The Executioner’s Song (1979) | virtual book

The Executioner's Song (1979)

by Norman Mailer

#reviews #writing #books #true-crime #new-journalism #nonfiction-novel #norman-mailer Mentioned in how to narrate transparently

I picked up this book to learn about Norman Mailer’s writing style. He really is a very good chronicler. His writing is very clear, human, warm, and vivid. Shades of John Steinbeck. He does a great job of

writing from various perspectives

how to narrate transparently

#essays #writing #narration #point-of-view #norman-mailer #new-journalism Mentioned in how to tell a story, The Executioner's Song (1979), Infinite Jest (1996)

I read half of The Executioner’s Song – Norman Mailer’s gargantuan, Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction novel about Gary Gilmore – and figured I could put it down and move on. I knew how the story would end and had read enough of the book to appreciate Mailer as a writer. And yet, despite my skepticism of the value of finishing books, a few months on I found myself drawn back in. And in my second session with the book I noticed a technique that Mailer uses throughout it.

I don’t know if the technique has a name. A good name might be transparent narrator. Its purpose is to convey a character’s point of view without quoting them or otherwise indicating that you are speaking for them.

Here’s a passage from Mailer’s book, concerning Tamera, a cub reporter who began working on Gary’s story before it became world-famous:

Tamera had gone to work at 5 A.M. and spent six hours Xeroxing Gary’s letters. She knew some of the reporters were raising their eyebrows at how she protected the stuff, but Tamera didn’t want anyone reading over her shoulder, and making the sort of cynical nonchalant comments newspaper people could make. Still, nobody seemed that excited.

In fact, at the Friday afternoon meeting, the Executive Editor said, “I don’t think we’re interested in love letters.” Just brushed it off like that.

The narrator gives us a sense of Tamera’s personality and attitude towards the situation without quoting her or breaking the third person narrative. The narrator is not pretending to be Tamera, and yet we hear her through him, most clearly in the brief sentences that punctuate both paragraphs:

Still, nobody seemed that excited.

Just brushed it off like that.

These phrases are said by the narrator in Tamera’s voice. We feel like she is telling us her part of the story over a cup of coffee.

Mailer achieves this effect by embedding many little phrases along the away. Notice the casualness of this phrase:

reporters were raising their eyebrows at how she protected the stuff

The stuff, in particular.

Notice the casualness here too:

the sort of cynical nonchalant comments newspaper people could make

Newspaper people.

These are consistent, subtle choices that change how the reader perceives the story. This technique is crucial to keeping Mailer’s 1,000+ page book fresh. If the whole thing was written from his perspective, it would be much harder to get through. Instead, he narrates transparently, allowing us to hear the story from the perspective of the many people who lived it.

and of building from real life events a plot that feels inevitable. Foreshadowing exists in literature because it exists in life. There are hints and omens, but life is busy and complicated and ever-moving. Mistakes are decisions that the future spoils. This book conveys both of these things very well: the inevitability and the ambiguity of what will come.