A Fire on the Moon
by Norman Mailer.
Random House, 1970, reprinted 2014,
Mailer starts with the news of Hemingway’s death; we’ll start with Ezra Pound’s claim, in ABC of Reading, that literature “is news that STAYS news.” The appeal of having one of America’s best-known writers cover the biggest news story of the decadeprobably of the century, conceivably of all timewas obvious, and Mailer was a natural fit. Back then a lot of people were quoting the opinion that he was the best journalist in America. One of those people was Mailer himself, who took umbrage at praise that tacitly downgraded his achievements as a novelist. This gets aired very early on in a book in which, sooner or later, most things get aired. The irony is that Mailer “knew he was not even a good journalist.” Unless, that is, he could succeed in redefining and enlarging journalism to cover pretty much everything, including the writing of the book in which the attempt would be made. Imagine Laurence Sterne with a huge subject, a big advance, and a looming deadline and you have some sense of the conflicting pressures at work on Of A Fire on the Moon (the original American title).
The deadline needs emphasizing. Other writers had plenty to say about the moon landingeveryone had something to say about itbut few would have had the chops to bang out 115,000 words for publication in three issues of Life magazine, the first tranche of which, Mailer groans, was due less than three weeks after the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific. That, to put it mildly, is a lot of words in a very short time: not quite as challenging a task as the one set out by John F. Kennedy in 1961to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decadebut a serious job of work all the same. So the question today, when no one under the age of forty-five was alive and able to experience the event, let alone read about it as news, is the extent to which the result is compromised or enhanced by the circumstances of its occasion and composition. Now that the subject matter is the stuff of historywhen the word astronaut might be used in the context of historical fiction as opposed to science fictiondoes Mailer’s book pass Pound’s testing definition? And where does it stand within two quite different contexts, that of other books about the moon landings and within the large scope and wildly mixed quality of Mailer’s work as a whole?
Coming warm on the heels of The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (both 1968), A Fire on the Moon was Mailer’s third book of extended reporting. He features as a participating observer in both of the earlier works (“Mailer” in Armies, “the reporter” in Miami), as he would again (as “Norman”) in The Fight, his masterly account of the Muhammad AliGeorge Foreman bout in Zaire in 1975. Life magazine proudly announced that the first excerpt from Mailer’s report on “the moon venture” was the longest nonfiction piece they’d ever published (forcing into second place an article on “the Woodstock Rock Festival,” and featuring a cover photo not of Neil Armstrong but “Aquarius,” as Mailer termed himself this time around). By Martin Amis’s estimation, some of the excursions of the New Journalism seem “as long as Middlemarch,” but freedom from restrictive word or page counts could also be extended to the old journalism, if the subject matter demanded it: The New Yorker had published John Hersey’s Hiroshima in its entirety in 1946. What’s new is the undisguised presence of a generic growth hormone whereby the previously self-effacing disposition of the journalist gives way to the swagger and confidence of the performance-enhancing novelist. As such it’s difficult to think of a work that better exemplifies the strengths and shortcomings of what we now think of as New Journalism (which might be different to what the term designated at the time it was coined) than A Fire on the Moon. Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels (1966) seems, by comparison, a model of calm and dispassionate economy.
The unfettered deployment of a participating voice, abandonment of the idea of disinterested recording in favor of subjectivity so extreme that it threatens to displace or usurp the subject, appear unprecedented because the precedent is hiding in plain view. A flickering but frequent presence in Mailer’s writing, D. H. Lawrence operated along similar lines in his non-fiction and journalism, albeit on a smaller scale. As Rebecca West realized after his death, Lawrence only ever wrote “about the state of his own soul,” using whatever subject was symbolically at hand at any given moment. The occasion for Lawrence might have been the death of a porcupine or his first encounter with Native Americans; for Mailer it’s a Saturn V rocket, the launch of which is evoked in stirringly Lawrentian rhythms and images. Other passages could almost have been written by Lorenzo, at his ranch in New Mexico: “In that long-ago of prairie spaces when the wind was the message of America, Indians had lived in greater intimacy with the moon than any European.”
More generally, Mailer shares Lawrence’s hieratic belief that he might be able to offer some kind of solution to the sickness of his times (of which both men are, according to a different series of tests, symptoms). For Mailer the success or failure of the Apollo 11 mission is constantly elided with the project of writing his book about it: each, in its different way, exhibits signs of pathology and cure. The moon landing hails both a new age and the end of an era, while the book about it (which is often thought of as an embodiment of the new) is shot through with a dread of impending obsolescenceof a very recent kind. How can the printed word compete with television in an age when events are made for TV, when the author is reduced to watching the events he is covering on telly? In one respect the two turn out to be complementary. Those pages evoking the launch of the Saturn V might have been helped by watching the filmed footage, just as the blow-by-blow account of the Rumble in the Jungle would have been impossible without reviewing playback of the fight. Given that the moon landing was a dramatic extension of the possibilities of communication (as President Nixon said when he was patched through to the men on the moon, this had to be “the most historic phone call ever made”), the fact that it could be broadcast live on TV was itself part of the story. If the landing could not be filmed there was no point going. At the risk of the tail wagging the dog, they went to the moon in order to film it. (To that extent, people who claimed that the whole thing was a set-up were right; it’s just that it was filmed on location, not in a studio.)
In the age of Gravity, of simulated cinematic immersion in space, it is more striking than ever that footage of the greatest technological feat of all time looked no better “than a print of the earliest silent movies… Ghost beckoned to ghosts and the surface of the moon looked like a ski slope at night.” These blurry images herald a brave new world of satellite communications, but the era that Mailer foresees, when reporters’ work involves “rewriting publicity handouts,” is close to the situation sketched in Flat Earth News (2009), Nick Davies’s analysis of the parlous state of contemporary journalism. Prophecies can come true in ways and circumstances very different to how they were originally envisaged. And since no one minds whether they turn up exactly as and when predicted, they’re immune to the kind of fact-checking that might cast retrospective doubt on Mailer’s extravagancies of style and method. Did the moon adventure really “help to disclose the nature of the Lord and the Lucifer who warred for us”? Is jaundice the “infectious disease beyond all other which comes to strong people when they live too long in an environment alien to their will, work with all their power to solve the complexities of that environment, and fail”? Does the fact that Frank Borman was so afflicted by diarrhea and vomiting that Apollo 8 (not 9, as Mailer writes) became, in Andrew Chaikin’s words, “a flying toilet” mean that he was not “hard as hand-forged nails”? Such questions miss the point, especially since one of Mailer’s many big points is that the world of NASA, of computers and data, is so distinct from the realm of imaginative thought where the likes of Aquarius reside and reign. A Fire on the Moon is a plea on behalf of the unverifiable, of metaphysics (or a novelist’s idea of metaphysicsthat is to say, “the fiction of unspoken evidence”) over physics. Since Mailer’s book is partly a psychological portrait and reaction to the moon shot, anything in it is accurate (“there is no psychological reality like a man’s idea of himself”) by virtue of the fact that it occurred to him. He was, after all, one of the “sensors in the currents of the churn.”
The suspicion that, in the process of churning out all these words, Mailer barely had time to stop and think is not always assuaged by the way that Aquarius is constantly telling us that he’s skulking off to brood, cogitate, and mull over. But it is perhaps countered by his commitment to the idea that the quality of creative thought might be enhanced by the pace of composition being forced. A Fire on the Moon incarnates the conviction that the finished work can have something of the feel of a work in progress, one that shares the minute-by-minute uncertainty and drama of the moon shot (a quality that remains strong even now, when the outcome of the mission is no longer in doubt). The lingering traces of Kerouac’s creed of “first thought best thought” manifest themselves, at worst, as a stream of filibustering. Describing the multiple and overlapping safety measures at work in the spacecraft, Mailer writes that redundancy “was built into every aspect of every system.” The book echoes with repeated rhythmic growls, self-reflecting asides, and recurring observations: Armstrong’s “face within the space helmet as lashless in appearance as a newborn cat in a caul,” for example, gets re-played a few pages later. But just as Mailer acknowledges and thereby deflects the reader’s potential complaint that he’s taken on “this grim tough job of writing for enough money to pay his debts,” so he acknowledges the potential complaint that “your style is redundant” by appeal to the subject matter: by following NASA’s example and making “redundancy a virtue.” A work which would seem to have benefited from careful editing is conceptually and rhythmically at odds with the idea. The conundrum whereby the massive weight and bulk of the Saturn V is made up mainly of the fuel necessary to hurl it into space finds equivalent expression in the power-base of Mailer’s prose. The money-driven, time-pressed mode of composition generates a torrent of insights, large and small feats of perception, analysis, and phrasing. Of course Aquarius is self-indulgent, but a more temperate author would have drawn more attention towould practically have framed and exhibitedpassages of brilliance, intimacy, and delicacy that he allows to rush past without a backward glance.
All the more remarkable, then, that in Part II, “Apollo,” we are treated to an abrupt increase in the proportion of diligent recording, reporting, and transcribing, in which the minutiae of the journey to the moon, the landing and the re-docking of the astronauts in space, are painstakingly itemized with considerable scientific expertise, no loss of momentum, and an escalation of tension and intensity. It’s a reminder of how Mailer could do so much writing that is not of the kind we associate with himeven while doing much that is Maileresque to the point of parody. Indeed, the tonal range within the overall narrative trajectory is striking. Again there is perhaps a parallel with the moon journey itself, with the way that the Command Module is constantly rotating in flight so that it’s kept nicely toasted all round rather than scorched by solar rays on one side while the other freezes. Mailer, by turns, is analytical, hyperbolic, delirious, homey (that wonderful evocation of the moon’s surface as “a barnyard trod by countless hooves”), and lyrical (“the moon was a voice which did not speak”). He may not have been a wit, but that did not stop him being uproariously funny. One of Armstrong’s first jobs after the small stepgiant leap is to scoop up a sample of moon dust so that “if the unmentionable yak or the Abominable Snowman were to emerge from the crater,” he could leap back aboard the Lunar Module and make his escape. Buzz Aldrin has to remind Armstrong to do this, causing the first man on the moon to snap backunderstandably, since “nagging was nagging even on the moon.”
Having studied aeronautical engineering at Harvard, Mailer had the knackit’s something he shares with Len Deightonof conveying complex technical specifications and design imperatives with a confidence and ease that enables ignorant readers to feel capable of a level of understanding to which they had not hitherto been privy. That “curious creature” the Lunar Module, for example, “had been designed from the inside, and so was about as ugly as a human body which had shaped itself around the excessive development of a few special organs. Conceive of a man whose only function in life was to win pie-eating contestswhat a stomach would he develop, large as a steamer trunk.”
These registers, of course, are not entirely distinct, are all the time merging and overlapping, so that to read Mailer is like being rigged up to a piece of machinery that pre-articulates our own reactions to momentous events: “A reductive society was witnessing the irreducible. But the irreducible was being presented with faulty technique. At that they [the Press] could laugh. And did again and again. There were moments when Armstrong and Aldrin might just as well have been Laurel and Hardy in space suits.” Note how one tone facilitates rather than cancels out another. Perhaps among all the other acknowledged and unacknowledged forebears, it’s Whitman’s American imperative, to “contain multitudes,” that is best exemplified by Mailer’s prose. If the astronauts “came in peace, for all mankind,” then Mailer aims to speak for all Americansand is obliged to recognize that, in a time of such fraught divisions, he can’t. After meeting with an African-American professor of his acquaintance, Mailer is confronted by a version of the view comically and economically expressed by another enduring cultural response to Apollo 11: Gil Scott-Heron’s song, “Whitey on the Moon.” It’s one of several encounters that leave Aquarius troubled, depressed, unsure of how best to take the measure and sound the depths of what’s happening. While the astronauts are still on their way back to Earth, he too will leave Houston and return home, “mental digestions churning,” recording the churn and adding to it while hurtling towards both a deadline and a marital break-up.
Clearly, A Fire on the Moon was the first work of literature to be devoted to the moon landings. Tom Wolfe would have the luxury of almost a decade of hindsight and research before publishing a kind of prequel, The Right Stuff, in 1979. Reading the two books in tandem serves, among other things, to validate much of Mailer’s analysis, including his understanding of the psychology of astronauts, of how the reticence of “men with a sense of mission so deep it could not be communicated” co-existed with a profound passivity: “They were virile, but they were done to.” It is probably not the first book to which a reader interested in the history of the space program will turn. That honor must surely go to Andrew Chaikin’s gripping and comprehensive A Man on the Moon (1994). A skeptical, even grudging alternative is provided by Gerard Degroot’s Dark Side of the Moon (2006).
What Mailer’s book manages, uniquely, to do is evoke events that will soon be half-a-century distant in such a way that they unfold again before our eyes. Within the mixed and lumpy bag of his own work, A Fire on the Moon is a lesser book than the story of the life and death of Gary Gilmore in The Executioner’s Song (1979). Inevitably lacking the focus and tight cohesion of The Fight, it fully deserves to join the latter among the ranks of Modern Classics. Its belated elevation, in this regard, is part of a continuing extension of the kind of book deemed worthy of admittance. If it is difficult to imagine when the resources might again be marshaled or the will found to push through a venture on the scale of the Apollo program, it is equally hard to think of anyone taking on the task of describing such an undertaking with Mailer’s gusto and urgency. As an extravagant and immediate response to “the most expensive gesture ever made,” it is not just a stunning achievement; it is also an appropriate one.
Geoff Dyer is the author of Out of Sheer Rage, The Ongoing Moment, The Colour of Memory, and numerous other books of fiction and nonfiction.