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Books Can Change Your World


A Fire on the Moon

posted on 16 Sep 2017

A Fire on  the Moon by Norman Mailer

When I first began to read Mailer in the very late 1970s it was his journalism rather than the early novels of the late-40s and 50s that attracted me. Although these hybrid books of reportage – Miami & The Siege of Chicago,The Fight, Armies of the Night – were less than a decade old when I read them they seemed to come from a much more distant past than that, a brawling, heroic, existentialist American past, when the writer wasn’t just a flabby desk-bound scribe but a tough Hemingwayesque action figure, larger than life, as ready with his fists as with his typewriter. Mailer was for years the very definition of the combative public intellectual.

But the very qualities that for decades had made Mailer a literary giant eventually made him something of an anachronism, even a figure of ridicule. His absurdly sexist attitudes, his out-dated riffs on manhood and existential choice, on hipsterdom and the White Negro, his ever more bloated novels, his six wives (the second of whom – notoriously – he stabbed in the aftermath of a drunken party), his strutting pugnacious machismo… Mailer gradually degenerated into a cartoonish shadow of his former glory.

And yet recently I was reminded that he was a genuinely great writer because I read the work which I think will stand as his non-fiction masterpiece, A Fire on the Moon, his truly extraordinary account of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

I read this primarily because a few years ago it was repackaged by Penguin and now sports a magnificent new jacket and a place in the Modern Classics series – a paperback production that does justice to the stature of the book.

The biggest story of the time was matched with the biggest reporter of the period, and the vaunting ambition and inhuman tension of the moon landing project were further ratcheted up by Mailer’s impossible deadline: to deliver the first installment of this huge work for publication in Life magazine less than three weeks after Apollo 11’s astronauts were due to splash down in the Pacific. It would be the first of three of the longest non-fiction pieces ever published by Life.

This combination of impossibilities was perfect for Mailer. It matched the grandeur of his own ambitions; it tied him forever to the greatest, the most unparalleled of human endeavours; and of course one might also add that it matched Mailer’s own particular sense of self-importance.

But was Mailer right for the Apollo mission?

To my mind, yes. But one doesn’t go to Mailer for a conventional, literal account of history’s great events. As one of the originators of New Journalism, Mailer had worked hard to develop a language capable of describing not just the facts of momentous events but their psychic and metaphysical implications, and by the time of A Fire on the Moon his extraordinary prose had taken on a baroque, labyrinthine grandeur capable of grasping the startlingly contemporary in language of Jacobean density. That the book would also inevitably wrestle with other concerns that had been tormenting Mailer for a decade – corrupt and corrupting politics, Vietnam, inner city riots, racism, Hemingway’s suicide (it left Mailer “sick in that miasmal and not quite discoverable region between the liver and the soul”) – makes for an even more immersive experience.

A Fire on the Moon, then, is Mailer grappling with the indescribable enormity of the Apollo mission, while at the same time – as if in the diabolical heat of some gargantuan smithy – hammering out a language that is up to the task, and personally I find this to be one of the most exciting things about the book. Precisely as the Apollo astronauts are hurtling through space, Mailer too seems to have blasted off: everyone could crash and burn. So let’s have a taste of that language. Here is Mailer ruminating on the “Space Program”:

“…still brooding over the astronauts, [I] came to the conclusion that even if you comprehended them (came to some whole notion that they were finally good and noble men, or men who were brave but not without malignity), you would still be inhibited from saying in confidence that the Space Program was for good or ill since History often used the best of men for the worst of purposes and discarded them when the machines of new intent were ready.”

I think that is a marvellous passage, almost Augustan in its formal rhetoric, but also muscular, probing and somehow in its sensibility utterly Mailerian.

In an annoyingly brilliant essay in The Guardian (Norman Mailer’s A Fire on the Moon: a giant leap for reportage), Geoff Dyer says that the book’s “abandonment of the idea of disinterested recording in favour of subjectivity so extreme that it threatens to displace or usurp the subject” exemplifies the strengths and shortcomings of the New Journalism. And he is right, of course.

But for once, Mailer’s approach – no holds barred, succeed or fail disastrously – triumphs. He is, he says, one of “the sensors in the churn”, and as such we can never quite predict what this peculiarly sensitive mechanism will register – data, one might say, is flooding in in ungovernable quantities.  What will he do with it, how will he interpret it? Well, here he is – like us – watching the moon walk on TV:

“…never did it look any better in quality than a print of the earliest silent movies… Ghosts beckoned to ghosts, and the surface of the moon looked like a ski slope at night… Sometimes they looked like heavy elderly gentleman dancing with verve, sometimes…[they had] the look of beasts on hindquarters learning to think…all the while, images of [the lunar module] would appear in the background, an odd battered object like some Tartar cooking pot left on a trivet in a Siberian field”.

I don’t see how anyone could resist such prose, or such sparkling, idiosyncratic observations. Yes, there is a lot of it, and it is certain that at various points you will roll your eyes as you read, but for all that A Fire on the Moon is an unforgettable experience – perhaps especially its second part where Mailer explains the technicalities of the journey to the moon in a way that shows that his own peculiar metaphysical understanding of the endeavour has all along been matched with a comparable grasp of the scientific minutiae.

Of course, we don’t now read the book to find out whether the Apollo mission succeeds; we read it to see whether Mailer’s mammoth task of interpreting the unprecedented for us will succeed. If you don’t read it this year or next, then put it on your list for 2019 – the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It is, after all, Mailer’s greatest achievement.


Alun Severn

September 2017