Scott McLemee
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Newsday, 4 November 2007

ON GOD: An Uncommon Conversation, by Norman Mailer with Michael Lennon. Random House, 215 pp.


While On God is not among Norman Mailer's best books, it exhibits a degree of coherence and control not found in The Castle in the Forest, his last raid upon the ineffable.

In Castle, a novel about Hitler's childhood, the narrator revealed himself to be an infernal bureaucrat working in Satan's intelligence agency; he had been assigned to oversee the Fuhrer's development as an instrument in the war against God. Every few chapters, the narrator would pause to deliver several pages of cosmic speculation - sounding for all the world like a college sophomore who had discovered existentialism and the bong during the same week.

Those passages jutted out from the narrative at odd angles. The resort to diabalos ex machina felt like the author losing command of his material. Nor did the devilish bits have the saving grace of irony. Despite some occasional and rather forced touches of humor, there was a terrible solemnity to all the pondering. The effect was a blend of the metaphysical and the ridiculous that did not appear to be deliberate.

On God is, in effect, The Castle in the Forest minus the fictional architecture. It consists of a set of transcripts of recent discussions between the novelist and Michael Lennon, his authorized biographer, who presses Mailer to develop his notions into a rather more systematic structure than he has tried to do before.

Mailer's ventures into theology began with some of the essays in Advertisements for Myself (1959) - though most readers tended to regard them as thought-experiments or elaborate metaphors, at least at first. References to human existence as a battlefield in the grand struggle between God and the Devil seemed like just the sort of imagery that would occur to a novelist who started out writing about World War II.

So it began, perhaps. But this embattled vision has grown into Mailer's way of thinking about everything else that happened in the 20th century - and where all of it leaves each individual, now.

"How can we not face up to the fact that if God is All-Powerful, He cannot be All-Good?" says Mailer. "Or She cannot be All-Good. If God is All-Good, then God is not All-Powerful." The universe was created by God as a kind of artwork in progress, and we humans have our part to play in its revision and perfection.

Meanwhile, the Devil is busy wreaking havoc - a situation that God, not being All-Powerful, can't prevent. "We might assume," says Mailer, "that God, like us, is doing the best that can be done under the circumstances."

In fact, He needs our help to limit the damage done by His enemy. God is much more interested in getting that assistance than in prayers or worship. (Most of the prayers are trivial and do not merit God's attention, and while not omnipotent, His self-esteem is presumably OK.)

But the Devil is busy making us tempting offers as well. While God is interested in creativity, the Devil is into raw power. Technology is "the most advanced, extreme, and brilliant creation of the Devil. ... Half the human universe must by now be on the side of technology."

I suspect he is on to something with this. There are certainly days when the Internet eats one's soul like a rapacious goblin from hell. On the other hand, Mailer is not a dogmatist. He ventures the speculations that humanity is actually using technology as "a third force, ready to destroy both God and the Devil."

While that ambiguity leaves the cosmic significance of technology unclear, it's par for the course for trying to draw consequences from Mailer's theology. The outcome of the struggle between God and the Devil is not foreordained. People holding fast to scriptures that claim to offer definitive statements about the divine will are chumps, more or less. The Devil can corrupt our aspirations towards doing the good, while God can, it seems, instruct and perfect us in moments when we indulge in various sins.

At one point in the 1950s, Mailer had an internal wrangle about whether or not to pay for the coffee and donut he had consumed at an all-night diner. A voice within him said to stiff the joint: "My senses told me that this was a divine voice, not a diabolical one." It is not clear whether Mailer left the quarter or not; but one hopes things worked out to His benefit.

As interviewer, Lennon struggles (with the learning of Solomon and the forbearance of Job) to situate these lines of speculation relative to the history of theology. He surmises that Mailer has reinvented his own miniaturized Gnosticism - which seems a valid point, though I suspect there is more Sartre in the mix than Lennon's interpretation would suggest.

Still, Mailer ends up sounding less like an existential theologian than a pop psychologist who is feeling full of beans. "What I'm offering to people as an ethic," he says, "is to have the honor to live with confusion." In that regard, at least, On God will give you practice.