by Henning Koch
Catch-22 is not really a war novel, as some people say. War is obviously a backdrop, but Joseph Heller seems more concerned with authority and its self-justification. In fact, Catch-22 is a social novel. Anyone who lives in a modern western democracy will recognize the ferocious inconsistencies that define Heller’s universe. It’s Kafka, it’s Orwell, it’s Celine, it’s Jonathan Swift--or at least we sense that Heller has read them, he’s absorbed them.
What this means is that war will be a metaphor for Heller. However crazy his scenarios, we instinctively see through them, we recognize that his deranged characters are also real. They wear their kidneys, their livers and their intestines dangling like obscene jewelry round their necks. Joseph Heller gives us the subjective-objective war, the surreal war. And this is probably the key to the longevity of Catch-22, the reason why it is still read while Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, even though a masterful rendering of the nuts and bolts of armed conflict, is somehow too detailed. If Mailer gives us documentary, Heller chooses imagination and metaphor.
Joseph Heller is a most quotable writer. Almost any page yields a decent harvest of high-quality ripostes, summations, jokes and put-downs. Take, for instance, his statement on the benefits of war: “all he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.” That’s a solid quote--like a sword-thrust under the table. There’s no doubt about Heller’s brand of humor, the quick, wise-cracking
One has only to consider Heller’s friends--Mel Brooks, Mario Puzo, Dustin Hoffman and George Mandel--to know that Heller was a heavy hitter. Sitting here in my glum and dusty study in Berlin, listening to the traditional Saturday night sound of beer bottles being smashed in the street outside, I lust for the dinner table of those companions. I can almost imagine the pleasure they would have taken from the notorious review by Richard G. Stern in the New York Times in 1961, in which he asserted that Catch-22 “is no novel.” With ten million copies in print and eulogies from all over the world flying over like bombers on a milk run, even Richard G. Stern would surely have all the evidence he needed that, novel or not, this wonderful book has touched people.
At the heart of Catch-22 is Heller’s sensitivity to fractured logic--the disease that’s grown into a dominant position in our time. “It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead,” says Yossarian, stating something that, if generally accepted, would instantly turn everyone into a pacifist.
In a crazy world, truth makes no sense. The fractured logic in Catch-22 is repetitious and keeps finding new applications. “The men don’t have to sign a loyalty oath if they don’t want to,” says Captain Black, then adds: “But we need you to starve them to death if they don’t.” Absurdity even seems to apply to love. “You won’t marry me because I’m crazy, and you say I’m crazy because I want to marry you,” Yossarian complains when his impromptu proposal to a temporary girlfriend is rejected. Madness also seems to hold sway in the world of economics, where Milo Minderbinder can “buy eggs at seven cents apiece in Malta and sell them at a profit in Pianosa for five cents.” (Although Wall Street would probably have an easy explanation for that one!)
In a crazy society, such as the one we see encapsulated here among the airmen, there is no easy interpretation. Clevinger, who is good, simplistic and patriotic, is hauled up before a military tribunal and comes away believing that not even “among the grisly connivers in all the beer halls of Munich” do any people hate him as much as his own commanding officers.
Towards the end of his career, when a journalist suggested to Joseph Heller that he had never written anything as good as Catch-22, Heller’s response got straight to the point: “Who has?” And it must have been hard for him to face up to the fact that he got it right at the very beginning when he was living solely by his wits. Sometimes the moment is propitious for a writer, whose life and experience and voice all seem perfectly attuned to making a statement of lasting relevance. What Heller said he said with grace. I reckon Catch-22 will still be read in fifty years....and beyond.
Love Doesn't Work. His novel The Maggot People will be published in 2012 by Dzanc Books. You can find him on Twitter at @henningkoch