Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

"You hadn't read Catch-22? Really?" Yes, really! I was actually assigned it in a college class, but this was while I was still somewhat half-assed, and I never got past the first friggin' page or two, where Yossarian is censoring mail. In retrospect, it always seemed odd to me, as this does indeed feel like something I would've read at some point. So, I decided to remedy that. Although to be honest...it probably would've been better if I'd been less half-assed and read it back in the day. I feel like if I were younger, the nihilistic fatalism would've seemed more edgy; the black absurdist humor more revolutionary (and, well...funnier).

There's probably not much point in essaying a plot summary of such a well-known book, which is good, because there isn't really a plot to summarize. Indeed, I strongly suspect this will be the most plotless book most people will ever read. Yossarian and sundry other American soldiers experience things in World War II Italy. They try to avoid having to fly missions. They engage in long, nonsensical dialogues that are probably shooting for Marx Brothers but tend to end up more Abbot & Costello. They have sex with prostitutes. They occasionally experience surprisingly gruesome violence. And...well, that's about all she wrote. Oh, and there's, like, a somewhat arbitrary utopian ending where Yossarian lights out for the territory. Bam.

Did that sound dismissive? I swear: I really, really didn't dislike this book, and I can absolutely see why it was a publishing sensation. This sort of thing probably would've seemed legitimately bracing in 1961 (or '62, when it really became popular), especially by young people. Why are we in Vietnam? Good question. Here's a book showing how ridiculous war is. That'll show 'em! Nevertheless...I didn't love it. I probably took as long as I did to read it because I felt a faint sense of reluctance every time I went to pick it up. Plotlessness isn't a sin, but when there are no characters of any notable depth to make up for it (the fact that a few of the characters--Yossarian, Milo Minderbinder, Major I can't bring myself to write his full name--are well enough known that you don't have to have read the book to have heard of them is certainly a tribute to the novel's cultural penetration, but not so much to its nuanced character-building); and when the humor, on the whole, is not one's cup of tea...well, it doesn't leave you with much.

Also, how come people don't mention more often how sexist it is? One should put a few caveats on that: it's a book about soldiers at war, so it would be surprising if women weren't viewed almost entirely as sex objects; nor can one object very much to the fact that it never allows them to be viewpoint characters. Furthermore, it can't be said that Heller was exactly unaware of the toxic worldviews this kind of life can foster; one of the novel's more queasily effective moments involves a soldier describing, in naive, golly-gee-whillikers terms, a gang rape he had participated in.

Just the same. You DO have Yossarian and friends groping nurses being played purely for laffs. And you have passages like this:

"You should see her naked," General Dreedle chortled with croupy relish, while his nurse stood smiling proudly right at his shoulder. "Back at Wing she's got a uniform in my room made of purple silk that's so tight her nipples tand out like bing cherries. . . . There isn't even room enough for panties or a brass├Čere underneath. I make her wear it some nights when Moodus is around just to drive him crazy.

I mean, justify this by noting that it's not Heller, it's the character all you want, but COME ON NOW, it's obviously pure male gaze, and the fact that this nurse--who would represent a perfect opportunity for Heller to give a female character's viewpoint--is never anything other than an object is NOTABLE. Or this:

She had a plain broad face and was the most virtuous woman alive: she laid for everybody,
regardless of race, creed, color or place of national origin, donating herself sociably as an act of hospitality, procrastinating not even for the moment it might take to discard the cloth or broom or dust mop she was clutching at the time she was grabbed.

Go on, then--tell me how this alleged humor has anything to do with the absurdity of war &c.

Not that this is a huge surprise, for a book of its time, and not that I was mortally offended--I've read plenty of books with similar or worse, and I didn't hate on them. But this shit does wear on a person. It's like racism: you don't realize just how omnipresent it is, for fish-in-water reasons. STILL, it's weird that it seems to be so rarely mentioned. Maybe it's just the thing where people think books they love are not allowed to be in any way problematic. I, on the other hand, don't love it and therefore am happy to point it out.

Another problem with the book is that the absurdity becomes very predictable very quickly. For instance, this bit; Aarfy is the one who told about the aforementioned gang rape, and now he's raped and murdered a servant:

"They're coming to arrest you. Aarfy, don't you understand? You can't take the life of another human being and get away with it, even if she is just a poor servant girl. Don't you see? Can't you understand?"

"Oh, no," Aarfy insisted with a lame laugh and a weak smile. "They're not coming to arrest me. Not good old Aarfy.

All at once he looked sick. He sank down on a chair in a trembling stupor, his stumpy, lax hands quaking in his lap. Cars skidded to a stop outside. Spotlights hit the windows immediately. Car doors slammed and police whistles screeched. Voices rose harshly. Aarfy was green. He kept shaking his head mechanically with a queer, numb smile and repeating in a weak, hollow monotone that they weren't coming for him, not for good old Aarfy, no sirree, striving to convince himself that this was so even as heavy footsteps raced up the stairs and pounded across the landing, even as fists beat on the door four times with a deafening, inexorable force. Then the door to the apartment flew open, and two large, tough, brawny M.P.s with icy eyes and firm, sinewy, unsmiling jaws entered quickly, strode across the room, and arrested Yossarian.

I mean, it's well-done for what it is, but it's also just SO utterly obvious what's going to happen from the instant it starts--what, you thought, against all evidence, that a rational moral order was going to suddenly assert itself? C'mon. It would be okay in isolation, but the endless drumbeat of this sort of thing gets a bit...boring.

BUT NO SERIOUSLY I REALLY REALLY DIDN'T HATE IT, to the extent that I sorta kinda almost want to read the belated fifty-years-later sequel, Closing Time. Note that "almost," though; I'm definitely not going to. Even if it wasn't bad--and reviews seem to indicate that it's pretty bad--the obvious problem asserts itself: Catch-22's breakthrough idea is that war is literally like insanity. Fair enough. But, if, as I'm given to understand, the sequel, which does not take place in a warzone, continues the humor continues in the same vein, you're just completely devaluing the whole conceit. This seems fairly self-evident, but I suppose if your first novel is your one big hit--and it's surely no surprise that none of Heller's others came close--it's no surprise you'd want to return to it. I'm done, though.


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