Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Review: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 is the first book in a new project, consisting of a compilation of the sorta-banned books of the twentieth century that I innocently posted a month or two ago. I'll put up the final negotiated checklist sooner or later--I'm slowly working the titles in to the current pile. If I read all the banned books in a year, then hipparchia has to email me a beer or something. Catch-22 has also been the subject of heated debate between my other two readers, so it found itself right near the top.

I finished the novel a few weeks ago, but it feels like it's one I've had in my head for years. It feels canonical, yes, and I'm sorry that it devolved into a crappy catch (so to speak) phrase, but then a "catch 22" as an unofficial, iron-clad, and contradictory rule, suits the spirit of the novel well enough. As for the feeling of having been here before, I've read or watched enough of its intellectual heirs that it feels like familiar ground. Is Catch-22 really that seminal? We had absurdist and modernist literature already by 1961, even in America, and I'd hesitate to say that the most obvious followers in the form (Slaughterhouse-Five and M*A*S*H, which are also unread and likewise familiar, and the film, Doctor Strangelove) were copying Heller. Heller might have been the first to really capture the idea that modern warfare, with its faceless but horrifically effective violence, with its nightmarishly incompetent bureaucracy, is the pinnacle example of the sorts of deadpan philosophical puzzles that Kafka and Camus had portrayed a few decades previous. Or maybe he was just one of the first handful to finally get that existential haymaker to land squarely on the American jaw.

The absurdist style has only grown on me. It puts the fear and the humor of life in a fair perspective, and my own times seem to foster an appreciation of the dispassionate monstrosity, but they probably all do. I identify absurdist humor with the ruthless comedy of a good heckler, interjecting moments of truth or context to the massive powers that are grinding indifferently against us all. It's hard not to feel like Yossarian these days, once you begin to fancy you have a slight predilection for noticing those myriad things that the political and social world violently denies, once you start to feel persecuted about all the ways the world is actually (if impersonally) trying to kill you. Of course, few of us are astute enough to observe the obvious very well, given our own paradoxical investment in the events around us, and Heller is better at it than many. He finds the right language and the right context from which to take some impressive potshots.

The novel has a lot of great lines, most of which stand alone from whatever point in the book they appear, and I'm surprised I don't see more of them gracing the internets, given how nerds like to obsessively quote things. (Maybe the movie version cut out all the good quips. It's got to be hard to read while you're baked, after all.) Heller gets a lot of mileage out of narrative trick where he presents either a negative declaration, or else follows up an assertion with it's own contradiction. [From a random page: "'I can just picture his liver,' Doc Daneeka grumbled. 'Picture my liver,' Yossarian advised him. 'There's nothing wrong with your liver' 'That shows how much you don't know...'"] It doesn't constitute a wide variety of jokes, really, but what the hell, it's not like they stop being funny, and the characters go off on an extended repartee sometimes, or Heller keeps a coherent sketch going for a chapter or two, which is great. Occasionally the bits steer far off into too much silliness, and sometimes they're nearly played straight. The overall tone of the the story does cover something of an arc: Yossarian's conscience evolves from a purely self-preserving force to something more empathetic, as the deaths around him become more violent, and the dead more innocent, and when, for me, a connection between him and the other characters finally begins to gel. I wasn't quite prepared for the impact of the final sequence. As Yossarian slinks through increasingly brutal shadows of bombed-out Rome, and as his last friends survive the war or fail to, the emotion really hit me.

(A violent set of cliches in today's review. Well, it's a war novel.)

The random dips into serious commentary or total farce jarred the tone in a way that didn't always help the story. The character sketches of the large supporting cast are entertaining, and yet it took a long time to establish the point of many of them, which affected the development of the story. Not that there's anything wrong with shipping in personnel for a quick joke, it's just poorly telegraphed which of these soldiers is worth investing a feeling or two in. Similarly, the plot is a slice'em dice'em affair of flash-backs and -forwards and the jumbled narrative didn't served a whole lot of purpose, except maybe to accentuate the dark humor, but it's harder to pay attention to it when you're busy keeping track of the story details (you can follow the timeline by the number of missions they're complaining about). Catch-22 would almost certainly improve with a reread or two, starting with a good understanding of the plot and characters already in hand.


bright said...

K, if you're not already, you really ought to (find a way to) get paid for this stuff. Your reviews are amazing.

This is one of those books that's so part of the canon I'm sure I must have read it but I actually haven't. Off to the library!

Keifus said...

I can't imagine advertising to the handful of friends that currently read this stuff. Other than that, I'd have to shop the reviews around, which looks suspiciously like work. (Also, I don't really agree, but I appreciate it! And I certainly like the idea of getting paid for something I do anyway.)

I understand that both the book and movie were really popular. Recall a kind of tedious conversation between my mom and dad, long ago, discussing what the phrase meant, surely in reference to the film, which based on that conversation, spent more time on the "sanity" angle. I'd think it'd be extremely difficult to catch the right vibe in a movie, if it weren't for the couple of examples mentioned (Altman's MASH and Kubrick's Strangelove) that did pretty well. Still, it seems hard.

Also read that the Air Force Academy teaches the book, to discuss how to deal with disaffection in combat. That is really hard to imagine.


MichaelRyerson said...

First read Catch-22 on the recommendation of a couple of friends just a year or two after coming back from overseas. Weird time for me and they oversold it, laughing riotously as they replayed parts of it for their own amusement. I made a couple of tries and then put it aside, unable to really get into it. Found a dog-eared copy some years later on a lazy summer day and fell into it immediately. It's been a favorite ever since. I've reread it numerous times (at least five times) and generally hate the movie.

Schmutzie said...

Great read. I suggest we add Humphrey Cobb's "Paths of Glory", (later made into a fantastic film by Kubrick) to your list of pioneer works that examine the surrealism of warfare. It's got no real one-liners, but Cobb's analysis of the painfully moronic bureaucracy behind military decisions makes you just scratch your head and ponder the stupidity of the whole idea of warfare.

Schmutzie said...

And you have more than two readers.

Keifus said...

I still ain't gonna advertise to you, Smutty.

I'm a bit out of my depth sorting war novels (or war novels with bigger themes). Would like to make a thesis that the level of military (and other) technology really drove the sense of alienation that can support satire or surrealism/modernism/absurdism so well. I'm kind of under-read to make support that thesis, however (and can't believe that C22 was even the first war novel in that regard, even if it made a huge impact, so appreciate the data point, and might check it out).

Mike: thanks for confirming my suspicions about re-reading as well as the movie's inferiority.

twif said...

i've never seen the movie, but do love the book. it would take a very gifted film maker to translate it without destroying it.

artandsoul said...

Soldier of the Great War is, I hope, on your nightstand.

Ask Fritz.