BY ADAM BLOCH
Author: Norman Mailer
Filed under Literary
Young and fresh out of Harvard University, Norman Mailer went to war in 1943, doing two years of duty in the Philippines and seeing almost no action. When he came home, he very self-consciously set out to write an epic war novel. The Naked and the Dead was the result.
In his introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of the now widely regarded classic, Mailer wrote that Tolstoy was his primary influence and if he had any goal in writing the novel, it was to generate a sense of compassion.
There is compassion in The Naked and the Dead, but it is mere flotsam amid a sea of misery and suffering. Like its logical predecessor, All Quiet on the Western Front, it leaves no conclusion other than the one Hobbes reached centuries earlier about the lives of men in war: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
The Naked and the Dead depicts the invasion of the fictional Anopopei during the United States’ island-hopping campaign against the Japanese in the Pacific. The action, or at least the endless brooding that occurs in the absence of action, centers around a small reconnaissance platoon that is part of the large force commanded by General Cummings and tasked with capturing the island. The link between the grunts and their commanding officer is Lieutenant Hearn, who begins as an aide to the general and later becomes the leader of the platoon.
Though the story ostensibly takes place during a battle, there are only two true scenes of military conflict in the first two-thirds of the lengthy tome. The clashes are rarely between opposing armies and mostly within and between the main characters. Mailer divides his prose between present-tense narrative and flashback vignettes elucidating the past of the protagonists. It is in these sections that he lets his voice slip a little freer from the constraints of third person omniscience. The tone varies widely and interestingly.
The depiction of army life is relentlessly bleak, featuring mainly hard labor, miserable conditions, poor health, tyrannical commanders, vainglorious and selfish officers and the occasional encounter with the enemy. Within this milieu, Mailer’s focus is equal parts banal and psychological. The movement of men, the digging of foxholes, all the quotidian aspects of a large military machine in motion become a setting for the private thoughts of his characters. And their thoughts are overwhelmingly neurotic. Danger, unrewarding toil and the absence of the familiar have made these men anxious and self-doubting. Their insecurities become Mailer’s primary subject, one he dwells on repeatedly and makes the salient trait of most of his characters.
Despite this sense of gloom and torpor, The Naked and the Dead is a surprisingly involving read, and this gives great credit to Mailer’s ability to flesh out characters, produce dialogue that feels genuine and fill even the most mundane scenarios with psychological weight.
At times, he goes too far. Are we to believe mordant ruminations are the sine qua non of life in the U.S. Army during World War II? There are a few other deleterious aspects. For some reason, Mailer elides the word “fuck” in favor of what must have seemed a more comfortable euphemism: “fug.” The effect is amusingly peculiar at first but eventually fades into the background. He also has a young writer’s habit of providing pro forma physical description, with each member of the platoon described as increasingly ugly, peculiar and even malformed. The obsession with minute facial features is particularly distracting. The biggest drawback arises from Mailer’s attempt to provide a societal microcosm of American soldiers. A member of every ethnicity and class is thrown in, sometimes with stereotypical results: The token Chicano trooper, for example, and most egregiously the two Jews in the unit, who are portrayed as either extremely weak and nebbish or uncomfortably assimilated, socially awkward and debilitatingly self-conscious.
Where Mailer achieves his greatest success is in his direct portrayal of wartime conditions. For a nation still buoyantly riding the feelings of winning the “good war,” this must have been faintly shocking and disquieting. There are some prescient political asides in The Naked and the Dead, but it is only a garnish to the overwhelming themes – that amid the battles the causes of war are far away and the consequences far too close, that the average soldier is merely grist in a mill of consuming brutality perpetuated by the ambition of officers and that fairness, justice and reason are all swept aside when violence erupts.
Books you might like: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.