7. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Year Published: 1961
Pages: 453
First Sentence: It was love at first sight.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is the so-called trope namer* of a phenomenon or paradox in which a person is trapped between two actions, each of which conflicts with the other:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
     "That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.
     "It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.
Yossarian is the protagonist. On the one hand, he's an insubordinate smart ass, on the other he's a man who's wounded and afraid and smart enough to see through the rhetoric and bureaucracy of war. He's a US Air Force captain stationed on an Italian island toward the end of the Second World War. One of his commanding officers is continually raising the number of missions that the men are required to fly before they can be discharged and sent home.

It's hard to sum this novel up for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's told out of sequence. Yossarian is in the hospital with a fake pain in his liver at the beginning of the book. This is well into the timeline, however, after he has flown several of the missions that are described later in the book, including one where he witnesses the death of a young gunner named Snowden. This confusing timeline isn't obvious at first, and is a fine device for storytelling, but...

The second reason it's hard to describe the plot of the novel is that it's absolutely jam-packed with more or less important characters to the point that it's really difficult to keep track of all of them. Some stand out (like Milo, who runs the mess and has a vast empire importing and exporting various goods; or Aarfy, who is consistently just the absolute worst) but others blend together and it can be hard to determine which of them was doing what and when.

I'm pretty sure that this jumble of the timeline and flood of characters was a deliberate choice by the author to give the reader some sense of the powerlessness and bewilderment experienced by the characters in the novel, of actions being taken by people one doesn't know for reasons one doesn't understand. It's certainly effective, and the novel is funny. The enemy, i.e. the German forces, make almost no appearances in the book, and it's clear that for the average soldier, their own chain of command may be the greater risk to their health and well-being.

But there's always a but, and in this case there are a couple.

I liked Heller's prose and how intricately he weaves together all the threads of this novel. It's a successful juggling act and it's funny and touching and horrifying when it needs to be. Unfortunately it's also too long. In some cases, Heller is doing a version of that thing where a joke goes on too long and then it stops being funny, but then it goes on longer and it starts being funny again. I don't think this works as well on the page as it can, sometimes, work on screen (I don't think it works that well on screen either most of the time).

Several years ago, I finally watched the 1970 movie version of M*A*S*H. I used to watch the tv show in reruns as a kid (no idea how it holds up) and wanted to see the hit movie that started it all (actually the movie was based on a novel). It ended up being really hard to watch, because comedy in general just doesn't age well, and mainly for the way some of the female characters are treated. Knowing what women have been through in the various armed forces they've served in, as well as in things like law enforcement, I just don't find depictions of women being sexually harassed to be very funny. As you might have guessed, this issue comes up in Catch-22 as well. There are also Italian civilian women—maids or sex workers of various kinds—who show up in the novel, usually as jokes and almost never as actual characters with internal lives and feelings. I'm not saying that I need every war novel to deal with women's experiences fo war, just that this sort of thing detracts from what is otherwise a good book, and could be handled a lot better. Basically I expect that the secondary female characters be given at least as much complexity as the secondary male characters, and I didn't find that to be the case in this novel.

There are four other WWII novels on The List (at least of those books I read—I have to assume that the series A Dance to the Music of Time would've eventually gotten there if I'd kept up with it). Most recently, and my favourite, was Slaughterhouse-Five, which has a similar title format and is also told out of sequence with a sense of humour that really drives home the horrors that it eventually reveals. Slaughterhouse-Five is a lot tighter, though, and accomplishes a lot of the same things Catch-22 does without wearing out the reader. The middle two are The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity, which are both long, boring, serious, and concerned with the Pacific theatre. These are all about Americans, and it may or may not be obvious that I'm tired of Americans and their WWII novels. Sophie's Choice is the exception, being about a Polish woman. I was pretty down on this novel in my original review, written way back in the mists of time. There were some things I didn't understand in it, I've since realized, but I still think that it was overlong, self-indulgent on the part of its author, and of course still largely centres the American point of view.

So I guess this means that I need to find some WWII novels from other perspectives. If you know if any, please pass them along. Otherwise, read Catch-22. It's pretty good and it'll shake up your assumptions a bit while making you chuckle at the same time. 

* Warning: this is a TV Tropes link. I don't know if these are as dangerous as they used to be, but nevertheless, click at your own risk.
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It was the despair of Lieutenant Scheisskopf's life to be chained to a woman who was incapable of looking beyond her own dirty, sexual desires to the titanic struggles for the unattainable in which noble man could become heroically engaged.
     "Why don't you ever whip me?" she pouted one night.
     "Because I haven't the time," he snapped at her impatiently. "I haven't the time. Don't you know there's a parade going on?"
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There were four of them, and they were having a whale of a good time as they helped each other set up their cots. They were horsing around. The moment he saw them, Yossarian knew they were impossible. They were frisky, eager and exuberant, and they had all been friends in the States. They were plainly unthinkable. They were noisy, overconfident, empty-headed kids of twenty-one. They had gone to college and were engaged to pretty, clean girls whose pictures were already standing on the rough cement mantelpiece of Orr's fireplace. They had ridden in speedboats and played tennis. They had been horseback riding. One had once been to bed with an older woman. They knew the same people in different parts of the country and had gone to school with each other's cousins. They had listened to the World Series and really cared who won football games. They were obtuse; their morale was good. They were glad that the war had lasted long enough for them to find out what combat was really like. They were halfway through unpacking when Yossarian threw them out.
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