BY ADAM BLOCH
This book has been chosen as a Great Read
Author: Joseph Heller
1961, Simon & Schuster
Filed under Literary
Some years ago, I picked up Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I found it absurd, constantly surprising and outrageously hilarious. Naturally, I couldn’t stand it and quit by page 70. (If the preceding statement treads on your illogic nerve, then welcome to the world of Catch-22 and start getting used to it.)
How could something so delightfully funny prove so tiresome? The challenge lies in Heller’s penchant for farce and his unusual narrative structure. The overarching sense of the absurd, while consistently amusing, can prove a bit trying. One eventually wonders if there’s a point amid all the ridiculous proceedings, whether there’s anything serious to be said about an obviously serious subject – in this case, war. Ah, but that’s partially the point of this wonderfully pointed satire: the mysterious divide between matters of life and death and the attentive significance they demand and sometimes fail to receive.
Far more difficult is the non-chronological style and disdain for exposition. Heller starts the proceedings in media res, though this does not do justice to the sheer confusion he quickly perpetuates. Characters are mentioned without introduction and events referred to as if the reader already knows all about them. Who, one might easily ask, are Dunbar, Orr and Dobbs? And what, one definitely should wonder, the hell happened over Bologna, Avignon and Ferrara?
Catch-22, despite all its humor and laughs, does a fine job of pushing away the reader for the first 200 pages or so. But if one sticks with it, or at least returns to the book after a decade of dormancy as I did, the rewards are ample and the narrative eventually clears up. By the time you wrap your mind around what’s going on, you’ll realize you’re reading a masterpiece of satire and one of the greatest war novels ever written.
Captain John Yossarian is stationed on Pianosa, a small island off the west coast of Italy, and a member of an American bomber squadron in the latter years of World War II. He operates with a casual disregard for common assumptions, propriety and official protocol. Most notably, he is greatly offended and upset by the fact that millions of people across the world (the soldiers of the Axis Powers) are trying to kill him and dozens of others (his superiors) seem to exist only to send him into danger. His comrades and acquaintances include a do-nothing doctor mortally terrified of being sent to the Pacific; a man who sleeps with a cat on his face; a squadron commander who won’t talk to or see anyone; an officer obsessed with marching and formal parades; a chaplain who increasingly doubts the existence of God; a 15-year-old pilot; a mail clerk who has de facto control over all air operations in the theater; and a mess officer/black marketeer vehemently committed to free market principles.
Their adventures and encounters are narrated with Heller’s stylistic touchstones of repetition, absurdity and paradox. For example:
The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.
Actually, there were many officers’ clubs that Yosarrian had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one on Pianosa. It was a sturdy and complex monument to his powers of determination. Yossarian never went there to help until it was finished; then he went there often, so pleased was he with the large, fine, rambling shingled buildng. It was truly a splendid structure, and Yossarian throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his.
His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done.
This sort of prose is combined with an ongoing montage of vignettes that provides comedic structure. For example, the name T.S. Eliot provokes a chain of prank calls and suspicion; a series of officers begins signing documents with the name Washington Irving; the war becomes background to an international trading syndicate in which “everyone has a share;” and an Indian chieftain is followed by prospectors because oil is inevitably discovered wherever he settles and he is then forced off his land. Heller uses a refined sense of wordplay, repeating phrases and memes over the course of dozens of chapters to achieve an effect of heightened absurdity. The result is crushing satire in which no subject of army life is free from mockery. Generals, corruption, psychology, prostitution, doctors, nurses, parades and military justice all get their moments of ridicule.
Instead of undermining the rather serious setting of the book, all the hilarity only underscores the morbid events transpiring in the background. Yossarian takes a look around and sees a world in which people are dying every day and thousands more are risking their lives, sometimes without any regard for why. He sees a world in which the lives of millions are ruled by the whims of the few in charge and asks, how does one live sanely in an insane world? And as the narrative unfolds and the death count mounts, the satire begins fading until the only things left are loss, pain and despair.
It also bears mentioning that Catch-22 includes the finest collection of fictional nomenclature I have ever encountered (at least nomenclature without a sense of Snow Crash-like obviousness). The highlights: John Yossarian, Captain Aardvark, Captain Flume, Doc Daneeka, Milo Minderbinder, Lieutenant/Colonel/General Scheisskopf (literally “shithead” in German), General Dreedle, General Peckem, the partially anonymous Major ––––– de Coverley, Huple, Hungry Joe, McWatt, Kid Sampson, Corporal Popinjay, Corporal Snark, Chief White Halfoat, Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen and Colonels Cathcart, Korn, Cargill and Moodus. Special mention goes to the justifiably famous Major Major Major Major. And then there are the many characters whose names are only descriptions: Nately’s Whore, The Soldier in White, The Soldier Who Sees Everything Twice and The Maid with the Lime-Colored Panties.
Books you might like: The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek.