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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 22 June 2019

"Catch 22" by Joseph Heller

A novel that is at once both very funny and very sad, an anarchic romp through the absurdities of war, a bitter anti-war message dressed up in farce.

A very well written novel indeed.

Yossarian, the hero, is a lead bombardier. Following a raid in which Snowden dies in his arms, he decides that he doesn't want to die and begins to devise ways in which he can no longer be sent on bombing missions. One of these is the idea of being declared insane. But there is a catch, Catch-22: “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.” (C 5) Meanwhile Yossarian's colonel keeps raising the number of missions he has to fly before he can be sent home.

With one or two exceptions, the forty two chapters are each named after an officer in Yossarian's bomber squadron (although the ensuing chapter may only refer tangentially to that officer who may in fact feature more strongly elsewhere). Thus the narrative of the book is far from in chronological sequence. In this way we are prevented from knowing key facts until the end: what was Snowden's secret, communicated to Yossarian as he died in his arms; why did a whore repeatedly whack Orr over the head? This also means that we have to piece together the time sequence while reading: the first scene in the book is Yossarian in the hospital (not for the first nor last time) which fits somewhere in the middle of the chronology. It also means that we learn about some of Yossarian's comrades when they are already dead. 

The other stylistic feature of this novel is Heller's tendency to narrate in long sentences which start off in one place and, passing through a number of absurdities, arrive at a different destination. For example: “McWatt crinkled his fine, freckled nose apologetically and vowed not to snap the cards anymore, but always forgot. McWatt wore fleecy bedroom slippers with his red pajamas and slept between freshly pressed colored bed sheets like the one Milo had retrieved half of for him from grinning thief with the sweet tooth in exchange for none of the pitted dates Milo had borrowed from Yossarrian. McWatt was deeply impressed with Milo, who, to the amusement of Corporal Snark, his mess sergeant, was already buying eggs for seven cents apiece and selling them for five cents. But McWatt was never as impressed with Milo as Milo had been with the letter Yossarian had obtained for his liver from Doc Daneeka.” (C 7) It makes you feel breathless to read it but it perfectly expresses the anarchy of war (and, by extension, with the commercial activities of Milo the mess sergeant, the entire capitalist system).

Some of these long rants are chilling:
  • “They couldn't dominate Death inside the hospital, but they certainly made her behave. They had taught her manners. They couldn't keep Death out, but while she was in she had to act like a lady. People gave up the ghost with delicacy and taste inside the hospital. There was none of that crude, ugly ostentation about dying that was so common outside the hospital. They did not blow up in mid-air like Kraft or the dead man in Yossarrian’s tent, or freeze to death in the blazing summertime the way Snowden had frozen to death after spilling his secret to Yossarrian in the back of the plane. ... “They didn't take it on the lam weirdly inside a cloud the way Clevinger had done. They didn't explode into blood and clotted matter. They didn't drown or get struck by lightning, mangled by machinery or crushed in landslides. They didn't get shot to death in hold-ups, strangled to death in rapes, stabbed to death in saloons, bludgeoned to death with axes by parents or children or die summarily by some other act of God. Nobody choked to death. People bled to death like gentlemen in an operating room or expired without comment in an oxygen tent. There was none of that tricky now-you-see-me-now-you-don't business so much in vogue outside the hospital, none of that now-I-am-and-now-I-ain't. There were no famines or floods. Children didn't suffocate in cradles or iceboxes or fall under trucks. No one was beaten to death. People didn't stick their heads into ovens with the gas on, jump in front of subway trains or come plummeting like dead weights at the hotel windows with a whoosh!, accelerating at the rate of sixteen feet per second to land with a hideous plop! on the sidewalk and die disgustingly there in public like an alpaca sack full of hairy strawberry ice cream, bleeding, pink toes awry.” (C 17) 
That last sentence alone is a masterpiece.

This rant is blasphemous and angry but at the same time funny:
  • “And don't tell me god works in mysterious ways ... There's nothing so mysterious about it. He's not working at all. He's playing. or else he's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about - a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who found it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when he robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain? ... Why couldn't He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person's forehead? Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn't he?” (C 18)
Yossarian also is angry about the sadnesses inherent in life as well as death:
  • “What a lousy Earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, how many people would go insane? How many cockroaches and landlords would triumph? How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust sold their souls to blackguards for petty cash, how many had never had souls? How many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people?” (C 39)

But as well as rants there are some exquisite brief insights into the human condition:
  • “Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers.” (C 1)
  • “He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up whilst to come down alive.” (C 3)
  • “Huple thrust his jaw out defiantly to let Hungry Joe know he couldn't be pushed around and then did exactly as he had been told.” (C 6)
  • “Yossarian was laid up in the hospital with a burst of clap he had caught on a low-level mission over a Wac in bushes on a supply flight to Marrakech.” (C 6)
  • “He had lived innocuously for a little while and then had gone down in flames over Ferrara on the seventh day, while God was resting.” (C 6)
  • “He knew everything about literature except how to enjoy it.” (C 8)
  • “She was never without a good book close by, not even when she was lying in bed with nothing on her but Yossarian.” (C 8)
  • “Clevinger had a mind, and Lieutenant Scheisskopf had noticed that people with minds tended to get pretty smart at times. Such men were dangerous.” (C 8)
  • “To Yossarian, the idea of pennants as prizes was absurd. No money went with them, no class privileges. Like Olympic medals and tennis trophies, all they signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else.” (C 8)
  • “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.” (C 9)
  • “Since he had nothing better to do well in, he did well in school.” (C 9)
  • “He had observed that people who did lie were, on the whole, more resourceful and ambitious and successful then people who did not lie.” (C 11)
  • “‘What makes you so sure Major Major it is a communist?’ ‘ You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you?’” (C 11)
  • “Our purpose was to make everyone we don't like afraid.” (C 11)
  • “It doesn't make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead.” (C 12)
  • “The enemy ... is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on.” (C 12)
  • “There were millions of conscientious body cells oxidating away day and night like dumb animals at their complicated job of keeping him alive and healthy, and every one was a potential traitor and foe.” (C 17)
  • “His credo as a professional soldier was unified and concise: he believed that the young men who took orders from him should be willing to give up their lives for the ideals, aspirations and idiosyncrasies of the old men he took orders from.” (C 21)
  • "Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage.” (C 41)

A masterpiece.

I have been watching the television adaptation of Catch-22, currently (July 2019) showing on British terrestrial television. It has done a marvellous job of telling the story in a more or less linear fashion, so making the narration understandable, but in so doing it seems to have lost the flair of the original. Because the novel constantly loops back to key themes, such as Nately's whore's little sister, and Snowden, the effect on Yossarian of what happens to Nately and Snowden is magnified. The chronological narration of this series has not allowed for these repetitions (there would have to be a lot of repeated flashbacks) so the impact of these events is diminished. Furthermore, without the fragmentation of the narration some of the madness and craziness exhibited by the book is lost. Finally, of course, the film version has lost those marvellous endless sentences and paragraphs, that style so reminiscent of Kerouac, as if Proust had been accelerated to hypersonic speeds, which celebrate the joy of being alive even in the face of death. And somehow the TV version seems to have lost the humour.

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