Thursday, March 29, 2007

Yossarian Lives!

People have always told me that I should read Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." They always compare it to "Gravity's Rainbow" in its intricacy, huge cast, WWII setting, and combination of low-brow humour and high-falutin' intellectual condundrums.

So I've finally read it, and I'm not sure what I think. I know that I disliked the first half, with its constant string of repetative jokes (and when I say "constant," I really mean it: page after page, paragraph after paragraph, joke upon joke upon joke).

Gradually, however, I became aware of "the trend," and therefore I started to "get it." Every one of the huge number of characters is a critical piece of the novel's fine-tuned equipment, like the 34 miniscule parts of Orr's tiny valves. They're like parts of one of those Rube Goldberg machines: each character is ridiculous, but they fit together and spin around and perform their stereotypical actions until -- at the end -- Yossarian is popped out with a new, honest, and strangely noble purpose at the end.

I also noticed that, about halfway through, the novel was getting darker. From the first uneasy hints about Snowden's death in the plane, to Milo's bombing of his own base in order to make a profit, to Kid Sampson's comical but gruesome death ("Kid Sampson had rained all over. Those who spied drops of him on their limbs or torsos drew back with terror and revulsion..."), to Yossarian's gut-wrenching, helpless walk through "The Eternal City," and ending with a real, final, blow-by-blow description of Snowden's slow death from a piece of shrapnel that literally burst his entrails into the casing of his flak jacket...

Wow. My skin crawled. By sickening me with silliness and then, gently, leading me into some of the most grotesque and hopeless fiction I've ever read, "Catch-22" did something that most books can't do: it UPSET me. It didn't necessarily ENTERTAIN me or EDUCATE me, but it got under my skin and made me hurt, mentally. As for its comparisons to Gravity's Rainbow...I can certainly see that, but whereas Gravity's Rainbow is paranoid yet hopeful, Catch-22 is more cynical and relentlessly pessimistic: the characters know EXACTLY who is out to get them, and they know EXACTLY how it will be done, and there's no way of stopping it.

I think the book is often messy and confused, and too wrapped up in its cleverness for its own good. But at other times Joseph Heller's games made me laugh in outright delight; other than Nately's Whore's outrageous homicidal antics, which had me stifling my laughter in my little cubicle at work, my favourite moment was understated, and one that you needed to read closely to understand:
'Hungry Joe was killed.'

'God, no! On a mission?'

'He died in his sleep while having a dream. They found a cat on his face.'


Eric Little said...

It's nice to come upon a reading of Heller that sees him as another, and not the first, of the satires upon WWII. I found my 37-year old paperback copy of the novel (my second; the first was lost in a fire) and noticed that in the back of the book I had used two pages to list the characters and keep them straight; at the front, a page to list all the times the expression "Catch-22" came up.

For me growing up, WWII was, if not the good war, then the necessary war, knowing my father had flown B-24s out of Italy, like Yossarian (B-24s being a larger version of the B-25). I'm trying to remember if I got him to read it when I first did in high school--I don't think I did.

I remember from teaching the novel a few years ago that Heller had trouble with the ending--logically, they still should be flying missions, since Catch-22 will always force them to stay. I'd like to read a thorough biography of Heller (which somebody is probably working on right now) and learn the circumstances of the writing of the novel.

The message of the Snowden portion of the novel--that human beings are meat, and modern war the industrialized means to turn as many of them into that--was emphasized by the British poets of WWI, such as Owen in "Dulce et Decorum Est." The horror that the realization of that brings is what fuels the engine, as you so nicely put it, of "Catch-22," and all its absurdities.

When I taught the novel, I showed the ending of "Duck Soup"--the comedy of the Marx Brothers and Heller has its roots in the same sources.

Adam Thornton said...

The ending seemed INCREDIBLY awkward to me, though maybe it was meant to be. I suppose the lesson Yossarian learned was that resistance and escape aren't solutions, and you can't easily fight the army or the syndicate because they wrote the rules and can always appeal to your civic pride.

But instead of running away, Yossarian ran TO something: he became active in the only way he could. Meanwhile the chaplain and Korn decided to stop taking crap from other people, though how punching a colonel in the eye would help them in the long run is beyond me.

In that sense, I think the movie (which I watched on Friday) was clearer and less distracted, though it got a bit heavy-handed about The Syndicate. Made me think of "Brazil," actually.

To me, WWII seems like "the necessary war," though you don't have to look very far to find out that not everybody agreed with that. As Canadians we're taught to be proud that we were one of the first countries to enter the war, but we gloss over how unpopular this was in many areas, especially in Quebec.

I've personally never thought that war existed to make meat. There are a number of different reasons to make war, but often it really does seem to come down to money.

Eric Little said...

I wasn't clear enough (gee, that never happens!). I agree with you that the chief cause of war is economic: thus the whole Milo Minderbinder subplot. But the purpose of modern war, once it is engaged upon, or its effect, is to turn large groups of men into meat.

"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. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all."

The culminating realization of "King Lear" becomes the punchline to a sick joke.