Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead, An Accidental Classic

The Naked And The Dead is Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel, based on his experiences with the United States Army in the Philippines during World War Two.

Mailer was only 25 when he published this book. In the Introduction to Penguin’s Modern Classics edition, he describes his young self as an enthusiastic amateur writer, who uses too many obvious adjectives with his nouns. But that’s really only the start of it. There are other “school boy errors”. A typical piece of advice given to beginner writers is to be consistent with point of view. I’ve been pulled up on that one myself. The thing is, point of view is all over the place in this book. It can change from one line to another. Beginners will also tend to use all their material, including back-story, while more experienced writers will explore these notes privately to give themselves a hold on a character. Back-story in The Naked And The Dead is shoe-horned into sections awkwardly entitled “Time Machine”. Finally, there’s the fact that young Mailer is trying to emulate a successful writer, a typical stage a novice goes through whilst looking for their own voice. Most days, before setting to work on The Naked And The Dead, our starry-eyed author would read a few pages of his hero, Tolstoy, who clearly influences the book in the way events dominate people rather than the other way round. So you can imagine a keen, promising youngster, thinking he is the new Tolstoy, deciding to write his own War and Peace without too much experience to back up his grandiose ambitions.

But darn it, the 25 year old Norman Mailer largely gets away with it. Maybe he succeeded in writing a bestselling classic through a happy combination of circumstance. The Naked And The Dead was published a few years after the end of World War Two, and during those war years, soldiers were generally portrayed as national supermen. Afterwards, however, Tolstoy would be a useful influence in reassessing the war in a more realistic and human light. As in War and Peace, Mailer’s generals are as powerless as privates when it comes to shaping events. There are no heroes, just a group of people with sore feet, tummy problems, dodgy kidneys, and personality defects, tossed around on the tides of history.

As for Mailer’s point-of-view-hopping style, the army is a many headed monster with one body – so the variable view point just happens to be an effective way to explore the beast

There is a very telling episode towards the end of the book, when a less than competent officer, Major Dalleson, finds himself thrown into command while his general is away. Most men in The Naked And The Dead go through agonies of endurance for no reward, just as most writers toil on their manuscripts for years and never find a publisher. In contrast, Dalleson finds his cack-handed decisions just happen to work out successfully. In effect he finds himself defeating the Japanese by mistake over the course of an afternoon. In a similar way, you might say that the young Mailer, dashing through this 700 odd page book in just 15 months, wrote a classic by accident. It shouldn’t work but it does.

Despite reservations, I did end up admiring The Naked And The Dead. This was because I came to feel that the many soldiers, or writers, who don’t find success in an afternoon can find succour in its pages. The most powerful sections involve men making supreme efforts to achieve a goal, which turns out to be irrelevant. But hope appears unexpectedly, in the way a soldier will characteristically feel the full bitterness of wasted effort just as the sun is coming up. The lack of satisfactory destinations suggests continuity, the reassurance that things will go on no matter what happens. Kipling said we should treat triumph and disaster just the same, and if ever there was a disastrous book which somehow works as a variety of triumph, it’s The Naked And The Dead.

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