"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Norman Mailer's Gospel as Fan Fiction

**Fair Warning: This Review Contains Spoilers**

The Gospel According to the Son: A NovelThe Gospel According to the Son: A Novel by Norman Mailer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twice I was fortunate enough to hear Norman Mailer speak in person. He was the keynote speaker at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State University, my alma mater. As Mr. Mailer spoke to our gathering, he mentioned The Gospel According to the Son. Why did he write it? As he put it, quite cockily, he’d read the New Testament gospels and felt that he could write the story better.

To be clear, he was speaking of the Gospels in literary terms, not theological. Simply put, Mailer felt the story of Jesus deserved to be told as a first-rate novel, and he felt confident he was the writer to do it. Not long after his remarks, I purchased a copy. But, as with many books I buy on impulse, I didn’t get around to reading it for several years.

The Gospel According to the Son was not what I expected, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I figured Mailer would construct his gospel along skeptical and profane lines. Not so. Skepticism is woven into this novel, but in a masterfully nuanced way. There is some of the profane, but it is surprisingly restrained. Mailer’s Jesus is devoutly celibate--a vulnerable human, open-minded and prone to passionate emotions. Yet he is also admirably righteous.

Now here is the spoiler: Mailer depicts Jesus as truly being the Son of God. There are plenty of points left open for interpretation in this book, but the question of Jesus’s divine status is not left in doubt. Mailer’s Jesus is the Christ.

As the story progresses, it becomes evident that Jesus really has visions and healing power. The author debunks some miracles, but not the biggest ones. Mailer’s Jesus, speaking in hindsight from the right hand of God, shows how the Biblical gospels are tailored for maximum persuasion and are rife with exaggeration. Yet still, Mailer’s Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and contends bravely with a real Satan.

Mailer succeeds in crafting a better narrative than the gospel writers. He converts their choppy and sometimes conflicting accounts into a single fluid and carefully paced narrative. There is a meticulously constructed conflict with the Pharisees. It feeds into the political tension between Jews and Romans, which Mailer renders adeptly without diverging into sprawling historical commentary about who really supplied the nails. And this lean, crisp plotline drives ever purposefully from manger to cross.

Mailer’s Jesus is multi-faceted, given to inner conflict and impulsiveness. He doesn’t have a perfect knowledge of his mission. In fact, much of the skepticism in the novel comes from the Son. Though poignant and engrossing relationships develop with John the Baptist, Peter and others, the arc of Jesus’s character explores the troubled and tenuous bond between Father and Son.

I do recommend The Gospel According to the Son, though as I’ve said it was not what I expected. Mailer proves quite content to err on the side of tradition by mostly honoring the spiritual outline set forth in the New Testament. As such, this is a surprisingly devotional work, rich with the same inspirational musing found in scripture, albeit delivered in an edgier manner.

By the end, I felt like I was reading an elaborate piece of fan fiction. It’s just that this particular Jesus fan was a two-time Pulitzer winner and not a devout Christian (I safely assume). I can even imagine Mailer typing the last chapter, looking over at a copy of the Bible and smirking, then saying aloud, “Father, forgive me. I know exactly what I’m doing.”

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