Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Naked and the Dead

Another memorial book, since the author passed away just recently. Not up to even attempting a full review just now, so...

A few reactions to and comments about The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

Starting with the spoiler alert and capsule review. I really can't say much of anything about this book without giving things away. However, it is a good book, and it's worth reading for its various merits, and if you're at all inclined to do so, for now you might as well take my word for it and you should go ahead and read it, and you can read my meanderings later on. I think you'll even be surprised by the way the book transitions, but I definitely think there's plenty of interesting material there. Now you've been warned, and I'm about to start giving things away. Are you sure you don't want to go read it first?

The book is mostly a character study, and even though the characters are fictitious, they feel amazingly true to life. He really does capture the spirit of real people and places all over America. Part of this is done in the shifting viewpoints of the main story of the battle for the imaginary island, but there are also 'time machine' snippets of mini-biographies of various characters.

The reason this is qualifies as a book Dubya wouldn't read is because of the profoundly anti-war message. At first it seems like it is glorifying the heroism of the soldiers, but in the end the whole thing just seems pointless. The leading character, the platoon sergeant, has to be dismissed as a vicious killer, and his brave men as a bunch of cowards who are just most afraid of him. One of the nicest characters in the book is the lieutenant who is set up and effectively murdered by the sadistic sergeant, though the Japanese do the actual shooting. The character that Mailer probably most closely identified himself with is killed by falling off a cliff for no particular reason in a pointless 'mission' that is ultimately aborted by a wasp's nest. Turned out that the outcome of the campaign had already been determined some months ago, but the American intelligence was so poor that they just didn't know it yet. If they had interrogated a few of the prisoners they were so eager to exercute, they would have known that, and the main result of the delay before they find out is to make the slaughter go more quickly in the end. Probably the most heroic effort in the entire book was the futile attempt to rescue the wounded soldier, but all that accomplishes is to cause a lot of extra suffering before he dies--and then they lose the body, too. The general's main concern is to rewrite the official history so he can claim credit for a flanking invasion that didn't matter, either.

There was an interesting part starting from page 247 about the big lie and the prediction that America would have a big Red scare and then slide into fascism. Considering when it was written (around 1946), that part of it looks pretty prescient, even amazing.

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