Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Moonfire (aka Of A Fire On The Moon)

Moonfire, by Norman Mailer
No month stated, 2019  Taschen

First published over three issues of Life Magazine in the summer of 1969 and then released in hardcover soon thereafter, Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On The Moon seems to be overlooked today, and might even have been overlooked at the time, given the rapid expiration date of interest in the Space Race. In fact I read somewhere that the publisher was surprised at how little interest there was in the hardcover edition, which came out just a few months after the Apollo 11 moon landing of July 1969; already by then the public had virtually no interest in the subject. 

The title of Mailer’s unexpurgated work is Of A Fire On The Moon, but under discussion here is Moonfire, Taschen’s abridgement of Mailer’s book that is chock full of some of the greatest space race photos I’ve ever seen, most of them from contemporary issues of Life. Simply put, this little hardcover (larger than a mass market paperback but smaller than a trade paperback) is one of the most visually stunning books I’ve ever had the pleasure to own. Usually I steer clear of abdriged books – I prefer to read the full monty, as it were – but in this case Taschen’s editors have done a fine job whittling down Mailer’s incessant navel-gazing and just sticking to what most readers are here for: a bird’s eye peek at NASA at its height, and a great picture of the era in which the first moon landing occurred. 

Actually, Of A Fire On The Moon, particularly in this illustrated “Moonfire” edition, is just as much a picture of its era as the similar-in-spirit contemporary documentary Moonwalk One. The touch of Stanley Kubrick is very evident, from Mailer’s own obsessive musings on the nature of the moon voyage to the incredible photographs that grace the book, in particular the ones by Life photographer Ralph Morse. Humorously, the Signet paperback of Of A Fire On The Moon features a blurb on the opening page which states that Mailer’s book is “The closest thing to 2001 yet produced by an important writer.” I’m sure Arthur C. Clarke really appreciated that! While Mailer doesn’t go as far as Moonwalk One on the “future shock” angle, he definitely captures the vibe in the early sequences in which he visits the NASA centers in Florida and Texas. 

At the end of the post I’ll feature a few random pages from Moonfire, but be aware this is just a scratching of the surface. I don’t exaggerate when I say that the book is stuffed with incredible photographic work, the vast majority of it in those wonderful eye-popping colors of the era. Again it’s the photography of Ralph Morse that really stands out, and I was surprised to find that there hasn’t been a book devoted solely to his NASA photography. He gets some photos that are downright Kubrickrian, in particular a shot of Apollo 11 command module pilot Mike Collins eating breakfast with his wife that looks like it could’ve come right out of 2001 (included below). In my opinion, the first half of Moonfire has the best photos, as they’re all in this spirit, staged shots of the astronauts in training or going about their daily lives. But once the narrative moves to the moon voyage the photos follow suit, the majority of them being ones the astronauts themselves took on the voyage and on the moon. So, certainly important from a historical perspective, but lacking the stylistic finesse of the earlier photos. 

Mailer writes in the New Journalism style that was becoming popular at the time, but Moonfire can in no way be confused with another New Journalism look at the space race: Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Whereas Wolfe still employs New Journalism techniques, he for the most part tells history, whereas Moonfire is mostly concerned with Mailer himself, and his impressions of things. It takes an ego of staggering proportions to write about the moon landing and make it about yourself, especially if you had absolutely nothing to do with the moon landing. And Mailer’s ego is in full effect throughout, to the point that I actually started to admire the arrogant self-strokery. In this regard Moonfire/Of A Fire On The Moon is almost like the “nonfiction” works of the Classical Age, ie Pausanias’s Description Of Greece, in which everything is filtered through the writer’s own thoughts and feelings. 

The writing is, however, very rich, and practically every page offers a line crying out to be included in a book of quotations. Mailer is also very insightful with what he divines about the cast of characters at NASA; his breakdown of the Apollo 11 crew, at a press conference a few days before launch, is one of the highlights of the book. Here he gives his opinion on each member: overly reserved Neil Armstrong could either be “the best boy in town” or the creep mothers warn their infant daughters to shut the door on, Buzz Aldrin is a man of grit and gristle who measures everything in physical terms, and Mike Collins is “the man everyone is happy to see at the party.” The stuff on Collins I found especially insightful as it’s the same thing I’ve noticed about the guy, just judging from his documentary appearances, most notably In The Shadow Of The Moon. Curiously though Mailer never meets any of the crew, even though he apparently has the chance to; in this regard he’s again similar to Theo Kamecke, director of Moonwalk One, who per his comments in the special features of the DVD states that he was given the option of interviewing the crew for his documentary, but chose to keep them afar. 

Interestingly, throughout Mailer notes on the lack of “heroism” apparent in the Apollo 11 crew, and NASA in general. None of these space figures seem willing to square their shoulders and look back into the adoring gazes of the public and bask in their accomplishments. Armstrong in particular is so reserved that Mailer spends pages and pages bitching about it – that, and the lack of emotions displayed by Armstrong and Aldrin. Collins again comes to the rescue; his pithy asides at press conferences, Mailer assures us, made him a sudden favorite of the “newsmen” covering the scene. Mailer also captures the oldschool journalism vibe; throughout he refers to fellow newsmen, all of them hardbitten veterans who are prone to making sarcastic asides on their way to the free booze stand. I’d subscribe to the friggin’ New York Times if such newsmen could come back today. But anyway, Mailer unwittingly was in the presence of the Apollo era’s most notorious jokester; early in the book Mailer relates that he’s at a barbecue with Pete Conrad, commander of Apollo 12 (and thus forgotten by history). If only Mailer had spent more time talking to Conrad, he might’ve found all the humor and jokery in the otherwise sterile world of NASA he could want; indeed, Conrad’s insights would end up fueling much of The Right Stuff

But for the most part, Mailer is too wrapped up in himself to notice much else. In some ways Moonfire comes off like a bloated prefigure of the Twitter feed of some self-obsessed modern neurotic. Mailer even gives himself a Twitter-esque handle: throughout he pretentiously refers to himself as “Aquarius.” This is in relation to his Zodiac sign, but I found it interesting because Aquarius is the very astrological age we are now moving into. The last time a procession of the equinoxes occurred, when Taurus became Pisces two thousand years ago, western culture was torn apart by a rabid ideology that was primed to destroy everything that didn’t fit in its worldview. Sound familiar? There are in fact a lot of parallels between Mailer’s era and our own; a later part has him visiting some friends who have the anti-Nixon paraphanalia that was ubuiquitous among the left at that time, and Mailer chaffes at this, that a political movement could only define itself by being against a particular person. Sound familiar? 

Well anyway, Mailer admits throughout his ignorance of the space race business, but in the second half of the book he puts his engineering background to use when speaking of the mechanics of the landing. It’s the first half that I most appreciated, with Mailer trying to get a grip on the NASA personnel but finding everything so antiseptic and sterile. There are a lot of asides on the lack of smell and whatnot; in fact the entire book is mostly made up of asides, sort of like one of my reviews. But when he sets his sights on a particular personality the book really takes off, and for a behind-the-scenes peek at NASA the book is very valuable. However Mailer skips any attempt at history, or background; Mercury and Gemini missions are dispensed with as afterthoughts, and the focus is on the “meaning” of voyaging to the moon. Not even what this might portend for the future, but what it might mean to the unconscious mind of man, or somesuch. 

As mentioned, Taschen did a very good job of cutting the fat. As I read Moonwalk I’d refer to the Signet edition of Of A Fire On The Moon to read the parts that were cut, and gradually I stopped referring to the Signet altogether. This is a book that truly benefitted from some editorial pruning. Taschen also rejiggered Mailer’s structure; there are some parts of Moonwalk that are moved forward in the text, which don’t appear until later in the original version. Sometimes the editing is a bit abrupt, with ellipses breaking off otherwise important scenes, but checking Of A Fire In The Moon in these cases I discovered that even here the editing was wise. 

So Mailer, or “Aquarius” I guess I should say, ventures to Cape Kennedy a few days before the launch of Apollo 11 and checks out the sights and attends a few press conferences. Here we get more valuable behind-the-scenes material. He witnesses the launch, noting how bored everyone seems in the stifling Florida heat until the rocket actually goes up – and here Mailer himself is moved by the spectacle. But yes, boredom is rife in Moonfire; Mailer makes it clear that many of the newsmen were just burned out with the waiting. In his view, not much was going on between Saturn V launches. This is especially clear after the launch, when Mailer heads to Mission Control in Houston and basically sits around with nothing to do but ponder more of his thoughts. 

One thing forgotten in today’s world, in which films from the moon landing are shown in documentaries, is that at the time viewers on TV saw nothing but a grayish-white screen as the astronauts landed on the moon. Mailer views the landing in a room with other reporters, and this is another highlight of the book, coming off like a proto Mystery Science Theater 3000. The newsmen, we learn, all make wisecracks as Armstrong and Aldrin bumble across the moon; some of the material, in their view, approaches a slapstick vibe. This part was very interesting in comparison to the tones of gravitas the moon landing is treated with in every single documentary. Mailer at one point even taps into the current obsession that it was all faked, musing to himself how easily this could be staged, with no one the wiser. He doesn’t believe it, though, and again his bigger concern is what this moon landing “means” for mankind. 

At this point things are getting interesting again, but after covering the moon landing Mailer decides to just take off. As improbable as it might sound, Mailer decides there isn’t anything much else to do here in Houston and heads home…watching the return and recovery on TV, like practically everyone else in the world. While we do get some material on the ensuing parades and hoopla, at this point Mailer detours into even more navel-gazing than before, going on about his failing marriage and whatnot. I’ll willingly admit that I skipped all this stuff. As I say, way too much of the book is about stuff unrelated to the moon landing, but when Mailer does write about it the book is rich with detail. And Mailer’s writing, as mentioned, is great throughout, doling out some unusual but memorable word-painting. He really brings to life the various NASA locales, and even his descriptions of the moon – gleaned from watching a blurry image on a small TV screen – make you feel like you’re there with Buzz and Neil. 

A lot of Moonfire is made up of bald transcripts, of the Apollo 11 crew talking to Mission Control, and here too Mailer gives a contemporary slant, forgotten today, that most people listening at the time had no idea what the hell anyone was talking about. There is a lot of unexpected humor in Moonfire, and a lot of it has to do with those newsmen trying to make heads or tails out of the cryptic techno-jargon that passes for communication in the world of NASA. Again what makes all this interesting is the historical perspective; Mailer’s book is unique in that, unlike the other quickie moon landing publications of the day, it doesn’t treat everything as a huge accomplishment, nor is it like later books that thoroughly cover the topic from a historical perspective. Unlike any of them, Moonfire gives a picture of what it was like to be in Cape Kennedy and Houston as it all was happening and trying to make sense of it all. 

After I read Moonfire I started to read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (also in an illustrated edition), and I have to say it’s a night and day difference between these two books. Whereas Mailer spends much of his book complaining about the lack of heroism at NASA, Wolfe goes back to the start and finds that heroism; indeed, “the right stuff” itself is a reference to all the things Mailer failed to detect in Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, and the others. Another big difference is that, while it’s of course written in his patented style, Wolfe does not insert himself into The Right Stuff, whereas Mailer’s all over his own book. In fact I have to say the dude’s pretty aware of his own feelings. So much of Moonfire is comprised of “Aquarius” noting how a sulk is coming on, or how some other incident affects him on a subconscious level or whatnot; the entire book is almost an exercise in casting everyday mundane things in a sort of profound metaphysical light. And that’s another element Moonfire has that The Right Stuff doesn’t: like the age in which it was written, it’s pretty psychedelic, and is likely the only book on the moon landing that mentions LSD and acid rock. 

So then, with Moonfire you get a lot of banal navel-gazing, a lot of complaining, and periodic bouts of valuable glimpses behind the scenes at NASA in July and August of 1969, as well as the mindset of the people who lived in Cape Kennedy and Houston. You don’t get much history, per se, but you get a glimpse of history as it’s being made. But most importantly, in this Taschen edition, which was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, you get a plethora of incredible photos. Here are just a few of them:


Matthew said...

Sounds like The Right Stuff is a better book than Moonfire? Am I right?

Mailer is wrong on the astronauts. Reserved, modest people are usually the heroic ones. Those who puff up their chests are usually poseurs.

Chris Lopes said...

Collins comes off the same way in his own book "Carrying the Fire". He's really the most normal of the three. Self effacing without any false modesty, you get the feeling he knows he was lucky to be where he was but also knew he was among his peers. While his book focuses on him by necessity (it's a memoir), he isn't really the hero of the book.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments! Matthew, The Right Stuff is MUCH better than Moonfire. So far as the text goes, at least. This illustrated Moonfire from Taschen is a feast for the eyes. If you are into the space race, you will love the look of this book. The illustrated Right Stuff I have (and will be reviewing eventually) is the opposite -- subpar photos (most of them black and white and lacking the staged finesse of the Life Magazine photos in Moonfire), but awesome writing. I'm really enjoying it and I'm surprised it's taken me so long to actually get around to reading it.