Janet Malcolm and Norman Mailer: Navigating Author, Narrator, and Subject

By Leslie S. Lee
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

Janet Malcolm opens her book, The Journalist and the Murderer,1 with a stringent criticism of journalistic practice: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." (3) Malcolm focuses on what she views as the inherent imbalance in the relationship between the subject of a piece of nonfiction and the writer. Malcolm argues that the subject-writer relationship is “morally indefensible” because the journalist must entice the subject to share their story and try to understand the subject’s point of view without ever having “the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intend[ing] to write a story of his own.” (3) The journalist holds all of the in the subject-writer relationship: while a subject can try to influence the opinion of the journalist one way or another, once the interviews are concluded the journalist transforms the subject into a literary character, creating a portrayal of the subject (that may or may not be accurate) dependent entirely on the journalist’s “narratival” agenda. (163)

To investigate this moral dilemma of journalism, Malcolm uses the lawsuit between Jeffrey MacDonald—convicted of killing his wife and two daughters—and Joe McGinniss, author of a book about the entitled Fatal Vision. In this lawsuit, MacDonald accused McGinniss of fraud, claiming that McGinniss deceived him by pretending to believe his innocence, thus gaining his trust, even while believing that MacDonald had committed the crime and intending all along to write the book asserting MacDonald’s guilt. Malcolm’s primary interest is this sense of betrayal, which she believes to be a symptom of the inherent divide between the interests of the subject and the journalist: "What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists." (144) Malcolm argues that the validity of a piece of writing as journalism derives from the unbiased and critical approach of a writer towards the subject matter. This argument suggests that the initial distance between the subject and the journalist is what provides legitimacy to the writing.

How then is a reader to judge a piece of writing in which the journalist and the subject are one and the same? In Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night,2 this is the case. Subtitled “History as a Novel, The Novel as History,” The Armies of the Night could arguably be classified in either genre of history or the novel. Book One is written with many of the stylistic elements of the novel and Book Two adheres, for the most part, with the general conventions of historical writing. For this discussion, however, the term “journalism” is still applicable, as the entire text is a nonfiction account of a recent event—Book One was published in Harper’s Magazine as “The Steps of the Pentagon,” in March 1968, just five months after the events of the narrative; the entire text was published later that year.

Focusing on the 1968 March on the Pentagon, Book One details Norman Mailer’s own participation, and Book Two offers a historical account of the March.3 It seems safe to assume that at the conclusion of The Armies of the Night Mailer did not feel “the catastrophe suffered by the subject” (3) that Malcolm is concerned with; in other words, (as she described what she hoped would be the case for her interview with McGinniss,) “here, clearly, there would be none of the moral uneasiness that the naïve subject all but forces the journalist to endure as the price of his opportunity to once again point out the frailty of human nature.” (8) But if the subject and journalist are collapsed to the same person, removed also is the “tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism,” the very thing which Malcolm argues distinguishes journalism from publicity.

In The Armies of the Night, Mailer uses third person narration to split his identity as character and narrator. While the book is autobiographical, Mailer writes about himself as if he is a separate individual, never using a first-person pronoun except in the context of a character’s thoughts or speech. Mailer creates a narrative persona that interjects between the character and the author Mailer. This division between character and narrator allows Mailer to maintain the journalistic “skepticism” towards a “subject’s blind self-absorption.” The portrayal of Mailer in The Armies of the Night is certainly not entirely flattering: the book depicts Mailer as “an egotist of the most startling misproportions,” (54) at turns rude, jealous, and narrow-minded. Frequently the narration contradicts the opinion of the character Mailer. The following passage describes Mailer’s approach to the Pentagon: "They were now passing fences with high barbed wire—cause to wonder if they were open pens to hold the masses soon to go under arrest—that was Mailer’s idea. (Invariably his sound perceptions were as quickly replaced by wild estimates; he should have divined that the government was not going to pen people in full view of others who were free[…])" (116)

Here the narrator directly assigns the thought that the barbed wire fences were in fact “open pens to hold the masses” to the character Mailer, and then immediately points out the error of this idea, implying that it is a “wild estimate” rather than a “sound perception.” The narrator disparages the character Mailer for not divining what the narration now states to be true, that “the government was not going to pen people in full view of others who were free.” This disparity of knowledge between the character and the narrator creates an appearance of the subject-journalist tension Malcolm views as the “vitality” of journalism.

Moments in the text such as this one, in which the disparity in knowledge is the difference between experience and hindsight, suggest that the subject-journalist distance Malcolm requires can perhaps be achieved through an act of recollection. In an article entitled “Style in Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night,” James E. Breslin argues that the main purpose of the narrator’s critiques of Mailer “is to allow him to make criticisms of himself before we can make them, and thus to ward them off.”4 Breslin’s objection to the narrator’s criticisms indicates that a temporal separation between subject and journalist is not sufficient proof of the necessary initial skepticism, because gestures towards that skepticism could be merely attempts to preemptively “ward...off” criticisms.

In The Armies of the Night, the distance between the character and the narrator is not purely temporal; Mailer emphasizes the distinct identities of the two by frequently following a common editorial convention of using a plural pronoun when writing actions that occur in the realm of narration. The first book begins with the sentence, “From the outset, let us bring you news of your protagonist.” (3) The “us” here is the voice of the narrator. This voice can directly address the reader—“you” and “your” refer to the reader. (This opening sentence also cleverly implicates the reader in the story immediately, because it suggests that Mailer was the reader’s protagonist even before the first sentence began.) While the literary character Mailer exists only in the world of the narration, this narrative voice exists in the world of reader.

Even at the moments of the text in which the narrative voice is most closely associated with Mailer himself, he maintains detachment through the use of third-person pronouns and abstract titles. "To write an intimate history of an event which places its focus on a central figure who is not central to the event, is to inspire immediate questions about the competence of the historian. Or, indeed, his honorable motive. The figure he has selected may be convenient to him rather than critical to the history. Such cynical remarks obviously suggest themselves in the choice of our particular protagonist. It could be said that for this historian, there is no other choice. While that might not be necessarily inaccurate, nonetheless a presentation of his good motives had best be offered now." (53) The first three sentences of this passage operate in the abstract; “the historian,” and the pronouns “his,” “he,” and “him” refer not to Mailer specifically but to any historian whose writing “places its focus on a central figure who is not central to the event.” In the fourth sentence, the narrational voice employs a possessive plural pronoun—“our”—that refers to the narrator identity. The referents of the last two sentences of the passage are less clear. “This historian” could identify the narrator, but the subsequent reference to “his good motives” suggests a figure separate from the narrator because it is written in the third person.

The narrator seems to refer to a figure distinct from itself but existing outside of the narrative. Later in the text, the narrator introduces this figure again: "So a modern novelist must apologize, even apologize profusely, for daring to leave his narrative, he must in fact absolve himself of the charge of employing a device, he must plead necessity.

So the Novelist now pleads necessity. He will take a momentary delay in the proceedings—because in fact he must—to introduce a further element to our history which will accompany us intermittently to the end." (133) Here Mailer makes the same move from the abstract to the particular, referring first to the theoretical “modern novelist” and then to the individual “Novelist” (capitalized here to signify a specific title) writing the book. As before, the narrator uses the first-person plural (“our,” “us”) and refers in the third-person (“the Novelist,” the “he” in the last sentence of the passage) to a figure separate from the narrator but also existing, unlike the character Mailer, outside of the frame of the narrative.

The text contains then three distinct but connected identities. The first is the character Mailer, contained entirely within the bounds of the narrative. The second is the narrator, a journalist persona that recounts the actions of the character Mailer, refers to itself in the first-person plural, and is aware of the presence of the reader and of the influence of the “necessities” of “the Novelist.” The third identity is the figure outside the narrative; this figure, “the historian” and “the Novelist” who impacts the overall text, is the author of the narrative voice—this figure is the actual Norman Mailer. When referring to the actual Norman Mailer, the narrator does not use the first-person; just as the narrative voice is distinct from the identity of Mailer the character, there also is a distinction between the actual Norman Mailer and the narrator he has created in the text.

In The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm argues that in a work of nonfiction, the journalistic “I” is not necessarily a representation of the writer: "This character is unlike all the journalist’s other characters in that he forms the exception to the rule that nothing may be invented: the ‘I’ character in journalism is almost pure invention. Unlike the ‘I’ of autobiography, who is meant to be seen as a representation of the writer, the ‘I’ of journalism is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way—the way, say that Superman is connected to Clark Kent. The journalistic ‘I’ is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom the crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy…” (159-160) While The Armies of the Night is a work of autobiography, because it is written in the third-person the narrative voice functions in much the same way as Malcolm’s journalistic “I”.

The narrator of The Armies of the Night, the journalist-persona that employs the first-person plural, is not the voice of the actual Norman Mailer but “almost pure invention...a functionary to whom the crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted.” By using the editorial formality of the first-person plural voice, Mailer mocks the print media (which he criticizes throughout the text as being unreliable) by seemingly taking journalistic practice to an extreme. But in doing so, he also literalizes this form, splitting his authorial personality by inserting a journalistic “I” between the “I” of the writer and of the character.

Malcolm establishes the difference between the writer and the journalistic “I” in order to explain the practice of journalists who behave in one manner towards their subject and then write a piece suggesting a different relationship or opinion. “If the journalist is going to have to start proleptically imitating the behavior of the ‘pure character’ he will become in the text, his hands will be tied.” (161) Here she supports an idea which she quotes from MacDonald earlier in her text, that journalists should not be required to inform their subjects about their opinions of them.

That level of disclosure would effectively remove the tension between the subject’s “blind self-absorption” and the journalist’s “skepticism,” because it would alert the subject to that tension. While Malcolm’s argument here is valid, her Superman analogy does not quite work in the way she appears to intend. The problem with this analogy of the journalistic “I” as Superman and the actual writer as Clark Kent is that Clark Kent actually is Superman. The two are connected in a far more than “tenuous way”; in fact, while they are distinct identities, they can never be completely dissociated. So too with the journalistic “I” and the actual writer—while the journalistic “I” may not be a “representation of the writer” as it is in autobiography, it remains a creation of the author and therefore somewhat representative.

In The Armies of the Night, the narrative persona that Mailer inserts between character and author operates as the “overreliable narrator” and maintains the sense of tension between journalist and subject, but this persona never escapes its status as an extension of the author Norman Mailer. As a result of this enduring link between narrator and author, observations made by the narrator contribute to the characterization of Mailer the character. When the narrator makes a statement, the reader is aware that the original source of this statement is the author Norman Mailer.

The reader is also aware that the character Norman Mailer will eventually become the author Norman Mailer: "Then he began his history of the Pentagon. It insisted on becoming a history of himself over four days, and therefore was history in the costume of a novel. […] Yet in writing his personal history of these four days, he was delivered a discovery of what the March on the Pentagon had finally meant, and what had been won, and what had been lost, and so found himself ready at last to write a most concise Short History, a veritable précis of a collective novel, which here now, in the remaining pages, will seek as History, no, rather as some Novel of History, to elucidate the mysterious character of that quintessentially American event." (215-216) The character Mailer becomes the author, and the narrator is an extension of the author, creating a relationship in which characterization of the one replicates in characterization of the other.

Often the narrator directly describes the character—“Mailer had a complex mind of sorts,” (5) “Mailer was a snob of the worst sort,” (14) “Mailer was often brusque himself, famous for that, but the architecture of his personality bore resemblance to some provincial cathedral which warring orders of the church might have designed separately over several centuries.” (17) But very often the characterization is achieved through the observations of the narrator which, because their ultimate source is the actual Mailer, transfer to Mailer the character.

Malcolm observes an attempt at a similar displacement of characterization in Fatal Vision. In his book about the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial, Fatal Vision, Joe McGinniss included long passages from other authors (Kernberg, Lasch, and Cleckley) describing the character of pathological narcissists and psychopaths who seem perfectly ordinary but commit horrible acts. Malcolm sees these inclusions as attempts on McGinniss’ part at characterization, “his idea evidently being that some of the aura of those characters would come off on MacDonald—that, by extension, their interesting horribleness would become his.” (73)

Because McGinniss was writing nonfiction, he could not directly attribute anything to MacDonald which had not occurred. McGinniss displaces the work of characterization from his own voice onto these inclusions, effectively saying, “MacDonald is a pathological narcissist. This is what pathological narcissists are like,” and therefore the reader concludes that is what MacDonald is like. Malcolm argues that McGinniss fails in this endeavor to show that “MacDonald was the kind of person who could have committed the crimes,” because he does not successfully prove that MacDonald was a narcissist or psychopath, and thus the displaced characterization fails to impact his portrayal of MacDonald.

The characterization of Norman Mailer in The Armies of the Night is often displaced as well, but because the character and the source of the characterization are the same—both are Norman Mailer—this displacement succeeds where McGinniss’, according to Malcolm, failed. At several points in the book, long descriptive sentences form what seem to be the stream-of-consciousness interior thoughts of the character, but are actually ruminations provided by the narrator: "If the novelist had never heard of Hell’s Angels or motorcycle gangs, he would still have predicted, no, rather invented motorcycle orgies, because the orgy and seemed to come together in the sound of 1200 cc’s on two wheels, that exacerbation of flesh, torsion of lust, rhythm in the pistons, stink of gasoline, yeah, oil as the last excrement of putrefactions buried a million years in Mother Earth, yes indeed, that funky redolence of gasoline was not derived from nothing, no, doubtless it was the stench of the river Styx (a punning metaphor appropriate to John Updike no doubt) but Mailer, weak in Greek, had nonetheless some passing cloudy unresolved image now of man as Charon on that river of gasoline Styx wandering between earth and the holy mills of the machine." (82)

The sentence is structured such that the description of the motorcycles seems to be the thoughts of Mailer the character: this is what “he would still have predicted, no, rather invented,” even if he “had never heard of Hell’s Angels or motorcycle gangs.” This endows the character Mailer with an apparent accuracy and depth of perception, as the passage claims that he would have perceived the reality of motorcycle orgies without knowing anything about their existence. But of course, Mailer had heard of Hell’s Angels and motorcycle gangs, and so this tangent is not an instinctual impression, but an informed reaction; the hypothetical posed by the narrator is what charges the description with a sense of inevitability.

At the end of this passage, Mailer the character perceives only dimly what Mailer the narrator presents explicitly: “no, doubtless it was the stench of the river Styx...but Mailer, weak in Greek, had nonetheless some passing cloudy unresolved image now of man as Charon on that river of gasoline Styx wandering between earth and the holy mills of the machine.” The narrator first claims that “doubtless it was the stench of the river Styx,” and then the character Mailer vaguely perceives this. The narrator has a clearer interpretation of the situation than the character. But the phrases describing the motorcycles, including the phrase, “no, doubtless it was the stench of the river Styx,” seem to be internal thoughts—the sensory reaction of the character Mailer to the motorcycles—and not insight from the narrator gained in retrospect.

Because of the connection between the narrative persona and actual Mailer, passages such as this endow the character Mailer with strong insight or perception, because as readers we are aware that as the narrator says Mailer had “some passing cloudy unresolved image” of something that the narrator describes specifically, that description is Mailer himself perceiving that image clearly. Mailer may be “weak in Greek,” but the narrator nonetheless successfully makes the allusion to classical Greek literature, and in the process acknowledges John Updike’s novel The Centaur; therefore we know that the actual Mailer made this association between the motorcycles, Updike, and the classics. Knowing that the author is Mailer, the ultimate impression for the reader is that the character Mailer possesses the same wisdom as the narrator.

Like Clark Kent and Superman, the journalistic “I” will always be, in some sense, an extension of the author. However much this narrative persona is a created character, any knowledge that the narrator possesses, so too must the author; an observation made by the narrator is made by the author, ironically or seriously; the narrative “I” is inescapably derivative of the author. Malcolm, in arguing that the journalistic “I” is connected to the author only tenuously, does not suggest that they bear no relation to one another, but rather highlights the danger of requiring one to reflect the other precisely. This requirement, she argues, would undermine the entire journalistic process. In The Armies of the Night, Mailer invents a narrative persona that both separates the subject and author, and navigates that divide by utilizing the persistent connection between narrator, author, and in this case character, to replicate characterization and display an awareness of these multiple identities within the text.


1.) Janet Malcom, The Journalist and the Murderer (New York: Random House, Inc., 1990).

2.) Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night (New York: Plume, 1994).

4.) Breslin, James E.  The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 8, Special Number (1978), pp. 157-170

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