Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Book Review: Why Are We in Vietnam?

Why Are We in Vietnam?
Title: Why Are We in Vietnam?
Author: Norman Mailer
Publication Date: 1967 (2000 edition)
Publisher: Picador
Genre: Realistic fiction
Pages: 215
Age Rating: Readers over 14
My Opinion: 6/10

Hi, Readers!

       Don't be fooled by the title of Norman Mailer's novel, Why Are We in Vietnam? - its setting is not the dangerous, war-torn jungles of Vietnam.  Instead, he explains his own version of the Vietnam War by creating an elaborate metaphor about a hunting trip in the Alaskan wilderness focusing on a corporate executive and his son.  Mailer's stream-of-consciousness writing is unique, but in my opinion, Why Are We in Vietnam? lacks excitement and was not able to hold my interest.

       Why Are We in Vietnam is narrated by D.J., a wealthy, white teenager from Texas who is contemplating the idea of identity.  D.J. disjointedly tells the story of a hunting trip that he went on with his father, his best friend, and some of his father's employees.  His father, Rusty, is on a mission to shoot a grizzly bear.  A power dynamic comes into play when one of his employees, MA ("medium asshole") Pete, takes down a grizzly before he does.  At that point, Rusty and D.J. head off on their own in search of a hunt, and their father-son relationship is called into question.  Afterwards, D.J. and his friend attempt a "purification ceremony" in which they delve into the wilderness without weapons or supplies.  Mailer uses the backdrop of Alaska to focus on complex character dynamics that metaphorically mirror that of soldiers in the Vietnam War.

A quote from the author, Norman Mailer
       D.J. tells his narrative using a fluid timeline, and almost every chapter has a brief (and utterly perplexing) introduction, called an "Intro Beep".  These Intro Beeps serve to set the scene for what is to come, but they do so in underhanded ways and seem to have nothing to do with the story due to D.J.'s stream-of-consciousness discussions.  Although the timeline of the storytelling is difficult to follow at points, Mailer does an excellent job including D.J.'s discourse about identity.  Throughout the novel, Mailer forces readers to question reality by randomly throwing in that D.J. could be a white teen from Texas or that he could be a famous black disc jockey from Harlem.  It is pretty clear that D.J.'s true identity is that of the white teen, but the novel still calls into question what is actually true and what is fictitious.

       The aspect of Mailer's writing that receives the most criticism is his inclusion of obscenities.  Please be forewarned if you decide to read Why Are We in Vietnam? - almost every single page has swear words casually thrown into sentences. There are probably more bad words in this book than in all of the novels I've read... combined.  I personally find it interesting how Mailer is mimicking the rough dialogue of soldiers in the Vietnam War, and much of the language adds a comical air to a somewhat heavy subject, but it can be a bit of a shock to see so many vulgar words.

      Why Are We in Vietnam definitely grew on me as I kept reading it.  In the beginning, I thought that I would dislike it just as much as I have disliked the previous post-modernism novels that I had to read for American Fiction from 1950 to Present.  Luckily, it transitioned from having confusing narration to becoming more clear by the end.  I wouldn't personally recommend the novel, but I do think it has its merits and is a strong piece of literature.

Happy reading!

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