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lareviewofbooksJonathan Lethem, on his obsession with an immortal literary character.


There once was a boy who fell in love with Norman Mailer, a writer who called himself “Aquarius.” Call this boy Aquarius-Nul, then. The name suggested all utopian possibilities the boy had glimpsed, born in the middle of the ’60s to avidly countercultural parents. Their world, which he’d take for the world, was a show that was closing: the dawning of an Age, but no age to follow the dawning. This boy’s own stories, when they came, painted his parents’s tribe as a withered race of superheroes, Super Goat Men and Women, who’d at least been large once in their lives. Aquarius-Nul’s uptight cohort sometimes seemed inclined not even to try, only to mock such attempts. (Aquarius-Nul was as uptight as any of them. Call him A-Nul, maybe.)


When Aquarius-Nul, who favored outlaw or outcaste identities (the Beats, the science-fiction writers), glanced at the then-present Mount Rushmore of U.S. writing, made of the Big Jews and Updike, Mailer was the only alluring prospect. For the teenage Aquarius-Nul, a major American novelist bragging of interest in graffiti, underground film, marijuana, and space travel was irresistible. Even better, Mailer was the only head on that Rushmore who nodded to the value of the outlaw or outcaste identities (the Beats, and science fiction). That Mailer was further a Jew and a Brooklynite yet had shrugged off those legacy subject matters made him, for Aquarius-Nul, who’d want to believe he could do the same, too good to be true. In fact, others on Rushmore would sustain Aquarius-Nul’s interest before long. But not before Aquarius-Nul had burned through Mailer’s whole shelf, sometimes in delirious wonder, sometimes guiltily bored, and, strangely, often both at once.