Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Book Review - The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

London: Andre Deutsch, 1983      (Many editions extant)     ISBN 0233955038

Wow. When this book was released it caused a big ripple in the book-reading world, and, nearly 70 years later it's pretty easy to see why. Mailer wanted to write the great novel of the War, and he came close. This is a great story, only marred by Mailer's quest to give it more gravitas than it needed, and by his youthfulness in outlook (he was only 25 when this book was released).

Mailer spent time in the Pacific in World War Two, and he has used that experience to construct the story of a platoon that is part of a force attacking a fictional island in the Pacific. Through a series of flashbacks we understand the lives of members of the platoon, and of some of the officers of the division, including the General, Cummings. The General plays psychological games with his adjutant, Lieutenant Hearn, and when he becomes bored with him puts him in charge of the platoon which he then sends on a dangerous reconaissance mission.

Mailer's use of chapters called "time machine", where he delves into the history of his characters one-by-one helps him build one of his major themes in the novel, which is the destiny not only of individual men, but the USA and mankind as a whole. Through the different characters in the book, we see hope, resignation, slyness, control, power and briefly friendship and even love.

Mailer is trying to create a grand system for the War, politics and life through these pages. This is the weakest part of this novel, as it feels a bit "stuck on", and, owing no doubt to Mailer's youth, some of the theories spouted in particular by Hearn and the General are facile and shallow. The standard socialist versus fascist arguments between Hearn and Cummings seem more like the wheels of Mailer's mind turning. The imaginings of the members of the platoon's previous lives sometimes also tend to the formulaic, but are still very readable, in a kind of Sinclair Lewis style. The focus on sex, and betrayal by women, was no doubt a geniune topic for Mailer, but for me it grates and verges on the unbelievable. It adds little to the book.

The futility of War is front and centre in this book. Despite the best plans of General Cummings, the battle is won by the plodding Major Dalleson while Cummings is away pleading for naval backup for his daring plan for an amphibious outflanking manoevre. It turns out that all his intelligence on the strength of the Japanese forces was incorrect. The scouting patrol that the platoon was sent on is therefore a waste of time.

It is in the story of the patrol that Mailer is at his best. The writing is gripping, and the tensions between the characters is palpable. The reader feels the pain, weariness and terror of being alone in unexplored territory that may be inhabited by a deadly enemy. We also see the naked exercise of power, that is much discussed earlier in the book by Cummings and Hearn. The realisation by Hearn that he enjoys power over other men is belated and disheartening for him, and the brutal control of the platoon by Croft fails to bring him the prize he seeks, and he ends the book a diminished character.

It is when the book gets lost in the description of soldiering that is has real power - when it comes back to theorizing and male-female relations it loses something. Mailer was reaching for the status of "great novel", both with his style and structure. He came close, and while he has not left us that great novel, this is a book that will resonate for some time with the reader, and builds into a gripping story.


Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Book Review - Grant & I by Robert Forster

Grant & I : inside and outside the Go-Betweens by Robert Forster

*Hamish Hamilton, 2016                  ISBN 9780670078226

The recently released and highly regarded documentary Right Here by Kriv Stenders has brought me back to The Go-Betweens, and to this book. I've had an arms-length relationship to The Go-Betweens and their music. In fact I began listening to them in a back-to-front fashion, as I was fairly lukewarm about them until I was blown away by Grant McLennan's album Watershed, which led me back to re-evaluate The Go-Between's output, with a better understanding of how I reacted to their songs. Basically, I'm a Grant man, not so much a Robert fan.

It is the combination of Forster and McLennan, and arthouse and pop, which is the reason that The Go-Betweens never cracked it for the big time, but why their albums will stand the test of time. The duelling tendencies of art and pop meant that many Go-Betweens albums were a mish-mash, with a potential Top 40 hit followed by a sparse, obscure song about a Russian novelist. It was an approach that gave the songwriters their head, but didn't bring  the commercial success they needed.

There is a pleasing naivety in Forster's book about the rock star potential of the band. During both iterations of the band (1977-1989 and 2000-2006) he writes of how the next album would be the one that broke them properly. That it never happened was partly down to the quirkiness of the music, and partly due to the self-destructive tendencies of the band itself.

A portion of that destructiveness came down to the influence of Lindy Morrison. Drawn into the band after she became Forster's lover, she (inadvertently) cruelled their first stint at success in the UK because Forster couldn't bear to be away from her, so he returned to Australia just as they were beginning to make headway. Morrison's anarchic influence and anti-mainstream attitude also damaged the band's sound and presentation at times, veering them away from any opportunity for more mainstream success. Forster is quiet on a lot of this in the book, as he is on McLennan and Amanda Brown's time as a couple. He deals gently with all ex-bandmembers, perhaps more so than he should have.

Grant & I is more a journey through Forster's feelings, from the idealistic beginnings of The Go-Betweens through the drudgery of years on the road, to the excitement of the re-formation, through to the trauma of Grant's premature death. The book is a tender evocation of Grant. Ever the gentleman, a product of boarding school (Forster too attended a top private school, and both were very good schoolboy cricketers), he and Forster did not usually discuss emotions: in fact at times during the book Forster has to dig into McLennan's lyrics to glean his co-writer's feelings.

Little did either Forster or McLennan know what a dramatic effect on their lives their decision to terminate The Go-Betweens in 1989 would make. For Forster it brought on a time where his life changed for the better, with marriage, kids and sobriety bringing him a new happiness. For McLennan, the decision was a disaster, signalling the end to his relationship with Brown, which took him the best part of a decade to get over. Forster charts McLennan's descent into depression and drinking with the tenderness and helplessness that only a good friend could display.

The reformation of The Go-Betweens seemed to suggest a turn in the fortunes of their musical endeavours, at least, with the band now recognised as an important part of pop history, and a new phase in the Forster/McLennan songwriting partnership foreshadowing a new level of music. Grant's death took all that away.

Forster mentions a few times in the book that he likes reading biographies of artists and musicians to try and achieve an insight into what makes them tick - he is also unashamedly as much of a fanboy as the rest of us, with moving and funny descriptions of meeting people or going to places that are important to his artistic growth. When it comes to describing his own art, he shows us yet again not only how hard it is to describe a creative process, but how hard it can be to divorce oneself and judge critically. He shows us that the criticism of each others work was a vital part of the Forster/McLennan songwriting relationship (wouldn't it be fascinating to read McLennan's take on Forster's view of The Go-Betweens work, and indeed his solo oeuvre). There is much that I disagree with in Forster's description of his own, McLennan's Go-Between work, and indeed McLennan's solo albums, but his descriptions are a valuable record of how a creator feels about his work, both at the time and viewing from a distance.

McLennan appears through the pages of this book as a boy somewhat lost in the World; a boy with a great gift that he tries to use for good, but which crucially let him down at a key point in his life. Forster comes out as someone who for much of his life was trying to be someone else, before finding himself. Along the journey some truly great music was made and recorded. This book is not a warts-and-all uncovering of dirty laundry, it is rather a considered and distilled evocation of a friendship, a partnership, and a band.

Well worth reading.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

* This is the first time ever, in a 25 year career to do with books, that I have come across a book with no place of publication printed anywhere. I hope it's not a precursor of things to come.