The Naked and the Dead and the Search for the Perfect Novel

I am very bad at remembering names. That can be a serious disadvantage when reading novels. In the case of The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer’s fat novel about American soldiers fighting the second world war in Japan, this proved to be particularly problematic. It has eight main characters and more than once did I wish that instead of a map of the island they’re fighting on my copy would have featured a dramatis personae with names and short descriptions of the main characters – the kind of thing you get in copies of plays.

Well plotted, featuring characters from both the high and the low end of the army’s social ladder and seven hundred densely printed pages long despite covering only a few days, this is the kind of lush realistic novel into the depths of which I, like many, like to plunge from time to time. And it certainly features the kinds of moments which are hard to forget. Yet it has its weaknesses. Like many books, it is too long. There are two reasons for this.

One, Mailer takes his time to describe the details of the soldiers’ lives – how they drink from their cups, how their feet start hurting in the boots when they are marching uphill and so forth. The latter makes sense to an extent because it enables Mailer to quite impressively convey the notion that the soldier’s life is mostly very hard even when nobody’s shooting at you. Yet even the descriptions of the soldiers’ toil, each impressive by itself, become repetitive over time.

Two, Mailer reports way too much of what the soldiers are talking about, much of which is seriously uninteresting. It may well be that second world war soldiers talked a lot about what women, quite generally, are like and that the novel is very realistic in this sense. But a novel’s aspiration should not be to replicate reality, it should be to entertain.

Two, Mailer’s style is nothing out of the ordinary. (7/10)

The latter is unsurprising given the qualities of the book. If I may simplify a teensy bit, there are basically two kinds of great novels.

The first kind is a fat, lush slice of life, often spans many years, features multiple characters of serious interest (although there often is one main main character) which it takes its time to develop, employs techniques that make the readers want to know what happens next, has many pages and, in its most extreme form, aspires to no less than the portrayal of society. This type typically uses an omniscient narrator. Examples include The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Cider House Rules and The Bonfire of the Vanities. These novels are stylistically unimpressive and are mainly about what is being told and hence could be called W-novels.

The second kind is smaller, both in scope and number of pages, features only one character of main interest and doesn’t spend a lot of time portraying him and does not use techniques of suspense but instead strives to create an atmosphere, a certain feeling, almost like many poems do. This type typically uses an I-narrator. Examples include City of Glass, The Abortion and The Catcher in the Rye. These novels are stylistically impressive and are mainly about how things are being told and might hence be called H-novels.

Examples of mixed-type novels are The Book of Illusions and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Two cases are interesting in this respect. Case one is Jeffrey Eugenides. After The Virgin Suicides, a masterful H-type novel, he published Middlesex. It had all the strengths of the W type, but one almost feels that Eugenides sacrificed everything that made The Virgin Suicides great in the process of going lush. Case two is Moby-Dick, maybe the novel that comes closest to combining the strenghts of the two types. It has a mixed I-/omniscient narrator.

And that’s the best I can come up with when trying to explain why there is this divide between W- and H-type novels. An omniscient narrator is the obvious choice when you aspire to go lush, but it seems it is extremely hard to write a stylistically brilliant novel, one that creates an atmosphere, a feeling, almost like a poem, if you don’t use an I-narrator. I don’t know why.

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