Monday, November 2, 2009

The Naked and the Dead

If you would have told me in August that while I was off on maternity leave, I would have the time to read a 700+ page novel, I would have laughed at you. But I somehow managed to find the time to get through The Naked and the Dead in between changing diapers and feeding Brendan. It's amazing what you can do when you just read 20 or so pages a day.

I was trying to remember if I've ever actually read a "war book" before. I tried to read Enemy at the Gates in 2002 or 2003, but didn't get very far. Same thing happened with The Thin Read Line. Last year I tried to read All Quiet on the Western Front, but I wasn't at the right place in my life for it, so I shelved it. I owned The Killer Angels for a long time, but never even opened it. I got rid of it a few years ago, knowing I would never read it because frankly, I don't give a damn about the Civil War. In high school I read Howard Fast's April Morning, which I suppose could be called a war book of some sort, but it's kind of a young adult book, and to classify it with what I might call REAL war books seems strange. From Here to Eternity (can that be classified as a war book?) and The Things They Carried have long been on my TBR list, but they haven't come up yet. So really, The Naked and the Dead is really the first true war novel I've ever read.

I liked The Naked and the Dead. For being more than 700 pages, it wasn't slow or daunting, and I found myself really wanting to know what was going to happen to all these characters and whether or not they would make it through the pass and then over the mountain. And to say that - that I really cared about what happened - may be the first mark of a good book. There are a lot of books on this Modern Library list that I cared as much about the characters as I do about the Civil War. And the fact that I felt invested in what happened to Gallagher, and Goldstein, and Hearn, and that I hated Croft and the General (though I really liked Croft at first - until he killed the bird) surprised me. I honestly didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. All that the men went through, trying to climb that mountain, only to turn back because of a hornets nest.

The first - and main thing - that struck me about TN&TD is the debt that Mailer clearly owes to John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy. The structure of Mailer's novel reminded me so much of 42nd Parallel from the very beginning; the narrative style was similar as well. Dos Passos is everywhere for me this year...both in this novel and in Ragtime. It's amazing to think that that trilogy had clearly such an impact on the rest of the century's writing, and yet it is virtually unheard of. Well, maybe it's not actually unheard of. I had never heard of it outside of all these Top 20th century lists. It wasn't discussed in my high school english classes, where we spent a considerable amount of time on Dos Passos's contemporaries, Fitzgerald and Hemingway specifically. This really annoys me. Poor Dos Passos, you pilot fish!

The back of my copy of the book says that The Naked and the Dead is the most important American novel since Moby Dick. I think in that statement a lot of very important American novels are skipped over - specifically The Great Gatsby. And I really don't see how it can be rated as important as Moby Dick, but I liked it anyway.

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