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In Mailer’s world, God looks a lot like a novelist

Times Staff Writer

Earlier this year, at a Writers Bloc event in Beverly Hills, Norman Mailer acknowledged that he believed in God. This belief, he explained, was qualified; his vision of the deity was as one who is fallible, far from omnipotent, less a supreme being than a supreme artist of a kind.

Noting that his own creations had often gotten the best of him, Mailer said he didn’t see why the same might not be true of God.

This was a classic Mailer performance -- contrarian, contradictory, brilliant and somehow unsatisfying. At its core was the sense that, for him, God remained a conceptual construct, that he had thought out this position but did not feel it, that he was relying on intellect as opposed to faith.

Mailer’s new book, “On God: An Uncommon Conversation,” may best be read in such a context -- although, in truth, it’s probably best not read at all. Framed as a series of Socratic dialogues between Mailer and his friend and literary executor Michael Lennon, it’s an empty effort, full of sophistry.

“I am obviously ignorant of most of the intellections required of a competent theologian,” Mailer admits in an introduction. ". . . [W]hat will be evident to anyone who has studied such matters is how truly untutored I am.” But while that’s accurate enough, I suppose, it’s also disingenuous, for the problem with “On God” is less that it’s uninformed than that Mailer has no fundamental empathy for the subject at hand.

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Throughout the book, he confuses God with religion and views both exclusively through a Christian/Catholic filter, as if this were the only available lens. Rather than discuss the spirit, he ruminates on the saints and purgatory, blaming Satan for technology and espousing a half-hearted belief in reincarnation because “God hates to give up on an interesting artistic possibility.”

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t much address the universe’s essential unknowability, the fact that we are all ultimately in the dark. Mailer is less interested in asking questions than in promoting his cosmology, which owes a great deal to the written word.

“My notion of the Devil depends to a good degree on Milton,” he notes at one point, later suggesting that “as literary works, the Old Testament has some faults, and the New Testament a good many.” The implicit idea here -- literature as the highest calling -- is driven home by Mailer’s habit of continually referring to himself as a novelist, as if that puts him on a pedestal with the artist God.

This, of course, has always been Mailer’s problem: the tendency to preen when going after a big idea. His writings on sex are almost entirely cringe-worthy, and “The White Negro” -- his 1957 defense of white hipsters’ appropriation of black culture -- is as insufferable an essay as I’ve ever read.

For all that, he remains a major American author, whose ego, oddly, informs both his finest and his most problematic work. Mailer is a creature of the world, of his historical and social moment, whose best writing has to do with the particularity of his time.

“I [have] had the good fortune to be able to write about my time as if it were our time,” he wrote in 1998, and it is this quality of being at the center of the zeitgeist that gives efforts like “The Executioner’s Song” and “The Armies of the Night” their immediacy. God, however, is a more amorphous concept, and Mailer’s inability to deal with that condemns “On God” to failure by closing the book to the vagaries of faith.

The vagaries of faith, on the other hand, reside at the heart of Nancy Mairs’ “A Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith,” which in some sense picks up where the author’s 1993 book of essays “Ordinary Time” left off. In Mairs’ view, faith -- and, for that matter, “God Godself” -- exists almost entirely beyond conscious comprehension, but then, that’s exactly how it ought to be.

“The need to reduce God to a person having mental states with which we are familiar -- desire, anger, retribution (but seldom, alas, a sense of humor) -- does God little service and ourselves even less,” she writes in this stunning collection. “We would do better to stand before God in silence, allowing the Holy to open to us without our definition or direction. Only God can say what God is. We can only allow ourselves to be taught.”

“A Dynamic God” owes its power to Mairs’ sensitivity, her attention to detail, her honesty about herself. In previous books, she’s taken on child-rearing, infidelity and her struggle with multiple sclerosis. (Wheelchair-bound, she is increasingly unable to care for herself.)

Throughout the essays here, she touches on these and other issues to get at not just the roots of her progressive Catholicism -- Dorothy Day is a favorite role model -- but the nature of faith in a world where it often doesn’t seem to be rewarded, where “most of us face, from time to time, more than we can handle.”

For Mairs, this is the whole idea: not that good people are blessed or bad ones punished, but that the universe itself is a question mark in which we choose to believe that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s messy, inconvenient, even illogical if we look at it intellectually, but if we want to come to terms, what other option do we have?

“My life is a lesson in losses . . .” she notes late in the book. “Thanks to multiple sclerosis, one thing after another has been wrenched from my life -- dancing, driving, walking, working -- and I have learned neither to yearn after them nor to dread further deprivation but to attend to what I have.”

What Mairs is after is a quality of “mindfulness,” which is how she frames her faith. It’s a quiet thing, personal, the province of heart as much as mind.

God, after all, defies the intellect; that is the nature of belief. As Mairs affirms: “Believing as I do that God is the Whole of It, that our every atom bears God into being, I cannot experience myself as truly apart.”

david.ulin@latimes.com

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.


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