If you wanted to read your way through the Norman Mailer oeuvre—thirty-six works to date—you wouldn’t start at The Castle in the Forest, his new novel, because that would be as far as you’d get.
Mailer is a titan of the modern novel, and his feet are made of clay. Obsessed with sex and evil and truth, determined to go again and again to the hell at the bottom of the American ego, possessed of a prodigious gift for speaking the minds of men as different (except in their fanaticism) as it’s possible to get from his own suburban, middle-class, Jewish-American self, Mailer has given us, among many other sometimes path breaking, sometimes prize-winning, sometimes pedestrian books, a masterful chronicle of a death-row murderer (The Executioner’s Song), an unconvincing life of Jesus (The Gospel According to the Son) and a fabulously obese remembrance of a CIA operative (Harlot’s Ghost).
But The Castle in the Forest is a misjudged, prurient and ridiculous novel. It tells us nothing—about who we are and how we might live now. Who cares anymore how incestuously Adolf Hitler came into the world and how his ancestors lusted? And what could have possessed Mailer, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, to tell his oversexed melodrama in the voice of a—not even the—devil?
Mailer seems to have pinched his backdrops, his characters and dialogue, not to mention the lighting, from some B-grade Weimar Republic movie. The Castle in the Forest is The Blue Angel without Marlene Dietrich or the jazz.
If I missed something Mailer meant by his novel, I’m sorry; it was hard to see the wood for the trees in The Castle in the Forest.
Norman Mailer, The Castle in the Forest, Little, Brown, April 2007