THE TIME OF OUR TIME By Norman Mailer Random House. 1,286 pp. $39.50 In his foreword to this large volume, Norman Mailer asserts that "nearly everything I have written derives from my sense of the value of fiction." There is considerable poignancy in that declaration; last year brought us Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, Don DeLillo's Underworld and Philip Roth's American Pastoral, as well as Mailer's The Gospel According to the Son. I was asked to write on Mailer's Gospel but declined after reading the proofs. Having read Mailer for half a century, I would have felt ungrateful in reviewing his Gospel, which may be his weakest book. The Time of Our Time, a Mailer omnibus, is a larger and later version of Advertisements for Myself (1958) and manifests the writer in all his modes. His own supreme fiction, Mailer is necessarily both less and more than a novelist. He remarks in the foreword that "we perceive the truth of a novel by way of the personality of the writer." That observation might have been unacceptable to Flaubert and to Joyce but is pleasing to me, though it avoids the question of form, which Mailer's own novels cannot answer. Perhaps our most representative writer of the last half-century, Mailer has no indisputable novel, nothing like The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, As I Lay Dying. His strongest work may be The Executioner's Song, and yet I remember wincing a bit when Elizabeth Hardwick quoted Gertrude Stein's "remarks are not literature" against Mailer's version of Gary Gilmore's reality. The Executioner's Song is something other than a novel. Ancient Evenings has few defenders (I remain one of them, with some reservations, but then I have a lingering taste for Flaubert's Salammbo), and Harlot's Ghost enchants only those who are obsessed with the CIA. Mailer is most himself when writing about celebrities, whether they are politicians, boxers or entertainers. He is above all the author of "Norman Mailer," his most persuasive fiction. The Time of Our Time (a rather wicked title, playing upon "The Time of Her Time," his orgasmic tale) could also have been called "Mailer on Mailer." Like his precursor, Hemingway, Mailer is wonderfully uninhibited at self-portraiture; his advertisements for himself inspire grand adventures in creative exuberance, and almost always reward reading. But why has so ambitious and gifted a novelist been most successful in quasi-autobiography and inventive journalism rather than in the novel itself? Very few of our writers during the last half-century have been so endlessly sensitive to the phantasmagoria that is American reality, as Mailer continues to be. It may be that his imagination, in love with America, cannot be free of that love; ancient Egypt and outer space alike have merged with America in his narratives. There are no memorable characters in his work who are not American icons: President Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, Gary Gilmore, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer. That may be why Mailer's Gospel is so poor: His Jesus is not American enough. It seems absurdly ironic to maintain that a novelist's passion for his country has damaged his art, or at least converted it into a kind of writing that is never quite fiction. Irony is not Maileresque; passionate sincerity dominates his work, whether he broods upon America or upon his vision of God, who is all mixed up (as God should be) with sex, time and death. As befits someone whose sensibility was formed in World War II and in postwar Paris, Mailer still considers himself an existentialist, though it is difficult to recognize Kierkegaard or Sartre in his philosophy of courage and risks. Gore Vidal early on called Mailer a usurper, at that point intending praise for his exact contemporary. The insight still holds: Mailer's literary strength is the strength of usurpation, reflecting his career-long anxiety of influence by Hemingway. It has been, and will be, Hemingway all the way, which may be why Mailer tells us that The Time of Our Time is "an out-of-category volume influenced by one of the most monumental works of American literature, nothing less than U.S.A. by John Dos Passos." A writer usurping a kingdom tends defensively to misidentify the kingdom. Courage is one of Mailer's prime literary virtues, and becomes a central tenet of the oddest strand in his career: theological speculation. Victorian prose prophecy is sublimely out of date, but I delight in surmising the reaction of Carlyle or Ruskin to reading Mailer upon God. Mailer's occult speculations are wonderfully bizarre; unfortunately The Gospel According to the Son evades them, and we are given only a limited God fighting it out with the Devil. Mailer's mysteries elsewhere have been far more exuberant speculations upon death, sodomy, rebirth and even digestion, and redeem Ancient Evenings for me. That Mailer should be more of a millennial sage than a novelist by now surprises no one; character and story have little to do with his genius. He belongs to the complex history of Jewish Gnosticism, and is fond of quoting Hasidic masters. Religious writing in contemporary America has very little to do with what professional theologians think they are doing. Mailer, defending D.H. Lawrence from the destructive assaults of feminist critics, is precisely a religious writer, whose care is the soul: Lawrence's, Mailer's, the reader's. Whether Mailer suffices as a spiritual guide for anyone except Mailer does not matter; religious writing is a mode of literature, and not of praxis. Attending Jimmy Carter's Bible class at the Plains Baptist church, Mailer charmingly remarks of himself: "He was excited about Carter's theological convictions." This excitement carries over into the peculiar comedy of Mailer's unhappy attempt to discuss Kierkegaard with Carter, which leads to the fine reflection: "There was the difference. Carter might be able to see hints of God in his neighbor; Mailer was forever studying old photographs of Gurdjieff and Rasputin." Mailer's Kierkegaard reduces to the warning that we never know whether we are good or evil in the eyes of God, a reduction that has one clear value: against sanctimoniousness. Yet Mailer is far more Kabbalistic than Kierkegaardian: He believes in the transmigration of souls, and in authentic sexuality as a path to transcendence. If he cannot be said to have achieved originality in such convictions, he nevertheless carries the heroic vitalism of D.H. Lawrence into an era when feminist ideologues have made it unfashionable. Mailer seems to many now a kind of archaic survivor, and thus suffers the irony that a lifelong rebel is regarded as a mere traditionalist.

The Time of Our Time is a kind of "social and cultural history," as Mailer himself suggests. Much of it would now seem period pieces, except for the many ways in which Mailer has fused his acute sensibility and intensity with his public concerns. His aesthetic achievement is "Norman Mailer," a fiction that I think will prove to be canonical. This was not his American dream; but the Great American Novel, our new Moby-Dick, is not to be found among his works. Pynchon, DeLillo, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy are likelier to write it, or have written it already. Mailer's achievement may be more problematic but remains heartening and considerable. Reviewed by Harold Bloom, whose "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," a study of all the plays, will be published this fall. CAPTION: Norman Mailer CAPTION: Norman Mailer in 1973 (left), 1959 (top) and in 1948