Monday 28 October 2013

Wukburr : The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

Dear Wukburr,

You asked me to write to you about books.  I said I had nothing original to pile on to the discussion about works that, for the most part, were written long ago and have been written about long since, and I’m out of the loop on the new stuff.  You told me to shove it.  I said I didn’t want to embarrass myself with my amateurish readings, analyses and brainstorms before the likes of you, who reads more, thinks better, and writes far more eloquently.  You told me to get over myself.  I complained that I didn’t want to pen book reviews, and didn’t want to blab on about the good, the bad, and the ambivalent.  You said, “Read from beginning to end.  After the last line, sit and wait.  Then, ask yourself: what is the one thing about this book that won’t go away?  Tell me about that.”  Thats how you got me in a corner.  Here goes.

My first letter is about the last thing I read: Norman Mailer’s long and sprawling 1948 war novel, The Naked and the Dead.  Mailer served in the US Army in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, and upon his discharge and return to the United States in 1946 he wrote this book, his first published novel, which was to become a huge bestseller.  The novel lifted Mailer from an unknown to literary stardom, and is now regarded as one of the definitive American fictions set during World War II.

The Naked and the Dead focuses on a single reconaissance and intelligence platoon (plus their commanding general) who are part of a campaign to wrest control of the imaginary Pacific island of Anopopei from the Japanese.  An omnipresent, detached narrator zooms in on each character and the story unfolds from multiple vantage points: sometimes we can see the whole island and the sweep of the general’s campaign, sometimes we follow behind or beside the platoon, and most of the time we find ourselves in the heads of the characters, one by one, bouncing between perspectives in a single conversation and across the island.  Each character also gets his own ‘Time Machine’ sequence, taking us back to a slice of his life before the war, and these are placed along with short ‘Chorus’ sequences (little dramatic scenes) at even spaces throughout the novel.  Conventions of style, tense and voice are broken in these intermezzos, but the rest of the book is consistently told in the third-person, past tense.

The image I couldn’t shake when I finished the last lines was the death of Lieutenant Hearn.  He’s the guy I most relate to, the one who has the capacity and perhaps the will to see through the world and effect its change.  He is smart, educated, precocious and moral.  Though he is marooned in the worst possible position in the army (a bottom-grade officer who hates the bigots above him and can’t reach the true souls beneath), Hearn holds to his principles, and he acts on them.  Even General Cummings, to whom Hearn starts off as as aide / confidant / cerebral plaything, is stuck in his calculations, moored in a mental game rather than steaming towards any action.  The General triumphantly predicts a future that could only be deemed fascist, but whether or not he glorifies in his reactionary sympathies just to get a rise out of his liberal lieutenant, he seeks victory because it’s the task at hand.  He ascends the military hierarchy because it’s in his blood.  Hearn, on the other hand, hasn’t made up his mind: why he’s on the island, why he’s in the war, why his country is in the war.  He could make general if Cummings can break him, but Cummings can’t.  Instead, he sends Hearn on the mission that we’ve been waiting for. 

During this first half, we’ve been waiting for Lieutenant Hearn to fill the empty shoes and take the lead of the platoon.  The pieces fit together perfectly: each man is missing something, and the platoon awaits true leadership.  The hard, draconian, one-track Sergeant Croft wants triumph but can’t get it; runty Roth wants to belong but he’s despised; ambitious Stanley wants promotion but he’s got no core.  Even Red, the platoon’s popular, free-thinking, anti-authority tough guy (and the book’s most magnetic character, the obvious lead in a film adaptation) could do with an epiphany, or just a kick in the ass.  Hearn is set up as the answer-in-waiting.  He can overcome Sergeant Croft, he can scale the Mt. Anaka, he can turn the wayward men into heroes.  With him and only him, the platoon can save the day: complete the mission, take the island, win the war.  Sure enough, at about the half-way mark, Hearn gets the job, and we have the high-stakes mission we’ve been waiting for.  Finally, it is one of those adventure novels with some class conflict and political anxiety thrown in, right?

“A half hour later, Lieutenant Hearn was killed by a machine-gun bullet which passed through his chest.”  It felt like George RR Martin had suddenly grabbed the pen out of Mailer’s hand: you can’t kill him!  When my eyes went over the line, which part of me knew was coming, I put down the book, sat there, and smiled.  You bastard, I thought.  And that’s when it started to make sense to me what, I think, Mailer is trying to do.

Hearn’s death is partially orchestrated by the platoon’s former and now-again leader, Sergeant Croft, in a sequence which reminded me of, and may have inspired, Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film, Platoon.  With Croft back in charge, and any hope of aborting the doomed cross-island mission annihilated, the soldiers quickly forget Hearn and trudge on.  The intensely physical, labourious pressures on the enlisted men, which Mailer writes so viscerally and so well, reach their climax as Croft forces the men around the Japanese positions and up the island mountain’s peak.  But there is no deliverance of meaning, no counterpoint, no salvation.  We learn that the campaign on the other side of the island which they are to scout is practically over and won.  Whatever mountain the platoon climbs, whatever enemies it defeats, the strategic prerogative is cut out from under them.  They are useless, forgotten cogs that turn on as if awaiting review; they scale a mountain without any purpose but to scale the mountain.  And to Croft’s ultimate chagrin, they don’t even get that far – they are defeated not by Japanese emplacements or monsoon weather, but by a hornet’s nest.  The scene where the exhausted platoon drop their guns and gear and run screaming down the mountainside is hilarious, pathetic, and perfect.

Meanwhile, the campaign for which they think they fight isn’t won by hard work, brave patriots, or even General Cummings’ brilliant maneuvres – rather, it’s a big accident.  When the General leaves the island to secure naval support for his daring, ingenious plan, his most uninspired, by-the-book, square-brained subordinate, Major Dalleson, is informed of a hole in the Japanese line.  Deeply unhappy about such luck, wherein he must actually make a creative decision – simultaneously afraid of a trap but conscious that he has to do what he is supposed to do – Dalleson orders an attack which succeeds superbly.  The enemy general is killed, their supply depots are destroyed, and the previously-indestructible line is permanently punctured.  When the General returns he still wants the credit, and so carries out his terrific, anticlimactic outflanking, and then he is careful to write the campaign history to reflect that that was how he won it.  As the division mops up the rest of the island, Cummings discovers what really led to the Dalleson’s stumble into victory: the Japanese were out of supplies.  Starving, diseased, and on the brink of collapse, regardless of how many US soldiers faced them down, the enemy was doomed to defeat before the first American landing craft hit the beach.

The coda to The Naked and the Dead tells us that General Cummings is eventually passed over for promotion, that his great star, which shone so bright over Anopopei, must descend as only a footnote in the annals of the war – perhaps the same could be said of his vision for the future.  The soldiers of the platoon, meanwhile, achieve nothing – the holes in their characters remain, and storytelling’s promise to demonstrate true, meaningful change is dashed.  Croft loses his mountain.  Red confronts Croft (a rivalry set up from the opening pages) but he backs down without climax or resolution at the barrel of a gun.  Wilson, who craves a wound which can get him out of the war (his playing insane hospital tactics reminded me of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22), gets shot in the belly, is accidentally left behind, goes unseen by the Japanese, and is then recovered by the platoon.  First four men are charged with bringing Wilson to the beach, but then the two noncoms (non-commissioned officers), Brown and Stanley, stay behind.  Goldstein and Ridges carry on through hills and jungle, breaking their bodies to carry their wounded comrade to rescue.  When Wilson dies they barely notice and don’t react, as if they’ve been carrying a dead man the whole time.

The Naked and the Dead ends in bathos, as Major Dalleson, who should be riding high but only wants to carry on pushing pencils after the war, discovers a new method of training the men to use maps.  He’ll superimpose coordinates onto pin-up girl posters, so they can have fun plotting a route from breast to thigh.  He hopes his innovation will catch on all over the Army, and he ends the novel with interal exclamation, “Hot dog!  We see him for what he really is, which is what we always thought he was, unclothed, unphased, and unchanged.  There are no other discoveries, epiphanies, or lasting insights; synthesis and resolution are postponed, perhaps indefinitely.  The mountain remains unclimbed, the war moves on, the men remain in service, their wives and girlfriends all (to them) still cheat on them, and no one is any better, deeper or more human for it.  But Mailer doesn’t wholly suspend what a novel does, and what his novel promised to do: there is a great movement at work in these pages, one which slowly removes the garments which dress up the war.  The strategies, tactics, routines, protocols, conversations, jokes, fears, actions, betrayals, hardships, jungle nights, mosquitos and artillery diagrams are one by one worn, worn out, and then taken away.  And this is how I choose to understand Mailer’s title.  It isn’t just a thematic primer by which he can repeat death and the word naked to stylistic effect – it is the outcome, pessimistic perhaps, maybe disappointing to those who join the grand adventure, but somehow truthful to a platoon’s experience in a war that is otherwise written in grand sweeps and moral tones.  Because, in the end, that’s all they are left with: the naked and the dead.