Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Catch 22

Hi Mum, I finally read your favourite book. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller is probably one of the most surreal books I have ever encountered. I have been listening to it over the last fortnight while decorating. I had to borrow a copy of the book when we returned the tape so I could give you a few choice quotes, though in fact the whole book is pretty quotable.

"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. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
'That's some catch, that catch-22,' he observed.
'It's the best there is,' Doc Daneeka agreed."

So Catch 22 is mainly the story of Yossarian, a bombardier in the US air force, who is stationed at a base on Pianosa in the Mediterranean, some time during the latter part of the Second World War. That's the simplest way to start an explanation, where to go from here is the problem. The book is populated with a cast of outrageous characters who are described in minute detail and whose comings and goings, thoughts, attitudes and motivations are explained in minute detail. It didn't seem to matter if I popped for a cup of tea and missed a chunk of the story because the events are repeated repeatedly, each time adding further details and a slightly different perspective. In fact very little happens, even the war seems relegated to a minor disturbance to their real concerns, and the majority of the book is taken up with endless convoluted conversations that just leave you flabbergasted. And just when you think you could not be more infuriated he makes you laugh out loud. Heller has a tendency to use at least five adjectives when one would do, and yet this is part of what gives this book its very distinctive style; you really feel you can see the person the way the author wants you to see them, and to understand their motivations and intentions the way the author wants.

"Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man of thirty-six who lumbered when he walked and wanted to be a general. He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined. He was complacent and insecure, daring in the administrative stratagems he employed to bring himself to the attention of his superiors and craven in his concerns that his schemes might all backfire. He was handsome and unattractive, a swashbuckling, beefy, conceited man who was putting on fat and was tormented chronically by prolonged seizures of apprehension. Colonel Cathcart was conceited because he was a full colonel with a combat command at the age of only thirty-six; and Colonel Cathcart was dejected because although he was already thirty-six he was still only a full colonel." (p.215, beginning chapter 19)

This is just one of dozens of personal descriptions. What I like is the juxtaposition of contrasts, telling you of course that people are far more complex that it might appear. But also that lovely neat "who lumbered when he walked and wanted to be a general", an incidental physical detail followed by what turns out to be his defining characteristic.

What I came to enjoy more and more as the book went on was the pure craziness of the whole scenario and everything that happened within it. I stopped expecting anything to make any sense, because it was all explained so clearly and logically to you just why thing were the way they were, and why it made perfect sense that they were utterly nonsensical.

"Actually, no one was around when Yossarian returned from the hospital but Orr and the dead man in Yossarian's tent. The dead man in Yossarian's tent was a pest, and Yossarian didn't like him, even though he had never seen him. Having him lying around all day annoyed Yossarian so much that he had gone to the orderly room several times to complain to Sergeant Towser, who refused to admit that the dead man even existed, which, of course, he no longer did. It was still more frustrating to try to appeal directly to Major Major, the long and bony squadron commander, who looked a little bit like Henry Fonda in distress and went jumping out the window of his office each time Yossarian bullied his way past Sergeant Towser to speak to him about it. The dead man in Yossarian's tent was simply not easy to live with. He even disturbed Orr, who was not easy to live with either, and who, on the day Yossarian came back, was tinkering with the faucet that fed gasoline into the stove he had started building while Yossarian was in the hospital." (p.25, beginning chapter 3)

In some ways you have to pay attention because people who you think are just appearing in passing turn out to be significant. In fact everyone is there for a reason and rather than some kind of chaotic jumble the book is actually very carefully constructed, circling round on itself, making a point, and then making it again, and then subverting it, and drawing you in to their story and then hitting you over the head with the reality of war. Some of it is so ridiculous and then at other moments it is so poignant and atmospheric; the scene where Yossarian struggles to help a wounded friend in the aeroplane only to discover a far worse wound than the one he had bandaged so carefully, and how he is haunted by the man's insistent moaning about being so cold. The writing is completely in your face and yet what he says is often subtle and very clever. The description of the themes and ideas over on the Catch 22 Wikipedia page are far better written than I could manage, though I don't think you would read it for the philosophy. In essence to me it felt like a book about the absurdity and pointlessness of existence, how much of your life is controlled by the choices and actions of others, and constrained by your responsibilities towards others. It is a book about morality, and partly about the suspension of morality during wartime.

The only thing that I didn't like about it was the lack of any female characters. There are plenty of women in the book, but they have no real character, there are merely physical descriptions of them and their only function was sexual, either the whores in Rome or the nurses or the occasional officer's wife. Yossarian rather demurely 'falls in love' with any woman he finds himself attracted to, as if the immediacy and genuineness of his affection somehow mitigates the speed with which he disposes of them afterwards. I guess it speaks volumes about the era it was written and the attitudes of the time.

What a brilliant book, first published back in 1961, so you'll have no trouble finding a copy at the library, though, on reflection I think that the tape was a good idea and having it read to me added something to my appreciation. It certainly is quite unique and rightly an absolute classic. I keep finding that the better a book is the more difficult I find it to put my reactions into articulate sentences. It is described primarily as a satire, but it is not just about war or the military or the nature of faceless authority, it is far more clever than that. And Yossarian is not much of a hero, he is shamelessly egotistical, and yet it is his irreverence and dogged self-preservation instinct that makes him to appealing,
"You have no respect for excessive authority or obsolete traditions. You're dangerous and depraved, and you ought to be taken outside and shot!"

1 comment:

  1. Did you ever read Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories from Wayside School? They are like the kid version of Catch-22 -- when I read Catch-22, I kept forgetting to pay attention to the satire etc. because I was struck over and over again by the similarity in tone to these books I read when I was eight. :p

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