Sunday, November 6, 2011

Catch-22 Week: War is funny as hell

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the meanest, saddest, funniest, truthiest novel ever written about war: Joseph Heller's Catch-22.  For five decades, people have been alternately holding their sides and scratching their heads as they read about the World War II Army Air Force crew stationed on the island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean Sea.  It's not always an easy book to read.  As the best literature often demands, you have to work your way to the pleasures to be found here.  Catch-22 is a novel that flips the narrative structure of the novel on its head as sure as Yossarian is thrown upside down in his Plexiglas bombardier's compartment.  The same events are told multiple times, looping and returning to add another piece of crucial information.  Scenes change abruptly, often in the space between the period ending one paragraph and the capital letter at the start of the next.

Catch-22 is illogical and irrational...and that's just the way the author intended it to be.  Heller refused to play by the rules in this book, inverting expectations at nearly every turn: one minute slapstick, the next minute a hard slap of violence.

Readers love it.  Readers loathe it.

No matter which camp you fall into, I hope you'll join me here all week as I pay tribute to a book whose popular success helped pave the way for TV shows like McHale's Navy and Gomer Pyle, books like Slaughterhouse-Five and Gravity's Rainbow, and movies like M*A*S*H and Stripes.  It's also one of the novels which has deeply influenced my own writing.  Truth be told, without Catch-22, there would be no Fobbit.  Joseph Heller gave me permission to let the jokes drop onto the page as I wrote my novel.  I'm not saying Fobbit is as funny as Catch-22--far from it--but I hope readers will find some of the same Yossarianish absurdity pushing the boundaries of good taste when they read of Captain Abe Hornsacker's trials and tribulations in the Iraq War.  War is hell, but it's also funny as hell.

      "Men," Colonel Cargill began in Yossarian's squadron, measuring his pauses carefully.  "You're American officers. The officers of no other army in the world can make that statement. Think about it."
      Sergeant Knight thought about it and then politely informed Colonel Cargill that he was addressing the enlisted men and that the officers were to be found waiting for him on the other side of the squadron. Colonel Cargill thanked him crisply and glowed with self-satisfaction as he strode across the area. It made him proud to observe that twenty-nine months in the service had not blunted his genius for ineptitude.
      "Men," he began his address to the officers, measuring his pauses carefully.  "You're American officers. The officers of no other army in the world can make that statement..."

The first editions of Catch-22 appeared in bookstore window displays on Oct. 10, 1961.  By Thanksgiving of that year, it had sold 12,000 copies.  As Christopher Buckley notes in his introduction to the new 50th Anniversary Edition, "The novel got some good reviews, some mixed reviews, and some pretty nasty reviews....But a number of people fell for it--hard.  To quote the novel's first line, 'It was love at first sight.'  They took it up as a cause, not just a book, with evangelical ardor."

I've been planning this "Catch-22 Week" for the better part of a year and debated on when I should hold it.  Ultimately, I chose this week, rather than the one in October, to honor Heller's masterpiece here at The Quivering Pen.  It only seemed fitting to do so during the week which ends with Veterans Day.

Before I go too much further, I realize there are one or two impoverished souls out there who have never read Catch-22.  I pity you and I weep for your children, knowing they never grew up in a household which rang with laughter.  A house without Yossarian is a dull home indeed.

If you've never read the book but have been thinking about finally getting around it, may I suggest the new 50th Anniversary Edition which has Buckley's introduction and a wealth of supplemental material, including essays by Norman Mailer, Alfred Kazin, and Anthony Burgess, plus rare papers, advertisements and photos from Heller's personal archive.

In the meantime, as a sort of rough Cliffs Notes, here's what you need to know about the book:
1.  Yossarian is a B-25 bombardier (as was Heller himself) who has flown 44 missions and is hoping to reach his quota of 45 so he doesn't have to fly through fields of flak anymore.
2.  However, the military brass keeps raising the number of qualifying missions just as he gets close to his quota (a recurring frustration throughout the novel).
3.  This drives Yossarian insane and he starts looking for ways to get out of combat--admitting himself to the hospital with false afflictions ("Garnett-Fleischaker syndrome"), poisoning the food in the mess hall, and moving the bomb line on the map.
4.  Yossarian is not a coward, he's a self-preservationist.
5.  There's a lot of other stuff like black marketeers, censored letters signed by "Washington Irving" and/or "Irving Washington," plum tomatoes, patients in full-body casts, lonely whores, lonelier generals, and a general lack of respect for authority.
6.  People die and it's funny.  People live and it's tragic.

Am I missing anything?  Yes, lots.  There's no way I can cover every aspect of Catch-22 in this one short week.  I'm not even going to try.  Instead, I hope to talk about a few of my favorite scenes in the book, give you a little publishing history, and introduce you to some of the characters.  In addition, I've asked a couple of friends to talk about how Catch-22 has influenced their lives, so you'll be treated to some delightful guest posts here at the blog.

I hope you'll join me.  It's going to be an crazy week.

1 comment:

  1. I am a high school senior and am currently doing an independent study on American satire. Catch-22, to say the least, is brilliant. It is long and complex, but is a fascinating study of World War II. It is the story of fighter pilots in World War II and the underlying theme is of the insanity of war.