I have been feeling a bit conflicted over the past few days or so. I have just finished reading Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam, and really wanted to write a review of it. But I wasn’t sure where to start. Also, I noticed that my opinion about the book differed significantly from that of many other readers. I’ll start with a massive spoiler here: I loved the book. But many people don’t. While taste is a personal matter which changes all the time, I was still struck by how radically different my perception of the book was compared to others. The rest of this review is therefore structured according to the most common reasons for disliking the book I encountered, followed by my response.
1. The style is horrible
Horrible is a subjective term, of course, but I can see where this comes from. The story was written during the 1960s and clearly echoes the idiom popular among hipsters and beatniks at the time. The story is narrated by DJ, its adolescent protagonist, and DJ is clearly in touch with the popular discourse of his era. He also thinks he’s incredibly smart and funny. In short, he’s a bit of a twat. And his way of speaking – created by Mailer, of course – can be pretty difficult to follow. Even I at some point felt like punching the character and its creator in the face. Tell it like it is and stop being so “funny”! Then again, the novel captures the stream-of-consciousness rambling of its time. After ten pages or so I got used to it. While DJ occasionally lost me I eventually grew fond of his ridiculous “jokes” which include referring to a helicopter as a Cop Turd. Perhaps my sense of humour is just a bit childish.
2. It doesn’t answer the question
The novel never tells us why “we” (who are “w”e, anyway?) are or were in Vietnam. Indeed, if you start reading this book expecting a clear explanation of the causes of the Vietnam War, you will be disappointed. Then again, in a way Mailer does offer the reader his perspective on the matter. He just manages to hide it very well. But all the characters in the book are driven by greed, by a desire to prove themselves, by using what was supposed to be a simple hunting trip as a personal quest. Was the Vietnam War motivated by similar concerns? Perhaps. Would the book have been better had Mailer been a little bit clearer? I don’t think so. I don’t like writers who shove their morality into my face.
3. It’s about animal cruelty
Fair enough. The book is about a hunting trip and the descriptions of animals getting shot are not for the squeamish. I’m not a hunting fan myself and understand why people have a hard time coping with DJ’s actions. Then again, the novel does not promote all the actions it describes. DJ himself is not a fan of the use of a helicopter as a hunting tool, as he perceives it to be unfair towards the animals, and grows increasingly wary of his father’s obsession with shooting a bear. Eventually – SPOILER ALERT – they shoot one together, but while DJ’s father is only interested in killing the beast DJ is genuinely impressed by its size and feels a strange type of connection with the grizzly as it dies. Hardly an outright condemnation of hunting, that’s true, but saying that the novel condones animal cruelty is a bit of an exaggeration.
4. It’s sexist
Ah, the good old sexism accusation. Mailer has a history in this regard. Just check out Kate Millett’s work and his response to it (The Prisoner of Sex). Is Mailer’s work sexist? Possibly, depending on your definition of sexism. Does this automatically make Why Are We in Vietnam a crap book? I don’t think so. A lot of books deal with controversial subjects. That’s not a reason to condemn or censor them. If we did we’d better stop reading thrillers too, and that’s not going to happen anytime soon. I don’t know whether this particular novel is sexist and I’m not that interested in answering the question. At the very least I don’t think potentially sexist content should be a reason to dismiss the book right away. Even if the book is sexist, surely ignoring its sexism isn’t the way forward. Yes, I struggled with some of the book’s descriptions. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a good book. I don’t have to agree with every aspect of a work of art to like it. Besides, I’m getting increasingly worried about the tendency to ban everything that could potentially offend anyone. My own university is seriously considering banning The Daily Star from being sold in its shops (following its existing ban of The Sun). Personally, I believe that people should have the right to read trash if they want to. Besides, I want to know what they’re thinking. Let people express problematic ideas if they want to. It makes it easier to prove them wrong.
What I’m getting at is this: I liked this book. Perhaps I could even say that I loved it. I gradually began to appreciate its wacky language and the endless descriptions of hunting in the rough Alaskan landscape. Yes, this book has some major problems. But I like problems. If we’re heading towards a future where only plain and non-offensive prose will ever find its way to a significant audience, God help us all.