Friday, October 3, 2008

Books: The Naked and the Dead, by Arthur Miller

In his introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition of this novel, the author gives a better summation than I can give here.  He admits to some embarrassment on returning to the text and finding much of it to be "Best Seller" quality--and it's true: an awful lot of sentences are filled with lazy metaphors.  He also explains that he was saved in his writing by Tolstoy, whom he was reading while writing.  That connection is apparent as well; there are moments when the hardened one-liner dialogue between men stops to allow for a (somewhat awkward) lengthy discussion of the nature of man and the future relationship between war, power, politics, and the individual.  I would disagree that this is what saved him, though.  When the book gets really good, it's the farthest thing from Tolstoy you could imagine.

When the book gets really good is toward the end.  Perhaps it's not until the end that we have a real investment in any of the ten or so characters (because of the novel's structure, for the first few hundred pages, it's hard to remember which soldier is which; one by one, dispersed throughout the novel, a short flashback gives the reader more insight into each one, so that we can understand him as a person, rather than just a soldier).  Or, perhaps it's not until the end that Miller hits his descriptive stride.  It is in the last few hundred pages that the men we are coming to know are sent out on a reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines (the Japs--it's WWII), and a power struggle begins between their de facto leader, Croft, and Lieutenant Hearn, who has a higher rank, but has only just been transferred to the platoon, so is a stranger.  As Croft's megalomania turns the mission into a death march up an insurmountable mountain (while the war is accidentally being won, in an ironic twist, by an insecure Major on the day that the bombastic General is away, rendering their entire mission pointless), Miller pushes his reader through the painful exercises that Croft does his men, marching on and on and on, despite the bleeding sores on their feet, the jungle sores on their faces, the 60 lb packs on their backs, and the dead and dying they've either left behind or sent back to camp.  It's in writing their extremely palpable suffering--in complete detail--that Miller achieves something worth reading fifty years later.

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