Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

As I continue my two-decade quest to complete the Modern Library's 100 greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, I'm already trying to keep track of the wildly different characters I have come across, and can only imagine those who I will meet in the years to come. Captain John Yossarian is one of those characters that will endure in my memory. He's not particularly heroic. What draws me to him his sanity of weakness and fear.

I finished Heller's scathing, ironic, humorous attack on bureaucracy a few weeks back. In fact, in the interim period between finishing Catch 22 and writing this short review, I have completed The Moviegoer by Walker Percy and begun Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth. The reason I've been waiting to write about Catch 22 is because I hadn't made up my mind about it -- well, I don't think I've really ever made my mind "up" about any book. I just needed time to digest the material and work through how I felt about the book. I find the act of reading less satisfactory than the two-week period after finishing a novel where I can try to understand it in its entirety.

Yossarian is a WW2 bombardier stationed in Pianosa, Italy. He not particularly interested in fighting in the War. We are told that his job, as a soldier, is not to win the war, but to survive. And more importantly, anybody who stands in the way of his mission to stay alive -- is his enemy: "The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on, . . . And don't you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live." He's not ashamed of this statement either. In fact, he's afraid to die.

At first, this might seem cowardly, unpatriotic, or self-interested -- especially in a novel set during WW2, where everyone, according to modern folklore, served in the company of heroes. But Yoassarian gave me a jolt of consciousness. Who wouldn't be afraid to die? And especially when surrounded by equally mad commanding officers hell bent on making a name for themselves by sacrificing their squadron?

I think the hallmark of Catch 22 is its mastery of the paradox. Yossarian won't have to fly more missions if he's declared insane; but not wanting to fly more missions is totally sane. And, well, off he has to go to fly some more missions. Catch 22 is full of these paradoxes and, although repetitive and a bit tired in some passages, the overall effect of this repetition pays off. After the first 1/3 of the book, the peculiar, hilariously unique logic starts to make sense. The bureaucracy itself is mad, and the only way to deal with it is with even more madness.

Curiously, I had difficulty picturing the characters in my head while reading the novel and after finishing it as well. For instance, if you were to ask me how I picture the story of Catch 22 being told in film, I can't really think of any I've seen that would be appropriate. I can see WW2 in color, but not in the grainy, muted colors of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. Nor would the faded, 70's-greenish color palette of M*A*S*H really work for me. The world of Catch 22 only exists between the covers.

And now comes my dilemma. By virtue of picking a "Top 100" list as my syllabus, at times I wonder whether I should feel compelled to prove why each book belongs on the list -- which would be my way of justifying canon I've chosen. But where's would be the fun in that? What good is experiencing something if you can't even trust your own instincts?

Even a cursory review of the criticism of Catch 22 reveals that it wasn't universally well-received when published. In fact, the New York Times panned it while others foreshadowed its complete irrelevance.

But here's an opportunity for a knee-jerk reaction that I hate. Usually when someone finds out that a critic disliked a book that eventually becomes a "classic," you'll get the standard line about how dumb these critics must have been at the time not to appreciate the book as a masterpiece. I really can't stand that hindsight bias because the later-acquired fame seems to blind people into justifying why something is great as opposed to just giving their honest opinion about the book and letting the chips fall where they may.

In fact, I have no real qualms about saying that the first 1/3 of the book doesn't appear to be cohesively written and offers little by way of character development; the chapters are so episodic that the book loses whatever momentum it gains the previous chapter, which is pretty frustrating and makes the book hard to get into. The middle 1/3 of the book does a lot of that legwork and begins to build a framework in terms of a plot line, but for the reader, the array of characters and different story lines still don't quite gel together in any meaningful way.

But the last 1/3 of the book makes up for all of this -- and then some. It is stunningly good literature. While reading those last set of chapters, I kept wishing that the earlier portions of the book were as gripping. The sentences tighten up, the paradoxes deepen in meaning by leaps and bounds, and the book gains traction as it embraces a more linear timeline. But the real key for me was that, towards the end of the book, I could actually identify some motivating forces behind Yossarian's attempted rebellion.

With that said, I think over the last two weeks I have been able to think more about the earlier chapters and their extensive use of flashbacks to disrupt time. I'm starting to appreciate that aspect of Heller's writing, especially when he doubles back to describe certain aspects of the same event, which ends up giving the reader an explanation as to why a joke, partially explained earlier in the book, was funny or not. It takes a lot of patience to create something like that. And more importantly, it shows that Heller trusted his readers to do the work to get to the humour.

1 comment:

Harivansh Rai Bachchan said...

Probabaly no other novel other than the Jeeves/Berty Wooster series of PG Wodehouse has managed to make people laugh till their seams start bursting.
The humour of this book will have you bursting at the seams.
Its a satire of US Army Air Corps offices stationed in Italy during WW-II. The humour stems from the fact that critical issues concerning life and death are given no importance while trivial issues like clerical errors and idiotic judgements are glorified.
As one reviewer pointed out that there is no structured storyline which might make some readers stop reading beyond inital few pages but believe me, read this book till the end and you will not regret your decision.
A unique book, a masterpiece and rightly placed as one of the top 10 novels of the century.