Poetic space program accounts showcase artistic journalism’s value.Once I met a woman who blurted after I’d given a reading, “Writers . . . They’re known to be egotistical.” She peered into my face. I was speechless. She’s a professor of literature! Plenty of untutored laymen share her impression.
I say this while immersed in Of a Fire on the Moon, the account of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969 by a man who fueled that stereotype, legendary egotist Norman Mailer. Reading it because of another book I’m reviewing, I find Mailer’s stance may imply at first blush I’m smarter and feel more, which gives me the right to be this self-referential. But I can’t help but think as well of the burden of such a claim. To be smarter and more empathetic. You can see, too, that he isn’t just winging it—his language and insights reveal he’s deeply immersed. His idiosyncratic impressions of the astronauts are interesting and, let it be said, funny.
Here’s a snippet of his portrayal of Neil Armstrong at a pre-launch press conference in Houston:
When Armstrong paused and looked for the next phrase he sometimes made a sound like the open crackling of static on a pilot’s voiceband with the control tower. One did not have the impression that the static came from him so much as that he had listened to so much static in his life, suffered so much of it, that his flesh, his cells, like it or not, were impregnated with the very cracklings of static.
And I can’t resist quoting from Mailer’s impressions of Buzz Aldrin (who in 2002 at age 72 went viral on YouTube for punching out a moon-landing denier). Here Aldrin painfully tries to address journalists’ appalling prying about his feelings:
In other research for my upcoming review, I perused Oriana Fallaci’s account of the mid-1960s space program in her critically acclaimed but now hard-to-find book, If the Sun Dies. Published in 1967, three years ahead of Mailer’s, Fallaci’s reflects greater access. In what seemed a less intense period, she hung out with and interviewed, astronauts. They clearly liked her. And she scored a sit-down in Alabama with rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who was the Nazis’ before he was ours. This for me was the high point of If the Sun Dies—Fallaci had been a young resistance fighter in Italy in WWII, and loathed von Braun; she intercut their interview with her memories of occupying German soldiers. Her later work obscures this one’s brilliance. Fallacii (1929–2006) was a brave, blazing talent.
He spoke glumly, probably thinking at this moment neither of his family nor himself—rather whether his ability to anticipate and interpret had been correctly employed in the cathexis-loaded dynamic shift vector area of changed field domestic situations (which translates as: attractive wife and kids playing second fiddle to boss astronaut number two sometimes blow group stack). Aldrin was a man of such powerful potentialities and iron disciplines that the dull weight of appropriately massed jargon was no mean gift to him. He obviously liked it to work. It kept explosives in their package. When his laboriously acquired speech failed to mop up the discharge of a question, he got as glum as a fastidious housewife who cannot keep the shine on her floor.
Mailer had to content himself with attending a press conference with von Braun and later his speech at a Titusville, Florida, country club. Mailer cast lots of shade von Braun’s way, per the wizard’s massive Teutonic chin, small voice, and past affiliation. But Mailer’s animus really stems from his romantic sensibility threatened by and hostile toward technology and technicians. Rocketry: merely emblematic. Technology is why you won’t read Of a Fire on the Moon and why you should. Through the moon mission, Mailer attempts a national portrait.
As a college student, I lost myself in his account of participating in the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night, which won a Pulitzer. “Creative nonfiction” didn’t yet exist, and New Journalism was a rumor, but it showed me how a writer could use the self to transcend the self. It showed me personal writing’s power and importance in helping readers understand phenomena by filtering them through an individual’s sensibility. I was amazed again in 1980 by Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, about Gary Gilmore’s life, crimes, and execution. Using Lawrence Schiller’s exhaustive research and interviews, Mailer spun stringently impersonal prose for this “novel,” for which he won his second Pulitzer. If Mailer’s fiction seemed lesser than his contemporaries’ to me, his reality-based narratives were something else. As Charles McGrath wrote in his obituary for the New York Times:
Along the way, he transformed American journalism by introducing to nonfiction writing some of the techniques of the novelist and by placing at the center of his reporting a brilliant, flawed and larger-than-life character who was none other than Norman Mailer himself.
Mailer’s writing in 1970’s Of a Fire on the Moon makes me think it held lessons for Tom Wolfe, who came along with The Right Stuff almost a decade later, in 1979. Maybe it’s just Mailer’s freely used exclamation points. But unlike Wolfe, who wrote his entertaining account in a distanced third person, Mailer, writing of himself in third person, at least doesn’t make everyone bray like jackasses. Wolfe beat the hell out of becoming privy to test pilot’s secret macho code, whereas Mailer—give the devil his due—angled for gravity. He had briefly studied aeronautical engineering when at Harvard, a piquant fact given his avowed anxiety about all that spaceflight represents.
Mailer’s writing ability is so fearsome, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s, that you stop questioning the accuracy of his perceptions—what would that mean? subjectivity’s the point— and instead marvel at their nature and quantity. As when he observes Armstrong give a successful TV interview and muses on “that intolerable mixture of bland agreeability and dissolved salt which characterized all performers who appeared in public each day for years and prospered.”
Then again, ponder for yourself dissolved salt. Mailer fields startling metaphors. Through it all, our perceptive stand-in strains to master a quintessentially human striving and to convey it. I had written off Mailer because of his behavior, but my project that sent me to his work again showed me how impressive he could be as a writer. Trying in Of a Fire on the Moon to grasp and pull together everything makes his work feel exciting and risky. Traveling the “unmapped continent of America’s undetermined heart,” he conjures America’s intractable demons and its impossible ideals.
[In 2014, on the eve of the 45th anniversary of the moon expedition, Geoff Dyer wrote about Mailer’s book in the Guardian as an exemplar of New Journalism.]
[Below: Apollo 11 atop the humongous Saturn V rocket.]