By Lisa Peet
Let’s just say it wasn't love at first sight.
As I remember it, 10th-grade English class hadn't been progressing too badly up to that point. I'm thinking it was March when poor old spaniel-eyed Mr. Horton assigned Catch-22, and until then I had never met a book report I didn't like. I was a bookish kid from a bookish family, in the habit of answering my father's questions about what I was reading at any given time. Having to read, digest, and then write my thoughts down had never been a big deal.
Except for the fact that I hated Catch-22. HATED it. I don't remember how far in I made it before acknowledging this to myself—10 pages? 25? But my distaste was for the book was thorough and paralyzing. I did not like Heller's one-two punchline structure. I did not appreciate his endless moral ironies, nor his ironic morality. I thought naming a character Major Major Major Major was an eye-rolling bit of slapstick. And I couldn't stand that weaselly Milo Minderbinder. I'm not sure I read far enough in to hate Captain Aardvark, but I certainly would have.
While I was usually game to read anything, this book stopped me in my tracks, and I staunchly decided there was no way in the world I was going to spend another minute with it, even with a report on it due in two weeks. So I swallowed my pride and did the bad thing: I bought the CliffsNotes.
And oh, the shame. That was a line I'd always imagined I'd never cross—fine for other people, maybe, but not for a smart kid like me. Like a lonely man paying for a prostitute, when the bookstore clerk slid that bumblebee-striped booklet across the counter, I was deeply humbled. But neither could I bring myself to finish the book. I got my report written over the course of a tortuous, chain-smoking all-nighter, relieved that I'd never again have to cross paths with Catch-22.
|At 18: After Hellerfail, giving Nabokov a try|
You know where this is going, right? Twenty years later, my boyfriend at the time declared it his favorite novel in the world, and infatuation being what it is, I read it. And yes, I loved it. I found the book sly and evilly funny, with Heller hitting just the right dark modern parable notes. Its circular structure worked for me this time around, as did the absurdist, absurdly-named characters, and the grim game theory that made you want to laugh and cry within the same paragraph. It was good.
The question is, why did I find it so impossible when I was 15? I was a well-read kid, comfortable in all sorts of genres, and I had fairly wide-ranging tastes—I loved me some Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, Richard Brautigan. But for some reason, I couldn't find a way in to the Heller. For a while, my theory was that it was just too cynical for a high school reading assignment. Yes, teenagers are cynical, but maybe not in the ingrained, internalized way you are as an adult. A certain amount of misanthropy is mandatory in 10th grade, but much of that is being tried on for size. Maybe that just wasn’t the right age for the book.
But then my son read it a few years later, when he was 16 or 17, and he thought it was the greatest thing EVER. Which meant I had to reconsider my own failure with it.
I could, for instance, say Catch-22 was more of a guy's book. But I don't really believe it falls along those lines—I liked it the second time around, and I've been female all along. Or I could decide that I had raised a very jaded kid, and that his life had been miserable enough that he could relate to Yossarian's dilemmas, but I the end I couldn’t live with that one either. When I asked him what he liked so much about the book, he just said it made him laugh.
Ultimately, I think it has a lot to do with when and where your touchpoints fall. I grew up as part of the blissful interim generation for whom war was not a ready reference. Nixon began bringing troops home from Vietnam when I was six, and while the last Americans weren't evacuated until I was nearly 12, in our little college town we were shockingly insulated—or at least I was. I don't remember being encouraged by either my parents or teachers to read the papers, nor do I recall studying current events or discussing them at home. For years I believed Watergate was the name of a TV show, something with a lot of people being serious that I had no desire to watch. When I thought of war, I thought of M*A*S*H, and when I thought of a soldier trying to get himself declared unfit for duty I imagined Corporal Klinger, in his goofy pumps and pillbox hat. It just wasn’t compatible with Heller’s bleak military.
Or maybe it wasn't so much war I was missing as a referent, but bureaucracy. Mine was one of those unstructured '70s childhoods, with safe suburban streets and parents who were too busy "finding themselves" to pay much attention to what I was up to. I had to go to school, and at some point every evening I had to report home and presumably stay there, but it was not exactly rich in strictures to chafe against. So perhaps that's why I wasn't able to appreciate Catch-22 at 15. It wasn't until I was an office-going, tax-paying, DMV-waiting adult that the wonderfully enraging absurdities of Heller's book finally struck me as funny.
My son, on the other hand, grew up in New York, with a whole playbook of rules concerning what he was allowed to do and when he was allowed to do it. He rode public transportation to school, he had more homework from first grade on than I’m pretty sure I had in high school, and if you ask him I'm sure he'd say I was on his ass a lot of the time—if not like a drill sergeant, then at least like Lieutenant Scheisskopf. And the Gulf War began when he was three—he's never known a time when the U.S. wasn't involved in military action somewhere in the Middle East. It's a different world from the one I grew up in, and then again we're simply different people. I like to think that if I'd stuck with the book just a little longer that spring semester, I would have found something to make me laugh.
All I can say is that I’m glad I had a long enough life to finally enjoy Catch-22 in its entirety, and appreciate it—and to have had a kid who was able to appreciate it the first time around. You know I’m hoarding a copy to give to my first grandchild when he or she turns 16, just to see how it goes over.