The Executioner’s Song

09/02/2012

Habits and Cells

There is review on an online site of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, about the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah in 1977, that is a reasonably intelligent and detailed look at Mailer’s mastery, but the Crime Narrative reviewer seems to miss the very point that makes the book such a monumental work of what we might call moral reflection, taking into account Martin Amis’s problem in The Moronic Inferno with works like In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song. Amis insists that “what is missing…is moral imagination, moral artistry. The facts cannot be arranged to give them moral point. When the reading experience is over, you are left, simply with murder – and with the human messiness and futility that attends all death.” Yet while the Crime Narrative reviewer insists on imposing a moral perspective on the book as he talks of Gilmore and his girlfriend Nicole Baker, this is the very morality that Mailer’s book eschews because he is too far inside the lives of his subjects to offer a ready moral angle upon them. Mailer captures their thoughts and feelings, giving complexity and context to actions that can seem, from the outside, morally detestable. While Amis insists moral point is absent, and the Crime Narrative writer imposes one upon the book, actually Mailer looks for something more significant than moral point or its absence.

Now at one moment quite near the end of the book, with the execution about to take place, the phone rings and Noall Wootton, leading prosecutor in the Gilmore case, thinks “God, it’s just like the movies, it isn’t going to happen”, and of course a fictional work could play with this tension where a non-fictional account cannot. As a non-fiction account, the book possesses what Richard J. Gerrig calls anomalous suspense. “Anomalous suspense arises when people express uncertainty with respect to outcomes about which they have certain knowledge. In three experiments, we demonstrate that readers can be made uncertain about whether, for example, George Washington was elected first president of the United States, when an obstacle to this well-known outcome is introduced in a short story.”

Worth exploring here is the degree to which Mailer’s book manages to offer both an ethos that Amis thinks is inevitably missing from such a work, and anomalous suspense concerning a case that is well detailed and yet where Mailer manages to put into the work the sort of suspense that has us wondering whether Gilmore will be killed or not. Part of this anomalous suspense actually rests in Mailer’s capacity to shape moral focus away from the murderous actions of Gilmore and towards the murderous actions of the state. When in his review the Crime Narrative writer points up the white trash aspect of the characters, the low-life cowardice of Gilmore, the willingness of his lover Nicole Baker at one moment to consider killing someone who is thinking of bringing charges against Gilmore, then the writer is offering nothing if not moral point, but offering not at all moral reflection. Much of the anomalous suspense evident in Mailer’s account comes from shaping the information around intensity of feeling over moral indignation, of searching out the energetic qualities in a character like Gilmore and wondering how often these forces have been blocked.

Where the Crime Narrative blogger imposes moral disdain, this leads to a strange, account of the book surely antithetical to Mailer’s intentions. When the blogger says, “In the early part of the book, Gilmore comes across as what I feel he truly was—a worthless white trash criminal who was violent, ignorant, and unable to fit into society in any way”, he adds, “enjoyably, Gilmore still got his head literally ground into the concrete in that dust-up. Similarly pleasing to read about is another incident in which Gilmore finally does engage in the closest thing to a fair fight, and promptly gets his face split open as he is dropped to the ground with a single punch.” Yet Mailer indicates that in the first fight where he takes the burly Pete Galavon from behind, he would have been likely to win it had he boxed him. Pete won by getting him in a headlock and pulling him to the ground.  What interests Mailer here is more Gilmore’s bad instincts and self-destructive streak than his cowardly behaviour. “If Gary had waited to stand up and punch nose to nose, [his uncle] Vern thought he could have whipped the fellow. But here Pete had the hold and was using all his 240 pounds.” Mailer seeks out not the general moral judgement, but the specific human behaviour, trying to see in it the complexity and perversity that can actively play with the anomaly of suspense where the outcome is given, because the suspense is no longer the historical tension of the event – where we know Gilmore will die – but instead the anomaly of character.

Throughout the book it is this that Mailer focuses upon as he tries not especially to give dignity to the poor white trash that the Crime Narrative reviewer cannot but see, and which would contain its own problems of condescension, but to comprehend the range of Gilmore’s thoughts and feelings. It is such an approach that can remove the problem of anomalous suspense and equally the issue of moral point. When Wootton offers his comment quoted above, Mailer details it not within the context of a redundant suspense device (redundant in the sense that unlike in a fictional work there is no choice available), but as an issue of ambivalent behaviour. Wootton is the prosecutor containing his own doubts, and fears, and Gilmore the hardened criminal who has nevertheless softened some of the prejudices of many who have come into contact with him. Instead of a simple case of anomalous suspense where we wonder will Gilmore be killed or won’t he, Mailer has layered the book with psychological density, so what we have is one character, Wootton, whose life and motives have been explored, thinking about the imminent death of another, Gilmore, for whom Mailer would seem to have a deep degree of compassion.

In an interview in a book published fifteen years earlier, Cannibals and Christians, Mailer talks of the cell as like a little animal. “It knows exactly what it wants to eat, what is good for it. But a cell is not a psychic structure. It may be part of the machine which makes up a habit…but it has no powers of command. “Mailer adds, “A habit is a psychic structure. What it’s composed of literally need not concern us, but since it’s a construction of mind which sits in authority upon the body, we can think of it as a law which is intangible but more or less absolute in its effect upon citizens.” When the blogger says, “Gilmore suffered that singular trait that seems to afflict all small-time hoods: a complete inability to delay gratification” it is offered as moral judgement, but it is as if Mailer were interested in exploring a thought that came to him many years earlier, and doing so through the actual character of Gilmore. Gilmore often couldn’t delay gratification, but Mailer might couch this in terms of the difference between the cells and habit, between what makes our cells well and what makes our society function. This calibrated relationship between cells and society, between man at his most physiological and society at its most constraining, was exactly what Gilmore happened to be a product of. Most of the constraints placed upon him were not modified by his own calibrations, but by society at its most heavily punitive: through the prison system. How does one suddenly create this self-calibration when the very habits Mailer talks of are going to be weak against the agitation of the cells? If the blogger wants to take the side of society against the thug, Mailer breaks the thug down into cells and habits, and explores in minute detail the two contrasting elements.

At one moment a hundred and sixty pages into the book, after Nicole and Gary have split up, he tries to win her back with a letter. In it he says, “I am one of those people who probably shouldn’t exist. But I do.” It is as though Gilmore himself is reflecting on the problem of the cells and of habit. Are people of habits as Mailer describes them entitled to live; whilst those too close to their cells are social liabilities and probably shouldn’t exist at all? This is Gilmore offering a self-appraisal long before he commits the murders, long before he insists he should be put to death for them. Much later in the book Gilmore’s attorney Bob Moody comments on seeing Nicole and Gary kissing. It had “been the longest and most passionate Bob ever saw. It went over the edge of decorum. He had to wonder a little about people who felt that strongly.” Is this where the cells prove too strong for habit, as the character compares his life with Gilmore’s? As he muses over why girls like Nicole go for people like Gary, he thinks about his own life with five children and a spouse, and where he is quite high up in the church, “which made for a different relation than you were going to see in the courthouse corridor.” Moody is the bourgeois man of habit.

In Cannibals and Christians Mailer might well be describing a character not unlike the character above. “Postulate a modern soul, marooned in constipation, emptiness, boredom and a flat dull terror of death. A soul which takes antibiotics when ill, smokes filter cigarettes, drinks proteins, minerals and vitamins in a liquid diet, takes seconal to go to sleep, Benzedrine to awake and tranquillizers for poise. It is a deadened existence.” Now we don’t want to draw too broad a difference between the lawyer and the criminal; after all Gilmore blamed his stunted sexual performances on some of the drugs he took in prison. But the constipated figure Mailer so describes seems inculcated in habit, unable to feel the sort of emotional surge Moody so describes seeing in Gary and Nicole. If many will see in Gilmore yet another thug who doesn’t know how to delay gratification, Mailer might wonder what happens to those whose habits demand this postponement to the detriment of their own bodies.

In an interview in the Paris Review, Mailer is asked if there is a hidden pattern to his novels and he says that he may have an obsession, “with how God exists”. “Is He an essential god or an existential god; Is He all powerful or is He, too, an embattled existential creature who may succeed or fail in his Vision?” If Mailer refuses the moral dictates The Executioner’s Song could easily offer, is it partly because Mailer is flexible in his approach to metaphysical possibility. His take is neither that of the religiously inclined fundamentalist practising old-fashioned morality, nor a pragmatic materialist accepting that society ought to terminate the lives of those who take the lives of others. Nor is it the liberal angle that insists killing is wrong in a society that is supposed to be progressive; and neither is it a New Testament compassion that feels one cannot put a man to death. Mailer respects the modes of people’s spiritual beliefs, as if wondering about his own, whether that happens to be Gary and Nicole, Bob Moody or the figures of Dennis Boaz and Larry Schiller, the former a lawyer involved in Gary’s case, the latter the man behind the financial dealings who would go on to direct the film from the book.

Mailer devotes a lot of space to their personal reflections, and many of them allude to spiritual necessity. It is as though Mailer wanted to get inside as many of his characters’ spiritual lives as he could, and Boaz for example would seem an especially useful person for such an approach. When Mailer quotes the Los Angeles Times mentioning how Boaz “unsuccessfully tried to get himself arrested for smoking marijuana in the lobby of the Federal Building”, it is the sort of action Mailer might approve of, especially when he says in the Paris Review interview that his own spiritual awareness came from “all the years I was smoking marijuana”. At one moment Dennis is talking to Gilmore about reincarnation and expanded consciousness. Gilmore believes in past lives; Dennis is less sure, and reckons, “I don’t know. I’m open, but I don’t find it relevant. I think one can have ethics without getting into reincarnation.” Yet Dennis is nevertheless spiritually focused: one reason why he hadn’t practised much law is because he became more interested in the consciousness movement, and Mailer details his fascination with group meditation, and mentions the Findhorn foundation “where twenty pound cabbages could be grown in an inch of topsoil way up in Scotland, and where even flowers could bloom in the winter through your attunement to plants and your ability to guide the energies as they come down.” If Gilmore believes in the afterlife, and Dennis a spirituality of mind, for Schiller it resides in the belly. Larry Schiller’s reputation had been earned negatively: he was well-known for getting a story out of “Jack Ruby on his deathbed, and Susan Atkins in the Manson trial”. His Gilmore story was an escape from this, he hoped, rather than its nadir. As the execution date nears, Schiller is wondering whether his wheeling and dealing isn’t leaving him where he used to be, as he is offered a hundred and twenty five grand to describe the shooting of Gilmore. It is a deal that “would be pure gravy.” He finds himself crying, and thinks “I don’t know any longer whether what I’m doing is morally right,” and this makes him cry even more. “In the middle of the crying he went into the bathroom and took the longest fucking shit of his life. It was all diarrhea”. Mailer describes the defecation as if a reflection of ethos: the diarrhea went through him as if to squeeze the last rotten thing out…” as Schiller then turns the story down. This is the ‘metaphysics of the belly’, to use a phrase Mailer utilised as the title for an experimental interview with himself in Cannibals and Christians from whence the earlier quote about the modern soul marooned in constipation comes. “Feces are seen as the most distasteful and despised condition of being. They are precisely that part of the alimentation in the universe which we have rejected,  and mind you, rejected not morally, not emotionally, not passionately…” as he links our relationship with faeces to bad conscience.  If for Dennis a good conscience comes from one’s relationship with the world of the spirit; for Larry it locates itself in his very bowels.

These are very different modes, and if Mailer is the sort of writer who has always talked of writing the Great American novel, it isn’t only vainglorious ambition, but also that there is a restless need to explore the possibilities of self that may require a great novel to do these modes justice. In his short story, ‘The Man who Studies Yoga’, Mailer talks of his central character: Sam “likes to think about other lives he may have led, and he envies the most astonishing variety of occupations. It is easy enough to see why he should wish for the life of an executive with the power and sense of command it may offer, but virtually from the same impulse Sam will wish himself a bohemian living in an unheated loft…”  Partly what makes The Executioner’s Song such a fine book is that Mailer attends to the modes of living in a twofold way. Firstly, Mailer does so by populating his book with numerous characters, from Gilmore to Nicole, from Schiller to Boaz, from Cousins Brenda and Toni to Uncle Vern. These are people who don’t only contextualize the story but also hypothesise around it, and give a context for their own inner life and its outer potential. When late in the book Toni goes to visit Gary in jail, she dances with him and though Gary is a terrible dancer, she can feel that something special is taking place. “Like Brenda, Toni had been married four times, twice for only a few months. Her fourth marriage had been with Howard and that had lasted nine years. It was a good marriage, but Toni had never exactly felt the kind of special feelings she had now. It was like she’d known Gary for a lifetime in these couple of hours.” Near the beginning of the book Brenda and her husband are about to pick Gary up after he’s been released from prison. Brenda can’t wait to see the cousin she hasn’t seen in years and wants him to drive faster; John doesn’t want to pick up a ticket. “They were travelling the Interstate, after all.  So he kept at 60. Brenda gave up fighting. She was altogether too excited to fight.”

In an excellent review of the book in The New York Times, Joan Didion reckoned “The women…are surprised by very little. They do not on the whole believe that events can be influenced. A kind of desolate wind seems to blow through the lives of these women in “The Executioner’s Song,” all these women who have dealings with Gary Gilmore.” She is absolutely right and yet curiously wrong: but this is part of the paradox Mailer explores as the women in the book accept their fate but possess a yearning for another life. Even the four marriages of Brenda and Toni, and Nicole’s two marriages by the age of nineteen, indicate a desire for a different existence, while at the same time the sheer number of failed attempts suggests an acceptance of its impossibility. But what the book then captures well is the hopeful life contained within the demands of the actual. A person doesn’t only have a social existence that can contain several lives (as Brenda does with her four marriages; as Schiller does with his scurrilous existence and his serious projects), but also the possible lives one can idly think up. It is as though Gilmore’s interest in reincarnation is the ultimate extension of this possibility: when Gilmore and Nicole take a drugs overdose after Gary’s on death row, they hope to meet in another life. Earlier in the book Mailer notes: “Gary began to talk about reincarnation. After death, he said, he was going to start all over again. Have the kind of life he had always wished he had.”

It is these modes of living that allow Mailer to escape from the moral condescension the Crime Narrative writer insists are many of the characters’ due, and also to give meaning and purpose to suspense that needn’t any longer be anomalous. Mailer refuses to make a life a given, and subsequently Gilmore as cold-blooded, white trash killer is merely one of the many identities he possesses, and the dilution of this personality into the others creates an unavoidable moral complexity because Gilmore is no longer the one thing that can be morally containable. Mailer constantly searches out amplified selves that contain simultaneously a social dimension, a hypothetical dimension, an inner dimension and an emotional dimension. Characters here exist, yearn, think and feel, and out of these four states come manifold selves that Mailer then gives over to a certain form of suspense.

One can see this for example in the presentation of Schiller. A merely social perspective could have focused on Schiller’s girth, his scruffy beard, and his chequebook journalistic persona. Mailer, though, retreats from ready morality and gives suspense to his existence. Here is a man at the crossroads of his life, where he can sell the story short and make a fortune, or play fair to his burgeoning conscience and feel that he is no longer selling stories on the emotional cheap. Mailer presents the episode in the hotel room where Schiller’s bowels give way as an existential crisis as a crisis of choice that takes place in the base of his stomach. Now generally speaking most people reading the book will know that Gilmore was executed, but the many variables in a life will be unknown to us, and so the attention to the specifics can give tension to the quotidian. When for example Gilmore gives Nicole a letter after she leaves him, we wonder how she will respond: will she take Gilmore back or not? When Brenda and Toni show an interest in Gary we might muse over whether they will cheat on their husbands, or potentially leave them since they are already four marriages in. Yet Mailer of course explores a twofold quotidian: both the potentialities in the social life and the possibilities available to the interior one.  This means that within the inevitability of its conclusion, the writer creates possibilities within and without the characters and cracks the twin problems of moral point and anomalous suspense.

Obviously however it wouldn’t be enough for an artist to crack problems unless there happens to be within the work a question that the writer wants to address, and this is where we talk of the possible lives as well as the actual ones. Not only are there many characters – Gilmore, Nicole, Uncle Vern, Brenda, Toni, Moody, Schiller, Boaz, lawyer Craig Snyder, Nicole’s ex Barrett, producer David Susskind and so on. There are also all the imaginative possibilities within these numerous figures as Mailer constantly shuttles between the cells and the habits: man as physiological being and man as social construction, and the many areas of being in between. In a piece on Power in Advertisements for Myself, Mailer reckons “Social communication is the doom of every truly felt thought.” He is talking specifically about the mass media, but it is as if Mailer wondered how could you reach into people’s communicative reservoirs, and find not so much the potential within them in how people might have developed differently if they had better chances in life, but their emotional and imaginative possibilities.

In the first half of the book (titled Western Voices) which focuses mainly on Gilmore and his family, and people living in the community, Mailer might assume these are lives unlikely to develop in surprising and hopeful directions, but that doesn’t mean people’s thoughts cannot. If the second half of the book (Eastern Voices) concentrates more on people who can choose in their lives (from Boaz to Schiller), the first half concentrates on the possible lives within the actual existence, as the actual lives of people seem unable to escape predicaments their thoughts readily can. This gap between the social and the personal is well illustrated in one moment where we find out that Nicole can’t seem to stop herself becoming pregnant and a passage later where she explores how she feels about Gary. “She read how at certain times in the month you could get pregnant more than other times, but didn’t know when…Besides she somehow knew she wasn’t going to get pregnant.” She was wrong: after making an appointment at Planned Parenthood “they said she was definitely carrying something.” Describing her early relationship with Gilmore, we notice that “More and more an ugly old feeling was coming back. It was the way she got when she had to fit herself to somebody…when she got into a bad mood it was like she had two souls.” Is this artistic license; that Mailer creates thoughts and feelings Nicole never actually had? This seems unlikely for at least two reasons. Near the end of the book, Mailer observes through Schiller that Nicole “seemed to have a commitment to the interviews as deep as the beating of her heart,” and later says, “maybe there wasn’t an interview in his twenty years in the media that hasn’t been built on some part of Bullshit Mountain, but with Nicole he got along.” Mailer seems here to be searching out the very space that he claims social communication refuses in his comments in Advertisements for Myself.

A more liberally inclined book might try and invert the prejudices and assumptions of theCrime Narrative writer, but just as we’re indicating that Mailer has no intrinsic interest in moral point or countering anomalous suspense, equally he has no interest in trying to make Gilmore a misunderstood and sacrificial figure. If Gilmore is to be rescued from moral judgement, this doesn’t mean Mailer will save him morally; more that he must do so ontologically. Morality is merely his social side; the cells and their variations, the existential. What Mailer’s book explores is the problematic between the social and the existential, but not to focus on the morally mitigating circumstances of Gilmore’s life and the iniquities of the death penalty. A writer’s purpose after is surely to understand character, not defend or prosecute their protagonists. When in the Paris Review Mailer talks of Gilmore he mentions how in many ways Gilmore could be utterly selfish, but in others very unselfish, almost saintly. What Gilmore doesn’t possess is a calibrated self where the selfishness can be socially sanctioned and the unselfishness equally so, and perhaps this is vital to the very killings. It is as if Gilmore shot two people in the head to clear his own. When Nicole splits up with Gary, Brenda sees his state of agitation, noticing it was obvious, Mailer says, Gilmore “was in that advanced kind of suffering where he could hardly keep a thought to himself.” Does he blow other peoples’ brains out to protect his own mind?

Such an action is about as selfishly uncalibrated a deed as a human can do: an act of breathtaking self-preservation all the more pronounced of course because he kills so arbitrarily.  The people he kills are not likely lovers of Nicole, but strangers. One cannot find as is often the case a social reason for the murders, where the killer acts according to a series of motivating circumstances that justify the actions socially however terrible these actions may be. Certainly the deaths incorporate robberies, and Gilmore has spent his life thieving, but the thief who also kills will usually do so because the person he murders will have been an obstacle to his desires. The shop assistant pulls a gun, perhaps, or refuses to lie on the ground, or tries to go for the phone. It might be a horrible murder, but it is still a calibrated action. When Gilmore kills it goes beyond even the cold-blooded, which usually indicates that the mind is present but the feelings elsewhere. Here though it as if the mind was elsewhere also: as if in not being able to keep a thought to himself after Nicole leaves him, then he has no thoughts he can safely call his own. Is it no more and no less than a nervous system that commits the deeds: the cells as Mailer would call them? “Habits”, Mailer says in Cannibals and Christians, “usually are anti-sensuous structures. They are built up and maintained precisely by insulating our senses from most stimuli.” The consequence of this is however that most actions are well-calibrated even if little felt, and that the motivating factors contain variables that make sense of the behaviour. Gilmore seemed much more sensuously behavioural than most, and so the sort of selfishness Mailer talks of is the very selfishness of the cells: their need to act without the usual firewalls of socialisation that stops many of us acting out certain feelings; feelings so firewalled that we might not even begin to act them out until they’ve been socially well-sanctioned. At one moment early in the book, and shortly after Gary is released from prison, he goes out with one of Brenda’s friends, and at one moment asks her if she will go to a motel with him. She turns him down and says that we have to earn certain things in life, but Gary was never someone who quite understood this.

However, there may have been a very good reason why he wouldn’t, since he was someone so much more attuned to the cells than to the social, so much better at getting under the social radar than playing its game. Socially, Brenda and her sister would be unlikely to want to sacrifice their marriages for an affair with Gilmore, but there is no doubt that their cells craved him. This is evident in the comment we quoted earlier from Toni, and also indicated by an aside at the end of the book’s first section, when Brenda responds to something her husband says. “She loved Johnny for saying that, loved her big, strong whale-heart of a husband who would have compassion for possible rivals, which was more than she could say for herself. “Oh Lord,” Said Brenda, “Gary loves Nicole.””

Is it something in Gary’s cells that they love and that they can’t quite understand? Is there an element in Gary of his appeal residing in the very elements that society must also punish: his inability to function socially but instead to exist on a primitively existential plane where the moment is constantly intensified and demanded? By analogy, let us think of a more benign example of obsolete behaviour permeating the present era, explored by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. In ‘Notes on Gesture’, Agamben says that by the end of the 19th century the gestures of the Western bourgeoisie were irretrievably lost, as he wonders where they might have gone. He mentions how Oliver Sacks would see such gestures showing up on the streets of New York, how “the dance of Isadora and Diaghilev, the novels of Proust, the great Jugendestil poets from Pascoli to Rilke and ultimately – in the most exemplary way – silent cinema, trace the magic circle in which humanity sought, for the last time, to evoke what was slipping through its fingers for ever.” If this is the trace of the bourgeois gesture that Agamben sees; then what about Gilmore and his actions? If the gesture is the symbolic dimension of behaviour that sublimates power and desire, action is the refusal of such sublimation. Where the Crime Narrative writer insists on seeing Gilmore as another white trash criminal incapable of delaying pleasure, is it not more useful to see Gilmore possessing an obsolete cellular system next to the demands of the modern age, rather as Agamben wonders whether those lost gestures manifest themselves in random movements and art works? But if the lost gesture returns in manifold form, does the violent act do so also?

But where, no matter the violent dimension to gesture that is invoked when Agamben talks about Tourette’s syndrome, the gesture is a dimension (utilising Mailer’s terms) of habit, the action is the mode of the cell.  Gilmore’s charisma, such as it is, functions on the level of the cell and not habit, so when Brenda’s friend proposes he needs to earn certain things, she is indicating that he needs to master the habits of the culture. Yet part of his appeal for Brenda and Toni, and of course Nicole, lies elsewhere: as if on a cellular level. Now this needn’t be reduced to the sexual (Gilmore wasn’t always a great lover with Nicole, and the relationships with Brenda and Toni were platonic), but it did indicate behaviour beyond the habitual. When he first converses with Nicole she thinks that “it was getting to be the best conversation she ever had. She had always thought the only way to have conversations like that was in your head.”

Such a conversation has nothing to do with the rules of social engagement, of politeness and erudition, of being socially skilled. It is instead where someone ignores many of the social norms and heads straight for a person’s interior pertinence, zeroing in on someone’s chaotic thoughts and feelings and not on their habitual actions, the sort of actions that are detailed in many a conversation where someone asks what we do, where we live and our hobbies and interests and so on. Now of course if Nicole had never met anybody quite like Gary, Gary believed he had never met anyone quite like Nicole. As he says in one letter: “Nothing in my experience, prepared me for the kind of honest open love you gave me. I’m so used to bullshit and hostility, deceit and pettiness, evil and hatred. Those things are my natural habitat.” It might be the natural habitat of many people, except that Gary has spent much of his life in prison and so such elements of human behaviour become exacerbated in the penal system. Any low-life characteristics he possessed weren’t alleviated by prison but exaggerated there, and partly what interests Mailer is a figure of habitual bad behaviour that prison did little to eradicate, alongside a self-exploration in the same place that Gilmore chose to develop.

It is this combination of bad habits and good cells, of ruthless actions and elevated thoughts and feelings that gives Mailer’s book much of its tension. It is as if moral and anomalous suspense becomes superficial terms next to the oscillating possibilities within Gilmore himself as he can say at one moment about his relationship with Nicole “there are some things you just know. And it went so deep so fast – it was a recognition, a renewal, a re-union,” while saying elsewhere, “don’t fuck those lovely cocksuckers that want to fuck you. They make me want to commit murder again and I hate to feel that kind of thing. Get those bastards away from your life.” It is of course a sense of oscillation consistent with Mailer’s own career and life, as if for all the good education Harvard gave him, for all the early success that came with The Naked and the Dead, Mailer knew that he was also potentially other than what he happened to be: his habits were not entirely consistent with his cells. Now of course Mailer is often seen as the bad boy of modern American letters, but it would be too easy to say that Mailer (who infamously stabbed his wife) identifies with Gilmore. It is more that Gilmore takes much further than Mailer the problem of the cells and the habits. If for Mailer there was the occasional outburst and a few days in prison, while the rest of the time the cellular was sublimated into the work, in Gilmore it was much more the other way round, with Gilmore most of the time in jail and offering the occasional sketch and letter.

In this sense Mailer is a major artist but a minor oscillator, where Gilmore was obviously despite his impressive drawing skills, a very minor artist and a major oscillator.  It is as though what Mailer was searching for in The Executioner’s Song was neither a means of arriving at moral point, nor trying to find ways of activating anomalous suspense, but instead the further reaches of ideas that had come to him many years before. Gilmore would of course not even have been a gleam in the writer’s eye, but he would become perhaps his most fruitful alter-ego. Often what a writer needs is not to fret over problems of moral point and how to generate suspense (be it in fiction or non-fiction form, finally), but instead how to find figures, through one’s imagination or reality, that carry the freight of one’s preoccupations. Gilmore is such a figure, and if one comes away from the book appalled by the death penalty, this will not be due to Mailer’s judicial skills, but instead his aesthetic ones.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Executioner’s Song

Habits and Cells

There is review on an online site of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, about the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah in 1977, that is a reasonably intelligent and detailed look at Mailer's mastery, but the Crime Narrative reviewer seems to miss the very point that makes the book such a monumental work of what we might call moral reflection, taking into account Martin Amis's problem in The Moronic Inferno with works like In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song. Amis insists that "what is missing...is moral imagination, moral artistry. The facts cannot be arranged to give them moral point. When the reading experience is over, you are left, simply with murder - and with the human messiness and futility that attends all death." Yet while the Crime Narrative reviewer insists on imposing a moral perspective on the book as he talks of Gilmore and his girlfriend Nicole Baker, this is the very morality that Mailer's book eschews because he is too far inside the lives of his subjects to offer a ready moral angle upon them. Mailer captures their thoughts and feelings, giving complexity and context to actions that can seem, from the outside, morally detestable. While Amis insists moral point is absent, and the Crime Narrative writer imposes one upon the book, actually Mailer looks for something more significant than moral point or its absence.

Now at one moment quite near the end of the book, with the execution about to take place, the phone rings and Noall Wootton, leading prosecutor in the Gilmore case, thinks "God, it's just like the movies, it isn't going to happen", and of course a fictional work could play with this tension where a non-fictional account cannot. As a non-fiction account, the book possesses what Richard J. Gerrig calls anomalous suspense. "Anomalous suspense arises when people express uncertainty with respect to outcomes about which they have certain knowledge. In three experiments, we demonstrate that readers can be made uncertain about whether, for example, George Washington was elected first president of the United States, when an obstacle to this well-known outcome is introduced in a short story."

Worth exploring here is the degree to which Mailer's book manages to offer both an ethos that Amis thinks is inevitably missing from such a work, and anomalous suspense concerning a case that is well detailed and yet where Mailer manages to put into the work the sort of suspense that has us wondering whether Gilmore will be killed or not. Part of this anomalous suspense actually rests in Mailer's capacity to shape moral focus away from the murderous actions of Gilmore and towards the murderous actions of the state. When in his review the Crime Narrative writer points up the white trash aspect of the characters, the low-life cowardice of Gilmore, the willingness of his lover Nicole Baker at one moment to consider killing someone who is thinking of bringing charges against Gilmore, then the writer is offering nothing if not moral point, but offering not at all moral reflection. Much of the anomalous suspense evident in Mailer's account comes from shaping the information around intensity of feeling over moral indignation, of searching out the energetic qualities in a character like Gilmore and wondering how often these forces have been blocked.

Where the Crime Narrative blogger imposes moral disdain, this leads to a strange, account of the book surely antithetical to Mailer's intentions. When the blogger says, "In the early part of the book, Gilmore comes across as what I feel he truly wasa worthless white trash criminal who was violent, ignorant, and unable to fit into society in any way", he adds, "enjoyably, Gilmore still got his head literally ground into the concrete in that dust-up. Similarly pleasing to read about is another incident in which Gilmore finally does engage in the closest thing to a fair fight, and promptly gets his face split open as he is dropped to the ground with a single punch." Yet Mailer indicates that in the first fight where he takes the burly Pete Galavon from behind, he would have been likely to win it had he boxed him. Pete won by getting him in a headlock and pulling him to the ground. What interests Mailer here is more Gilmore's bad instincts and self-destructive streak than his cowardly behaviour. "If Gary had waited to stand up and punch nose to nose, [his uncle] Vern thought he could have whipped the fellow. But here Pete had the hold and was using all his 240 pounds." Mailer seeks out not the general moral judgement, but the specific human behaviour, trying to see in it the complexity and perversity that can actively play with the anomaly of suspense where the outcome is given, because the suspense is no longer the historical tension of the event - where we know Gilmore will die - but instead the anomaly of character.

Throughout the book it is this that Mailer focuses upon as he tries not especially to give dignity to the poor white trash that the Crime Narrative reviewer cannot but see, and which would contain its own problems of condescension, but to comprehend the range of Gilmore's thoughts and feelings. It is such an approach that can remove the problem of anomalous suspense and equally the issue of moral point. When Wootton offers his comment quoted above, Mailer details it not within the context of a redundant suspense device (redundant in the sense that unlike in a fictional work there is no choice available), but as an issue of ambivalent behaviour. Wootton is the prosecutor containing his own doubts, and fears, and Gilmore the hardened criminal who has nevertheless softened some of the prejudices of many who have come into contact with him. Instead of a simple case of anomalous suspense where we wonder will Gilmore be killed or won't he, Mailer has layered the book with psychological density, so what we have is one character, Wootton, whose life and motives have been explored, thinking about the imminent death of another, Gilmore, for whom Mailer would seem to have a deep degree of compassion.

In an interview in a book published fifteen years earlier, Cannibals and Christians, Mailer talks of the cell as like a little animal. "It knows exactly what it wants to eat, what is good for it. But a cell is not a psychic structure. It may be part of the machine which makes up a habit...but it has no powers of command. "Mailer adds, "A habit is a psychic structure. What it's composed of literally need not concern us, but since it's a construction of mind which sits in authority upon the body, we can think of it as a law which is intangible but more or less absolute in its effect upon citizens." When the blogger says, "Gilmore suffered that singular trait that seems to afflict all small-time hoods: a complete inability to delay gratification" it is offered as moral judgement, but it is as if Mailer were interested in exploring a thought that came to him many years earlier, and doing so through the actual character of Gilmore. Gilmore often couldn't delay gratification, but Mailer might couch this in terms of the difference between the cells and habit, between what makes our cells well and what makes our society function. This calibrated relationship between cells and society, between man at his most physiological and society at its most constraining, was exactly what Gilmore happened to be a product of. Most of the constraints placed upon him were not modified by his own calibrations, but by society at its most heavily punitive: through the prison system. How does one suddenly create this self-calibration when the very habits Mailer talks of are going to be weak against the agitation of the cells? If the blogger wants to take the side of society against the thug, Mailer breaks the thug down into cells and habits, and explores in minute detail the two contrasting elements.

At one moment a hundred and sixty pages into the book, after Nicole and Gary have split up, he tries to win her back with a letter. In it he says, "I am one of those people who probably shouldn't exist. But I do." It is as though Gilmore himself is reflecting on the problem of the cells and of habit. Are people of habits as Mailer describes them entitled to live; whilst those too close to their cells are social liabilities and probably shouldn't exist at all? This is Gilmore offering a self-appraisal long before he commits the murders, long before he insists he should be put to death for them. Much later in the book Gilmore's attorney Bob Moody comments on seeing Nicole and Gary kissing. It had "been the longest and most passionate Bob ever saw. It went over the edge of decorum. He had to wonder a little about people who felt that strongly." Is this where the cells prove too strong for habit, as the character compares his life with Gilmore's? As he muses over why girls like Nicole go for people like Gary, he thinks about his own life with five children and a spouse, and where he is quite high up in the church, "which made for a different relation than you were going to see in the courthouse corridor." Moody is the bourgeois man of habit.

In Cannibals and Christians Mailer might well be describing a character not unlike the character above. "Postulate a modern soul, marooned in constipation, emptiness, boredom and a flat dull terror of death. A soul which takes antibiotics when ill, smokes filter cigarettes, drinks proteins, minerals and vitamins in a liquid diet, takes seconal to go to sleep, Benzedrine to awake and tranquillizers for poise. It is a deadened existence." Now we don't want to draw too broad a difference between the lawyer and the criminal; after all Gilmore blamed his stunted sexual performances on some of the drugs he took in prison. But the constipated figure Mailer so describes seems inculcated in habit, unable to feel the sort of emotional surge Moody so describes seeing in Gary and Nicole. If many will see in Gilmore yet another thug who doesn't know how to delay gratification, Mailer might wonder what happens to those whose habits demand this postponement to the detriment of their own bodies.

In an interview in the Paris Review, Mailer is asked if there is a hidden pattern to his novels and he says that he may have an obsession, "with how God exists". "Is He an essential god or an existential god; Is He all powerful or is He, too, an embattled existential creature who may succeed or fail in his Vision?" If Mailer refuses the moral dictates The Executioner's Song could easily offer, is it partly because Mailer is flexible in his approach to metaphysical possibility. His take is neither that of the religiously inclined fundamentalist practising old-fashioned morality, nor a pragmatic materialist accepting that society ought to terminate the lives of those who take the lives of others. Nor is it the liberal angle that insists killing is wrong in a society that is supposed to be progressive; and neither is it a New Testament compassion that feels one cannot put a man to death. Mailer respects the modes of people's spiritual beliefs, as if wondering about his own, whether that happens to be Gary and Nicole, Bob Moody or the figures of Dennis Boaz and Larry Schiller, the former a lawyer involved in Gary's case, the latter the man behind the financial dealings who would go on to direct the film from the book.

Mailer devotes a lot of space to their personal reflections, and many of them allude to spiritual necessity. It is as though Mailer wanted to get inside as many of his characters' spiritual lives as he could, and Boaz for example would seem an especially useful person for such an approach. When Mailer quotes the Los Angeles Times mentioning how Boaz "unsuccessfully tried to get himself arrested for smoking marijuana in the lobby of the Federal Building", it is the sort of action Mailer might approve of, especially when he says in the Paris Review interview that his own spiritual awareness came from "all the years I was smoking marijuana". At one moment Dennis is talking to Gilmore about reincarnation and expanded consciousness. Gilmore believes in past lives; Dennis is less sure, and reckons, "I don't know. I'm open, but I don't find it relevant. I think one can have ethics without getting into reincarnation." Yet Dennis is nevertheless spiritually focused: one reason why he hadn't practised much law is because he became more interested in the consciousness movement, and Mailer details his fascination with group meditation, and mentions the Findhorn foundation "where twenty pound cabbages could be grown in an inch of topsoil way up in Scotland, and where even flowers could bloom in the winter through your attunement to plants and your ability to guide the energies as they come down." If Gilmore believes in the afterlife, and Dennis a spirituality of mind, for Schiller it resides in the belly. Larry Schiller's reputation had been earned negatively: he was well-known for getting a story out of "Jack Ruby on his deathbed, and Susan Atkins in the Manson trial". His Gilmore story was an escape from this, he hoped, rather than its nadir. As the execution date nears, Schiller is wondering whether his wheeling and dealing isn't leaving him where he used to be, as he is offered a hundred and twenty five grand to describe the shooting of Gilmore. It is a deal that "would be pure gravy." He finds himself crying, and thinks "I don't know any longer whether what I'm doing is morally right," and this makes him cry even more. "In the middle of the crying he went into the bathroom and took the longest fucking shit of his life. It was all diarrhea". Mailer describes the defecation as if a reflection of ethos: the diarrhea went through him as if to squeeze the last rotten thing out..." as Schiller then turns the story down. This is the 'metaphysics of the belly', to use a phrase Mailer utilised as the title for an experimental interview with himself in Cannibals and Christians from whence the earlier quote about the modern soul marooned in constipation comes. "Feces are seen as the most distasteful and despised condition of being. They are precisely that part of the alimentation in the universe which we have rejected, and mind you, rejected not morally, not emotionally, not passionately..." as he links our relationship with faeces to bad conscience. If for Dennis a good conscience comes from one's relationship with the world of the spirit; for Larry it locates itself in his very bowels.

These are very different modes, and if Mailer is the sort of writer who has always talked of writing the Great American novel, it isn't only vainglorious ambition, but also that there is a restless need to explore the possibilities of self that may require a great novel to do these modes justice. In his short story, 'The Man who Studies Yoga', Mailer talks of his central character: Sam "likes to think about other lives he may have led, and he envies the most astonishing variety of occupations. It is easy enough to see why he should wish for the life of an executive with the power and sense of command it may offer, but virtually from the same impulse Sam will wish himself a bohemian living in an unheated loft..." Partly what makes The Executioner's Song such a fine book is that Mailer attends to the modes of living in a twofold way. Firstly, Mailer does so by populating his book with numerous characters, from Gilmore to Nicole, from Schiller to Boaz, from Cousins Brenda and Toni to Uncle Vern. These are people who don't only contextualize the story but also hypothesise around it, and give a context for their own inner life and its outer potential. When late in the book Toni goes to visit Gary in jail, she dances with him and though Gary is a terrible dancer, she can feel that something special is taking place. "Like Brenda, Toni had been married four times, twice for only a few months. Her fourth marriage had been with Howard and that had lasted nine years. It was a good marriage, but Toni had never exactly felt the kind of special feelings she had now. It was like she'd known Gary for a lifetime in these couple of hours." Near the beginning of the book Brenda and her husband are about to pick Gary up after he's been released from prison. Brenda can't wait to see the cousin she hasn't seen in years and wants him to drive faster; John doesn't want to pick up a ticket. "They were travelling the Interstate, after all. So he kept at 60. Brenda gave up fighting. She was altogether too excited to fight."

In an excellent review of the book in The New York Times, Joan Didion reckoned "The women...are surprised by very little. They do not on the whole believe that events can be influenced. A kind of desolate wind seems to blow through the lives of these women in "The Executioner's Song," all these women who have dealings with Gary Gilmore." She is absolutely right and yet curiously wrong: but this is part of the paradox Mailer explores as the women in the book accept their fate but possess a yearning for another life. Even the four marriages of Brenda and Toni, and Nicole's two marriages by the age of nineteen, indicate a desire for a different existence, while at the same time the sheer number of failed attempts suggests an acceptance of its impossibility. But what the book then captures well is the hopeful life contained within the demands of the actual. A person doesn't only have a social existence that can contain several lives (as Brenda does with her four marriages; as Schiller does with his scurrilous existence and his serious projects), but also the possible lives one can idly think up. It is as though Gilmore's interest in reincarnation is the ultimate extension of this possibility: when Gilmore and Nicole take a drugs overdose after Gary's on death row, they hope to meet in another life. Earlier in the book Mailer notes: "Gary began to talk about reincarnation. After death, he said, he was going to start all over again. Have the kind of life he had always wished he had."

It is these modes of living that allow Mailer to escape from the moral condescension the Crime Narrative writer insists are many of the characters' due, and also to give meaning and purpose to suspense that needn't any longer be anomalous. Mailer refuses to make a life a given, and subsequently Gilmore as cold-blooded, white trash killer is merely one of the many identities he possesses, and the dilution of this personality into the others creates an unavoidable moral complexity because Gilmore is no longer the one thing that can be morally containable. Mailer constantly searches out amplified selves that contain simultaneously a social dimension, a hypothetical dimension, an inner dimension and an emotional dimension. Characters here exist, yearn, think and feel, and out of these four states come manifold selves that Mailer then gives over to a certain form of suspense.

One can see this for example in the presentation of Schiller. A merely social perspective could have focused on Schiller's girth, his scruffy beard, and his chequebook journalistic persona. Mailer, though, retreats from ready morality and gives suspense to his existence. Here is a man at the crossroads of his life, where he can sell the story short and make a fortune, or play fair to his burgeoning conscience and feel that he is no longer selling stories on the emotional cheap. Mailer presents the episode in the hotel room where Schiller's bowels give way as an existential crisis as a crisis of choice that takes place in the base of his stomach. Now generally speaking most people reading the book will know that Gilmore was executed, but the many variables in a life will be unknown to us, and so the attention to the specifics can give tension to the quotidian. When for example Gilmore gives Nicole a letter after she leaves him, we wonder how she will respond: will she take Gilmore back or not? When Brenda and Toni show an interest in Gary we might muse over whether they will cheat on their husbands, or potentially leave them since they are already four marriages in. Yet Mailer of course explores a twofold quotidian: both the potentialities in the social life and the possibilities available to the interior one. This means that within the inevitability of its conclusion, the writer creates possibilities within and without the characters and cracks the twin problems of moral point and anomalous suspense.

Obviously however it wouldn't be enough for an artist to crack problems unless there happens to be within the work a question that the writer wants to address, and this is where we talk of the possible lives as well as the actual ones. Not only are there many characters - Gilmore, Nicole, Uncle Vern, Brenda, Toni, Moody, Schiller, Boaz, lawyer Craig Snyder, Nicole's ex Barrett, producer David Susskind and so on. There are also all the imaginative possibilities within these numerous figures as Mailer constantly shuttles between the cells and the habits: man as physiological being and man as social construction, and the many areas of being in between. In a piece on Power in Advertisements for Myself, Mailer reckons "Social communication is the doom of every truly felt thought." He is talking specifically about the mass media, but it is as if Mailer wondered how could you reach into people's communicative reservoirs, and find not so much the potential within them in how people might have developed differently if they had better chances in life, but their emotional and imaginative possibilities.

In the first half of the book (titled Western Voices) which focuses mainly on Gilmore and his family, and people living in the community, Mailer might assume these are lives unlikely to develop in surprising and hopeful directions, but that doesn't mean people's thoughts cannot. If the second half of the book (Eastern Voices) concentrates more on people who can choose in their lives (from Boaz to Schiller), the first half concentrates on the possible lives within the actual existence, as the actual lives of people seem unable to escape predicaments their thoughts readily can. This gap between the social and the personal is well illustrated in one moment where we find out that Nicole can't seem to stop herself becoming pregnant and a passage later where she explores how she feels about Gary. "She read how at certain times in the month you could get pregnant more than other times, but didn't know when...Besides she somehow knew she wasn't going to get pregnant." She was wrong: after making an appointment at Planned Parenthood "they said she was definitely carrying something." Describing her early relationship with Gilmore, we notice that "More and more an ugly old feeling was coming back. It was the way she got when she had to fit herself to somebody...when she got into a bad mood it was like she had two souls." Is this artistic license; that Mailer creates thoughts and feelings Nicole never actually had? This seems unlikely for at least two reasons. Near the end of the book, Mailer observes through Schiller that Nicole "seemed to have a commitment to the interviews as deep as the beating of her heart," and later says, "maybe there wasn't an interview in his twenty years in the media that hasn't been built on some part of Bullshit Mountain, but with Nicole he got along." Mailer seems here to be searching out the very space that he claims social communication refuses in his comments in Advertisements for Myself.

A more liberally inclined book might try and invert the prejudices and assumptions of theCrime Narrative writer, but just as we're indicating that Mailer has no intrinsic interest in moral point or countering anomalous suspense, equally he has no interest in trying to make Gilmore a misunderstood and sacrificial figure. If Gilmore is to be rescued from moral judgement, this doesn't mean Mailer will save him morally; more that he must do so ontologically. Morality is merely his social side; the cells and their variations, the existential. What Mailer's book explores is the problematic between the social and the existential, but not to focus on the morally mitigating circumstances of Gilmore's life and the iniquities of the death penalty. A writer's purpose after is surely to understand character, not defend or prosecute their protagonists. When in the Paris Review Mailer talks of Gilmore he mentions how in many ways Gilmore could be utterly selfish, but in others very unselfish, almost saintly. What Gilmore doesn't possess is a calibrated self where the selfishness can be socially sanctioned and the unselfishness equally so, and perhaps this is vital to the very killings. It is as if Gilmore shot two people in the head to clear his own. When Nicole splits up with Gary, Brenda sees his state of agitation, noticing it was obvious, Mailer says, Gilmore "was in that advanced kind of suffering where he could hardly keep a thought to himself." Does he blow other peoples' brains out to protect his own mind?

Such an action is about as selfishly uncalibrated a deed as a human can do: an act of breathtaking self-preservation all the more pronounced of course because he kills so arbitrarily. The people he kills are not likely lovers of Nicole, but strangers. One cannot find as is often the case a social reason for the murders, where the killer acts according to a series of motivating circumstances that justify the actions socially however terrible these actions may be. Certainly the deaths incorporate robberies, and Gilmore has spent his life thieving, but the thief who also kills will usually do so because the person he murders will have been an obstacle to his desires. The shop assistant pulls a gun, perhaps, or refuses to lie on the ground, or tries to go for the phone. It might be a horrible murder, but it is still a calibrated action. When Gilmore kills it goes beyond even the cold-blooded, which usually indicates that the mind is present but the feelings elsewhere. Here though it as if the mind was elsewhere also: as if in not being able to keep a thought to himself after Nicole leaves him, then he has no thoughts he can safely call his own. Is it no more and no less than a nervous system that commits the deeds: the cells as Mailer would call them? "Habits", Mailer says in Cannibals and Christians, "usually are anti-sensuous structures. They are built up and maintained precisely by insulating our senses from most stimuli." The consequence of this is however that most actions are well-calibrated even if little felt, and that the motivating factors contain variables that make sense of the behaviour. Gilmore seemed much more sensuously behavioural than most, and so the sort of selfishness Mailer talks of is the very selfishness of the cells: their need to act without the usual firewalls of socialisation that stops many of us acting out certain feelings; feelings so firewalled that we might not even begin to act them out until they've been socially well-sanctioned. At one moment early in the book, and shortly after Gary is released from prison, he goes out with one of Brenda's friends, and at one moment asks her if she will go to a motel with him. She turns him down and says that we have to earn certain things in life, but Gary was never someone who quite understood this.

However, there may have been a very good reason why he wouldn't, since he was someone so much more attuned to the cells than to the social, so much better at getting under the social radar than playing its game. Socially, Brenda and her sister would be unlikely to want to sacrifice their marriages for an affair with Gilmore, but there is no doubt that their cells craved him. This is evident in the comment we quoted earlier from Toni, and also indicated by an aside at the end of the book's first section, when Brenda responds to something her husband says. "She loved Johnny for saying that, loved her big, strong whale-heart of a husband who would have compassion for possible rivals, which was more than she could say for herself. "Oh Lord," Said Brenda, "Gary loves Nicole.""

Is it something in Gary's cells that they love and that they can't quite understand? Is there an element in Gary of his appeal residing in the very elements that society must also punish: his inability to function socially but instead to exist on a primitively existential plane where the moment is constantly intensified and demanded? By analogy, let us think of a more benign example of obsolete behaviour permeating the present era, explored by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. In 'Notes on Gesture', Agamben says that by the end of the 19th century the gestures of the Western bourgeoisie were irretrievably lost, as he wonders where they might have gone. He mentions how Oliver Sacks would see such gestures showing up on the streets of New York, how "the dance of Isadora and Diaghilev, the novels of Proust, the great Jugendestil poets from Pascoli to Rilke and ultimately - in the most exemplary way - silent cinema, trace the magic circle in which humanity sought, for the last time, to evoke what was slipping through its fingers for ever." If this is the trace of the bourgeois gesture that Agamben sees; then what about Gilmore and his actions? If the gesture is the symbolic dimension of behaviour that sublimates power and desire, action is the refusal of such sublimation. Where the Crime Narrative writer insists on seeing Gilmore as another white trash criminal incapable of delaying pleasure, is it not more useful to see Gilmore possessing an obsolete cellular system next to the demands of the modern age, rather as Agamben wonders whether those lost gestures manifest themselves in random movements and art works? But if the lost gesture returns in manifold form, does the violent act do so also?

But where, no matter the violent dimension to gesture that is invoked when Agamben talks about Tourette's syndrome, the gesture is a dimension (utilising Mailer's terms) of habit, the action is the mode of the cell. Gilmore's charisma, such as it is, functions on the level of the cell and not habit, so when Brenda's friend proposes he needs to earn certain things, she is indicating that he needs to master the habits of the culture. Yet part of his appeal for Brenda and Toni, and of course Nicole, lies elsewhere: as if on a cellular level. Now this needn't be reduced to the sexual (Gilmore wasn't always a great lover with Nicole, and the relationships with Brenda and Toni were platonic), but it did indicate behaviour beyond the habitual. When he first converses with Nicole she thinks that "it was getting to be the best conversation she ever had. She had always thought the only way to have conversations like that was in your head."

Such a conversation has nothing to do with the rules of social engagement, of politeness and erudition, of being socially skilled. It is instead where someone ignores many of the social norms and heads straight for a person's interior pertinence, zeroing in on someone's chaotic thoughts and feelings and not on their habitual actions, the sort of actions that are detailed in many a conversation where someone asks what we do, where we live and our hobbies and interests and so on. Now of course if Nicole had never met anybody quite like Gary, Gary believed he had never met anyone quite like Nicole. As he says in one letter: "Nothing in my experience, prepared me for the kind of honest open love you gave me. I'm so used to bullshit and hostility, deceit and pettiness, evil and hatred. Those things are my natural habitat." It might be the natural habitat of many people, except that Gary has spent much of his life in prison and so such elements of human behaviour become exacerbated in the penal system. Any low-life characteristics he possessed weren't alleviated by prison but exaggerated there, and partly what interests Mailer is a figure of habitual bad behaviour that prison did little to eradicate, alongside a self-exploration in the same place that Gilmore chose to develop.

It is this combination of bad habits and good cells, of ruthless actions and elevated thoughts and feelings that gives Mailer's book much of its tension. It is as if moral and anomalous suspense becomes superficial terms next to the oscillating possibilities within Gilmore himself as he can say at one moment about his relationship with Nicole "there are some things you just know. And it went so deep so fast - it was a recognition, a renewal, a re-union," while saying elsewhere, "don't fuck those lovely cocksuckers that want to fuck you. They make me want to commit murder again and I hate to feel that kind of thing. Get those bastards away from your life." It is of course a sense of oscillation consistent with Mailer's own career and life, as if for all the good education Harvard gave him, for all the early success that came with The Naked and the Dead, Mailer knew that he was also potentially other than what he happened to be: his habits were not entirely consistent with his cells. Now of course Mailer is often seen as the bad boy of modern American letters, but it would be too easy to say that Mailer (who infamously stabbed his wife) identifies with Gilmore. It is more that Gilmore takes much further than Mailer the problem of the cells and the habits. If for Mailer there was the occasional outburst and a few days in prison, while the rest of the time the cellular was sublimated into the work, in Gilmore it was much more the other way round, with Gilmore most of the time in jail and offering the occasional sketch and letter.

In this sense Mailer is a major artist but a minor oscillator, where Gilmore was obviously despite his impressive drawing skills, a very minor artist and a major oscillator. It is as though what Mailer was searching for in The Executioner's Song was neither a means of arriving at moral point, nor trying to find ways of activating anomalous suspense, but instead the further reaches of ideas that had come to him many years before. Gilmore would of course not even have been a gleam in the writer's eye, but he would become perhaps his most fruitful alter-ego. Often what a writer needs is not to fret over problems of moral point and how to generate suspense (be it in fiction or non-fiction form, finally), but instead how to find figures, through one's imagination or reality, that carry the freight of one's preoccupations. Gilmore is such a figure, and if one comes away from the book appalled by the death penalty, this will not be due to Mailer's judicial skills, but instead his aesthetic ones.


© Tony McKibbin