One of my pseudo-white whales I realized once I got going with it and thought back on my orientation toward this novel. It’s on the MLA top 100, so I bought it once long ago and began reading it and stopped not that far into it. I mentioned this once to a grad school colleague and got yelled at, and didn’t know why or like that. It was my first understanding of that kind of passion that Mailer sometimes inspired in people. He obviously has inspired the opposite forms of passion as well.
This novel draws upon Mailer’s wartime experience in the Philippines during WW2, something that is interesting because in the Philip Roth novel The Counterlife, Mailer is accused (not by Roth, but a character) of being obsessed with violence, but not ever having experienced any. Anyway, in the novel we follow a platoon of soldiers (plus various higher ranking officers) being dropped off on a fictional island in the Pacific, similar to many of the different possible islands such soldiers might have found themselves on. The novel is not plot driven, which makes sense in terms of the life of a soldier, and is even kind of anti-plot, as the focus of the novel is a series of experiences they share from some limited firefights to conversations, and a lot of time spent in flashback and consciousness. The novel has a central tension in a Schrodinger kind of way of being dead and not dead at the same time, and to attempt to make sense of who they were before this time, and what could possibly be in the future, if a future is possible. The novel also dwells. It dwells and dwells and dwells. That’s a not a criticism, but an observation of how slowly and muddily time would assuredly pass in this circumstance, and so the time in the novel passes just as slowly and muddily.