the sky when the sky is white” is about as far as is humanly possible from the Mailer whose political reporting in the early 1960s remains irresistible long after its subjects have faded—and reestablished his literary reputation that had begun to fade with the critical and popular questioning of the novels that followed The Naked and the Dead. “One felt,” he claimed of Gov. Bill Scranton in his failed attempt to stop Goldwater in 1964, “he had been spoiled when he was young by lack of testing. It was not that he lacked bravery, it was that he had lacked all opportunity to be brave for much too long, and now he was not so much engaged in a serious political struggle as in a puberty rite.” Of Lyndon Johnson at the Democratic Convention in 1960, he wrote that the man “had compromised too many contradictions and now the contradictions were in his face: when he smiled, the corners of his mouth squeezed gloom; when he was pious, his eyes twinkled irony; when he spoke in a righteous tone, he looked corrupt; when he jested, the ham in his jowls looked to quiver.”
But the fact that Mailer would even try now to use a prose style so alien to his own famous mixture of fancy-footed pugnaciousness and bone-crunching metaphor suggests that he aims neither to titillate the infidels nor undo the faithful. He’s attempting, with about as much success as anyone can expect from the unlikely form of a novel narrated in the first-person by Jesus Christ, to find a possible character for the man who is simultaneously the Son of God.
For anyone still willing to allow Mailer literary significance, The Gospel According to the Son offers some interesting commentary on the techniques of first-person narration. The fact that a novel’s narrator must speak as a god from outside the story has always vexed novelists, particularly when the narrator is also a human character in the story. The Bildungsroman—the novel of youthful error and growth—has traditionally offered some answer, the distance between the child and the adult he becomes explaining the chasm between character and narrator. But the ideal first-person narrator always speaks in some sense from beyond the grave of his own character, and Mailer’s resurrected Jesus—relating “The Events Leading Up to My Execution”—may be the purest possible literary solution. Certainly it allows Mailer to leave the man Jesus as the divine Christ, something every other modern artist attempting the Gospels (from Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ to Pasolini in the 1964 film The Gospel According to St. Matthew) has had difficulty doing. Even more, however, it allows Mailer to use, against itself, the difficulty of telling the gospel story as a novel. The identity and difference of character and narrator becomes a figure and a constant reminder of the mystery of the dual nature of the Savior.
The strength and the weakness of a novel, relative to the compression of any story in the Bible, is its necessity to develop particular characters. The stark account of an event in the Gospels always begins with the claim of truth: this is the way things did happen, regardless of why or what people thought. In these events, the artist’s imagination, like the sermonist’s, can seek motives and personalities. They remain hypotheses, however, judged purely by their literary and psychological persuasiveness. And Mailer’s Jesus is never persuasive as either a human or divine character, weak and strong in a mix that seems more a muddle than a mystery. The author’s use of biblical prose is good enough that Jesus’ personality retains its biblical compression. Unfortunately, that also means that Jesus never gets the expanded personality the form of the novel demands. So too, Mailer’s Mary grates in a way difficult to accept. But Lazarus, befuddled and stinking of the grave, and Judas, cynical and revolutionary, seem entirely convincing, while his Joseph is at least possible.
Make no mistake, Norman Mailer’s latest is neither a great retelling of the gospel nor Mailer anywhere near the peaks that he reached with his political writing that culminated in the compulsively readable account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night, or even Executioner’s Song, his story of the ending of the Supreme Court’s ban on the death penalty with the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore. But The Gospel According to the Son is not an uninteresting book either, and deserves at least a little better than it has thus far managed to receive.
Joseph Bottum is Associate Editor of First Things