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Review of Books

From the Shelf

By Michael Lerner

After two trial runs last fall and this summer, The New York Review of Books has begun to publish bi-weekly: it is one of the most fantastic mixtures of genius and literary offal to descend on the book world in a decade. The genius of the Review is partly its conception--it could grow to fill the void The New Republic left in the 1930's when it slipped from its role of providing focus and direction in exploring liberal ideas. Since that time, American thinkers have had no publication literary or political which could serve as a forum, asking agreement only on a few central tenets, for their quarrels.

To say that a new liberal synthesis with new tenets around which discussion can range is evolving, however, does not mean the Review is equipped to take the Republic's dusty seat. The publication has no letter column -- a prerequisite to discussion. More important, the editors have not learned who their good and bad contributors are. So far they show no signs of learning. Lionel Abel, who has written a lucid critique of Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers in the current issue, is obviously a brilliant reviewer. Norman Mailer who reviews Mary McCarthy's The Group on the front page of the same issue is, on the other hand, a useless and horrid contributor.

Mailer's on The Group can only be described in superlatives simply because it is one of the very worst things to come along in some time. It is written in the form of a judgment handed down by a workers' revolutionary court at some imaginary trial. Mailer first cites some of the reviews of The Group as evidence, and then proceeds to pass judgment. It is summary justice. "All stand," Mailer writes. "The defendant's Fellow-Worker's Court will now find: Ergo: The Group, as all good literary workers keeping up the work must know by new, is a collective novel about a near (or let us say quasi--) revolutionary period in American life, the nineteen-thirties; its heroines are eight nice girls, all or conceivably all of them Episcopalian at some time or another (one needs a revolutionary statistician to set these matters straight), all of them Upper-Middle Class and all of them civilized to that point of Christless High Church rectitude whose communal odor is a cress between Ma Griffe and contraceptive jelly.

O Norman Mailer. why don't you try some fresh images? Why don't you experiment with some new metaphors? In all these years of writing hack stories for Esquire and Playboy, haven't you gotten the thrill of "contraceptive jelly" out of you? Evidently not. When Mailer asks himself if "Mary" has succeeded in writing a good novel about her odory heroines.... the answer is that she came just far enough to irritate the life out of us... She get just so far symbolically as the episode in one of her scenes where the butler comes in to whieper to his mistress that the child of the visiting lady has had an unfortunate accident in his pants. Yes, Mary deposited a lead on the promise, and it has to be washed all over again...

All right, but why did she fall? Where did she fink the job?

It is important to give the reader a sense of how this once-talented, once-creative writer's abominable prose drugs its hairy snowman feet across column after column of type. Follow his traces hoping to find something, but always at the end you find nothing there. Mailer concludes, as far as I can tell, that Mary finked the job because "nice girls live on the thin juiceless crust of the horror beneath, the screaming incest, the buried diabolisms.... Yet Mary is too weak to push through the crust and so cannot achieve a view of the world which has root."

The point to be made is not that Mailer's image is a direct steal from Robert Louis Stevenson, who said it much better. The point to be made is that with this the editors of The New York Review of books have chosen to introduce their fourth issue. Inside the same issue is the exquisite Genet review by Lionel Abel which exemplifies everything that the Review can do. One is not convinced that the editors have learned to distinguish between them.

Abel's critique of Our Lady of the Flowers, recently translated into English, is an extraordinary example of how to treat a highly sexual fragment of literature. "Genet's prose is almost always dressed up--often in drag," Abel says of the homosexual writer. "Sartre himself has called attention to the ornateness with which Genet in A Thief's Journal writes of Bulksen's behind: 'Son posterieur etait un reposoir.' ('His behind was an altar.')"

Abel brings in sexual detail when it is necessary, amusing, or relevant in discussing Genet. It often, but the sensation one has even during the most graphic descriptions of homosexuality is that Abel is involved in clean, thoughtful, important discussion. Mailer's subject (despite one very graphic seduction in Miss McCarthy's book) is intrinsically far less sexual than Abel's study of Genet. Mailer manages somehow to be at once less interesting and dirtier.

I am not suggesting that the future of The New York Review balances on a choice between these two critics. There will no doubt be reviews more able than Abel's and others even worse than Mailer's. The question is whether the Review can develop a nucleus of writers such as Abel, more concerned with their subject than with themselves.

Another critic I hope stays with the nucleus is Irving Howe, whose piece on C. Wright Mills is a critique of the person, instead of his writing, executed in the best way. That Howe and Mills were at one time friends is central to the article, which discusses with vivid biographical scenes the evolution of Mills' ideas.

As a review of books and a review of people, this new tabloid-size magazine has shown some strengths and some ugly deficiencies. It is impossible to say which way the pressures of revenue, prestige, politics and the quest for fame will push the Review, or, indeed, whether it will survive at all. Whatever happens, there is nothing to match it. The New York Times Book Review cannot begin to offer the freshness and possibilities of the Review. Book Week, the Herald Tribune's new excursion into publishing, may undercut the Review financially but in no other sense do they compete. Anyone who cares at all about books should hope that this erratic little publication succeeds and gets better.

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