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The Naked and the Dead ()


Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (51)

Few figures in modern literature are as under accomplished and overrated as the execrable Norman Mailer, who has basically skated for 50 years on the reputation of this semi autobiographical novel.  So what's interesting is to realize how many of his later faults were presaged here, in this bloated, unpleasant, faux macho, homoerotic, self-indulgent mess of a book.  The Naked and the Dead is little more than war viewed through the eyes of one sexually conflicted Jewish man, who didn't enjoy his wartime service much.  The opposite of a universal tale, it's sort of Hemingway with anti-Semitism thrown into the mix.  It is necessarily an anti-War novel, because any time you shrink a human exercise down to a sufficiently limited scope, it appears senseless.   But, even, or especially, with it's totally Mailercentric view of the War, it opens up several interesting avenues for discussion.

The first, and most general, point is that the very narrowness of the view presented in the novel is symptomatic of the worst tendencies of modern literature.  It is of course the ultimate in 20th Century Romantic Relativistic Freudian Individualism to view WWII through the prism of your own experiences; as if the war was only important because of what you went through.  But it is also fundamentally dishonest; great events matter because they are huge and affect the many, not because they affect Norman Mailer.  There is nothing in the book about why the men are fighting or why the island is important.  The war is simply Mailer's vehicle for getting this group of men together and deploring their interactions.  It could be set in virtually any male milieu.

By shrinking the experience of WWII down to the daily tedium that this platoon faces, the War inevitably seems senseless, brutal and soul deadening.  The enemy after all remains distant, mysterious, dare one say--inscrutable.  The real enemies that the men face, as far as Mailer is concerned, are the racism, anti-Semitism and mere inhumanity of fellow soldiers and the arbitrary seeming orders of superiors.  But if we were to pull the camera angle back, we would see that these men are engaged in what virtually every thinking human would consider to be a just war.  The event is actually defined by the aims of the war, not by the unpleasantness of GI life.  It is only by holding such a tight focus on the unit that Mailer can portray the War as senseless.  Of course, in this narrow a focus all war appears senseless.  Men fight and die for patches of earth or unnamed hills, following inane orders,  in every war.  From the perspective of the dead of Antietam, the Civil War was meaningless.  But Mailer is either unwilling or unable to consider the big picture and place the battle in context, for, to do so, would reveal the pettiness of his concerns.

The second point, which flows from this portrayal and from the near universal judgment that this was the best novel about the War, is that it is mere generational bigotry that has allowed us to glorify the WWII generation and vilify the Viet Nam generation. There's a kind of a cottage industry cranking away these days that is paying obeisance to the cohort of Americans who survived the Depression and fought WWII (the "good war")--for example, the two Clinton campaigns saw innumerable unfavorable comparisons of veterans Bush & Dole and draft dodger Clinton, Tom Brokaw has a book out eulogizing the "The Greatest Generation" and, for Hollywood to make a positive War movie, they had to go back to WWII for Private Ryan.  On the one hand, the earlier generation is being idealized beyond recognition; on the other, the boomers are caricatured as the source of all evil.  I would be the last person to defend the Flower Children, but I think it's important not to let their parents off the hook.

Much of the literature (as opposed to the movies) of WWII, books like Catch-22 (read Orrin's review), The Caine Mutiny, Naked and the Dead, Thin Red Line (read Orrin's review), Hiroshima (read Orrin's review), Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, etc. is ultimately, not just anti-war, but anti-World War II.  They are not the testaments of a righteous generation of confident heroes.  They are as filled with self doubt and self loathing as anything that the Viet Nam generation produced.  Moreover, in one important respect they are worse, because while the Viet Nam literature condemns the actions American soldiers perpetrated against others, the WWII literature laments what the war did to the American soldiers.  The tragedy in a Viet Nam novel comes when the Americans destroy a village, in the WWII books the tragedy is how unpleasant the War was for American GI's.  Wah! Wah! Wah!  Cry me a river...

My generation was lucky, I guess.  We never had a war of our own (other than the general Cold War) and I doubt that we would have produced a literature that was any more edifying.  But I think it's high time that we bring the hammer down on the chest beating and self congratulations of the WWII generation.  As books like The Naked and the Dead reveal, they too were a "me generation".  It is little wonder that their children were even worse.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (D)

  

Websites:

Norman Mailer Links:

    -INTERVIEW: Norman Mailer Ruminates on Literature and Life (NY Times, 1/22/2003)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Norman (Kingsley) Mailer (1923-)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "norman mailer"
    -Featured Author: Norman Mailer  (From the Archives of The New York Times)
    -NY Review of Books Archives: "Mailer"
    -Salon Archives: Norman Mailer
    -REVIEW: Norman Mailer: A Man Half Full, NY Review of Books
       A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
    -ESSAY: Who's Afraid of Tom Wolfe?  (Mary Ann Glendon, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Huckleberry Finn, Alive at 100 ( Norman Mailer, December 9, 1984, NY Times Book Review)
    -LETTER: A Critic with Balance: A Letter From Norman Mailer (NY Times Book Review)
    -BOOKNOTES: Author: Norman Mailer Title: Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery (Air date: June 25, 1995, CSPAN)
    -INTERVIEW: The Old Man and the Novel (Scott Spencer, NY times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : with Norman Mailer (Poets & Writers)
    -Norman Mailer His Life And Works
    -At Random Magazine: Norman Mailer
    -KC's Norman Mailer Page
    -New York State Writers Institute - Norman Mailer
    -PAL: Norman Mailer (1923-)( Perspectives in American Literature:  A Research and Reference Guide)
    -From The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story: Norman Mailer   (1923 -   )
    -Readers Choice: Norman Mailer
    -Arguing the World: New York Intellectuals (PBS)
    -PROFILE: NORMAN MAILER (Anna Banks)
    -PROFILE: My moment with Mailer:  After 50 years, two Pulitzers, 31 books, and a sheaf of headlines, Norman Mailer's still promising us the big one (Chris Wright, Boston Phoenix)
    -BOOK SITE: Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer
    -ESSAY: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE WRITER AND THE CRIMINAL (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: MAILER TALKING (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Norman Mailer: 50 Years of Writing (Robert Powers, Suite101.com)
    -ESSAY: Autobiography and the 'I' of the Beholder (Wendy Lesser, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Mailer vs. Greer: The bout that wasn't (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -ESSAY:  HEROISM IN A POLITICALLY CORRECT AGE (Norman Podhoretz, National Review)
    -ESSAY: 'Naked and Dead' at 50: Mailer's a boor, a buffoon  This 'Energizer Bunny from hell' is out with a 1,280-page anthology that reveals his arrogance and irresponsibility. (Tess Lewis, Baltimore Sun)
    -ESSAY: It is absurd to claim that men are the real victims of oppression  'It was always odd that Norman Mailer became so inextricably identified with the sexual revolution'  (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Independent UK)
    -ESSAY : Five Novembers (Keith Gessen, Feed Mag)
    -ARTICLE: Mailer Visits C.I.A. and Finds He's in Friendly Territory. Really. (ELAINE SCIOLINO, Special to The New York Times)
    -REVIEW: of Jun 20, 1968 Conor Cruise O'Brien: Confessions of the Last American, NY Review of Books
       The Armies of the Night: History As Novel; The Novel As History by Norman Mailer
    -REVIEW: of The Naked and the Dead (DAVID DEMPSEY , NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Executioner's Song (Joan Didion, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Executioner's Song (Erik Lundegaard)
    -REVIEW: of The Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer (J. Bottum, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer Dissatisfied with the four Gospels, Norman Mailer produces his own account of the life of Jesus (Paul Galloway / Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW: May 15, 1997 Frank Kermode: Advertisement for Himself, NY Review of Books
       The Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer
    -REVIEW: of IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST Letters from Prison. By Jack Henry Abbott. Introduction by Norman Mailer (Terrence Des Pres, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of PIECES AND PONTIFICATIONS By Norman Mailer (Edward Hoagland, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE TIME OF OUR TIME. By Norman Mailer (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE TIME OF OUR TIME By Norman Mailer (James Shapiro, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of MAILER A Biography. By Hilary Mills (Mark Harris, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Mailer A Biography. By Mary V. Dearborn (Caleb Crain, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Mailer: A Biography By Mary V. Dearborn (LEONARD KRIEGEL, The Forward)
    -REVIEW: of Mailer: A Biography By Mary V. Dearborn (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of MAILER: His Life and Times. By Peter Manso (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of MAILER His Life and Times. By Peter Manso (Barbara Goldsmith, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Last Party Scenes From My Life With Norman Mailer. By Adele Mailer (M. G. Lord, NY Times Book Review)    -REVIEW: May 9, 1948 The Dusty Answer of Modern War (DAVID DEMPSEY, NY Times)
    -The Revolution in Journalism with an Emphasis on the 1960's and 1970's (Belinda Carberry)
    -Great Expectations: Why is Norman Mailer still Famous?  (Terry Teachout, National Review)
    -Twilight of the Old Goats--Mailer, Roth and Bellow refuse to go quietly  (D.T. MAX, Salon)
    -Beat the Devil (LOUIS MENAND, NY Review of Books)
    -Keeping Up With Norman Mailer (THOMAS R. EDWARDS , NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Mailer: A Biography By Mary V. Dearborn  A Frank Look at a Literary Giant
(Steve Weinberg, Iron Minds)

Comments:

So you served in the South Pacific during WWII?

- oj

- Dec-13-2008, 12:40

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Hey, Orrin. If you've never been to war, then what in the hell entitles you to write about it in a tone of authority? The point of many World War II novels is 1) that the war was bad to those who took part, 2) they went to war and did a good job in spite of the fact. Sounds like adult behavior to me. I scruple to say heroic. "Hero" is a badly overworked word (the U.S. calls its every POW a hero now and even gives medals for it.) All that said, you are right that Mailer's book does suck. His point seems to be that WWII won itself, even whilst brutalizing budding novelists.

- Jon Grena

- Nov-04-2008, 23:58

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