Well, this is part one of two -- I'm gonna try to get on a schedule with this blog, and Something Happened should appear next week (which is all you need to concern yourself with re Heller, incidentally.) I would like post more, but I gotta read the damn things, you know, and that takes time.
Me and Catch-22 go a long way back. It was, in many respects, the first “adult” book I ever read -- I had 11th Grade AP English and the teacher wanted us to do five book reports. I had been fascinated by the adult section of my local library (the Rebecca M. Arthurs Memorial Library in Brookville, PA) but had not grabbed anything from there. I took a deep breath, screwed up my courage, and got it.
Yeah, I know. Scared to get a book? I was a strange kid. But anyway, I loved it. The teenage years are a good time to hit Catch-22 -- the humor will go over well, if you haven’t been inundated with the hippy-dippy nostrums that came afterwards by way of imitation it will seem very fresh and exciting, and dangerously edgy in a kind of way. I have subsequently reread it several times -- this is probably the last time. I have come to the more sober conclusion that it is a great book, a genuine modern American classic written during a time when there wasn’t a lot of them -- but that it will never be a favorite of mine.
Let me digress a second. This is one of the great epiphanies of art appreciation, and it’s a stage that a lot of people never get to -- or don’t even seem to understand. It is quite possible to love something dearly, even while admitting it’s flaws. I bow to no one in my love for John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, to take the first thing that pops into my head, even though the books, to be kind about it, vary in quality. I think a lot of people understand this idea -- witness the notion of the “guilty pleasure” and all that.
But what a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that the converse is equally true -- the work of art you can appreciate, but simply doesn’t relate to you. And yes, I guess it follows from this that I think there’s such a thing as objective quality in art, although one generally has to be quite attuned to the form in order to sense it.
(I suppose a true realization of this necessarily diminishes art's power -- it puts it in it's proper place, makes it important but not IMPORTANT, not something that can be subsituted for worship. Odd and interesting, that.)
I acknowledge Catch-22’s greatness. You could write a whole essay -- a long one, with footnotes and the like -- on the structure of the thing alone: a swirling vortex, a nightmare with the evocative image of Snowden freezing to death in the plane, with the paper scraps billowing about him. Books tend to be reportorial in nature -- the more I read the more I’m convinced the old “show, not tell” adage is simply wrong, writing by it’s very nature cannot help but report, that’s what it does, and so any attempt to convey visual images is problematic at best. But Heller’s book really does have some of the trippy effects of an art house movie, with it’s diffracted timeline and it’s editorial tricks to prove a point. The fact that this was all written before our age of media saturation makes the achievement even more remarkable. Years later I saw part of Mike Nichol’s movie version on tv, and it was remarkable to me how much of the structure of the book was lifted intact. But again, Catch-22 is almost cinematic before cinematic, if that makes any sense.
And there’s the schtick, which is often very funny -- Catch-22 is one of the few “comedy” novels that will genuinely make you laugh -- and which, by counterposing it with scenes of unendurable blackness and bleakness (the terror of men in war; the death of Snowden; the bombing of the men by their own men) really created a kind of American black comedy that I’m not sure had been seen before. I’m no expert on the subject, but it seems to me this idea of pairing borscht belt vaudeville with some of the grimmest themes on record (we’ll get back to this, but mark, this is a book suffused with despair) was I think something genuinely new. Which accounts for the many many imitators of it through the years. (The hippies loved it, of course. You can blame "M*A*S*H" on Catch-22.)
So I do admire it. I think Catch-22 is a legitimate classic, a genuinely great American novel and one of the must reads from the second half of the Twentieth Century.
That doesn’t mean I actually like it.
It’s a cold book, for all that. I think the humor attracts a lot of readers, which get surprised when they progress to Something Happened and see something more straightforwardly bleaker and less funny. This was simultaneous Heller’s great strength and weakness -- he did something genuinely new here in Catch-22, but it’s clear to me that people didn’t understand what exactly he did. This isn’t a “war book” -- ironically the best American novel about WW 2, maybe, has very little to do with the war at all. This is a much deeper critique of Western society itself, the war is merely a microcosm -- ultimately a deadly but pointless exercise, something of a charade.
This is a book that attempts to criticize all of Western civilization itself -- at least modern Western Civilization -- as essentially a soul-destroying monstrosity. This isn’t a variant of The Caine Mutiny, this is 1984 played for laughs. This isn’t From Here to Eternity, it’s more Brazil. The only choices are to be bowed under by it or opt out, ala Yossarian. No heroes here -- just victims.
And that’s just cold. One can respect such a thing without admiring it. Does anyone, for example, really “love” 1984? Once you’ve read it, are you really wantin’ to dive back into that world? No matter what you thought of the book
I thought so.
My other problem with Catch-22 is that, though it’s set in WW 2, it’s not really about WW 2. Not really. It’s about systemic problems in Western civilization, which sounds more boring than it actually plays out in the narrative, but the point is the war is just sort of a pretext. Heller could’ve easily done it on Kiwanis memberships, or Hospital auxiliary money raisers, or fundraising for the high school band. Or on office politics (which he did in Something Happened, a very interesting book, I hope to get to that next week). And that’s fine -- except I can’t help but feel disquieted about it, because of course WW 2 wasn’t just “something that happened” it was an extremely important event in which a bunch of people fought and bled and died for things that meant something. This seems rather obvious, but somehow it gets lost in the shuffle whenever discussion of this book come up. The logical inference from Catch-22, after all, is that WW 2 wasn’t worth fighting. I don’t think Heller really agrees with that, I think, assuming we could dig him up and shock him back to life he’d say that WW 2 isn’t the point of the book at all, but yet there it is, the fat girl in frilly underthings, stuck in the corner trying not to be recognized. Another way to say it is that by tying his vision to WW 2, he ends up undercutting it, because no matter what one thinks about Western society, the only ones who think WW 2 wasn’t worth fighting are surnamed Hitler and Mussolini, and well, who cares what they think, eh?
This is the fundamental flaw of Catch-22 -- the setting jars with the narrative. This is why the hippies fell all over this and made sure to transplant into Vietnam or Vietnam surrogates -- it just made more sense there.
Next Sunday -- gonna try to get on something of a regular schedule for these -- Something Happened, or “where did all my fans go?”