Sunday, November 6, 2011

Catch-22 Week: "That's some catch"

      There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, that 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of the 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 replied.
Indeed, Joseph Heller's novel about war and sanity is the best there is.  But don't take my word for it--Heller thought so himself.

As his daughter Erica later wrote: "Whenever he was asked why he hadn't ever again written a book as good as Catch-22, he'd eye his interlocutor as if his or her head were on fire, while delivering his customary stinging riposte: 'Who has?'"

Braggadocio or gut-honest truth?  Either way, it's true no one else has ever written anything quite like Catch-22.  I'm reading it for the second time right now (the first time was when I was on a plane bound for a year's tour of duty in the Iraq War).  This in itself is something of a headline.  I can count on one hand the number of books I've read more than once in my entire life, so it's a testament to Joseph Heller's power to persuade me to laugh aloud reading lines I already know.  In truth, I'm finding Catch-22 even funnier this time around (maybe it has something to do with the fact that my bowels were twisted in knots as I rode into combat in 2005).

Joseph Heller in 1961

Yossarian, Major Major Major Major, Milo Minderbinder, et al, have been making readers laugh for 50 years, but how did it all begin?  The story is an interesting one (or at least it is to me, a novelist whose path to publication of a war satire parallels Heller's at times).

The events of Catch-22 closely mirror Heller's days as a bombardier flying missions from a island off the coast of Italy during World War II.  It's autobiography hooked up to an amplifier then blasted through speakers with the volume turned to 11.  As the author himself later wrote in a note to his editor, the story is "extensions of the possible into the fantastic."

Heller was deeply affected by the toll of war and soon after his return to the United States, he began writing short stories as a way to exorcise some of his feelings (as well as pick up a few bucks from magazines like The Atlantic Monthly and Esquire).  Catch-22 would come later--after his years of working as a Mad Man in Madison Avenue advertising, raising a family in the famed Apthorp building on New York's Upper West Side, and having raucous gourmet meals with his pals Mario Puzo and Mel Brooks.  All along, Catch-22 simmered on low boil in the back of his head.

The novel was hatched one sleepless night in 1953, as Heller told The Paris Review in 1974:
I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.” I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind—even most of the particulars....the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn’t use. All of this took place within an hour and a half. It got me so excited that I did what the cliché says you’re supposed to do: I jumped out of bed and paced the floor. That morning I went to my job at the advertising agency and wrote out the first chapter in longhand.
He spent the next seven years agonizing over multiple drafts of the novel, writing scenes and scraps of dialogue in longhand on yellow tablets.  It wasn't easy, as Tracy Daugherty explains in his biography of Heller, Just One Catch:
      His colleagues took him for just another adman. His literary agent couldn't make any headway with his work. His mother was probably dying.
      These were the pressures Joe experienced while sitting at his kitchen table in the evenings. He felt not like a prophet, but a clown, a morbid jester. All he could do was shape one slow sentence at a time. They were good sentences.  He believed that, but would anyone else?

Lucky for Heller, he found a champion in Robert Gottlieb, a young editor at Simon and Schuster.  " this crazy book and very much want to do it," he wrote in a reader's report after receiving seven chapters of what was then called "Catch-18" in February 1958.  Gottlieb campaigned hard in order to convince the heads of the publishing house that Heller's novel would be an important entry in post-war fiction, equal in measure to Norman Mailer and James Jones who had already published their great novels The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity.  "It is a very rare approach to the war," Gottlieb said in his report to the company's editorial board, "humor that slowly turns to horror."  Eventually, the board agreed and offered Heller a standard first-book contract: $750 as an advance and another $750 upon completion of the manuscript.

Gottlieb and Heller then set to work editing the reams and reams of typewritten pages, working quietly on what biographer Daugherty called "a literary Manhattan Project."  In an article for Vanity Fair, Daugherty paints the scene:
      Catch-18 had more than doubled in length by the time Gottlieb saw any of it again. The original manuscript had expanded from 7 to 16 chapters, and Heller had added a whole new section consisting of 28 more chapters. The pages were a mix of typescript and legal-size notebook paper covered in Heller's precise and rather crabbed handwriting. Though Gottlieb recalls editing sessions with Heller as "calm," Michael Korda remembers passing by Gottlieb's office and seeing parts of Heller's novel "endlessly retyped, look[ing] at every stage like a jigsaw puzzle as [Heller, Gottlieb, and Nina Bourne] labored over it, bits and pieces of it taped to every available surface in Gottlieb's cramped office. That, I thought, is editing, and I longed to do it."
      Joe prepared a 758-page typescript from this jigsaw puzzle, deleting digressive episodes and expanding other chapters. He and Gottlieb plunged in again. Gottlieb inspected paragraphs for what he called "impoverished vocabulary," and asked Joe to stir things up with more active language. He caught places where Joe seemed to be clearing his throat, dawdling, in Joe's characteristic way, and not getting directly to the point.

So, how did it change from "Catch-18" to "Catch-22"?  Daugherty goes on to tell the story in that same Vanity Fair article:
      And then one day Heller got an urgent call from Gottlieb, who said the title Catch-18 would have to go. Leon Uris was preparing to release a novel called Mila 18, about the Nazi occupation of Poland. Uris was a well-known writer--Exodus had been a huge best-seller. Two novels with the number 18 in the title would clash in the marketplace, and Heller, the unknown, was bound to get the short end of the deal. The number had always been arbitrary, part of the joke about military rules. Still, Heller, Gottlieb, and Bourne had long thought of the book as Catch-18, and it was difficult to conceive of calling it anything else.
      "We were all in despair," Gottlieb recalled. In his office, he and Heller sat opposite each other, spitting out numbers like two spies speaking in code. They liked the sound of "Catch-11": hard consonants followed by vowels, opening up the mouth. Ultimately, they decided it was too close to the new Frank Sinatra movie, Ocean's Eleven. They agreed to sleep on the question of a title and try again later.
      On January 29, 1961, Heller sent Gottlieb a note, bringing to bear all his adman persuasion: "The name of the book is now CATCH-14. (Forty-eight hours after you resign yourself to the change, you'll find yourself almost preferring this new number. It has the same bland and nondescript significance of the original. It is far enough away from Uris for the book to establish an identity of its own, I believe, yet close enough to the original title to still benefit from the word of mouth publicity we have been giving it.)." Gottlieb wasn’t sold.
      [Agent] Candida Donadio would one day attempt to take credit for retitling the book with the name that eventually stuck. The number 22 was chosen as a substitute because October 22 was her birthday, she said. "Absolutely untrue," Gottlieb later told Karen Hudes. "I remember it totally, because it was in the middle of the night. I remember Joe came up with some number and I said, 'No, it’s not funny,' which is ridiculous, because no number is intrinsically funny. And then I was lying in bed worrying about it one night, and I suddenly had this revelation. And I called him the next morning and said, 'I've got the perfect number. Twenty-two, it's funnier than eighteen.'"

Then, late in 1961, it was done.  It was bound, printed, given a price tag of $5.95 and soon began appearing in the hands of readers in the subway, splotched with stains from corned beef sandwiches as office workers hunched over it on their lunch hour, dog-eared and put onto nightstands as the image of Snowden spilling his guts was the last thing the housewife's eyes saw before they closed for the night.  Catch-22 had found its audience, a nation of readers still trying to make sense of war and the new peace.

That autumn's fiction bestsellers included Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, and Harold Robbins' The CarpetbaggersCatch-22 did not join them on those bestseller lists.  Its reputation grew slowly...slowly but surely.  As of today, the novel has sold more than 10 million copies and can be found tucked into the pockets of hundreds of college students' backpacks at any given moment.

Alan Arkin as Yossarian in Mike Nichols' movie Catch-22

By now, "catch-22" is part of our lexicon, having earned its own space in The American Heritage Dictionary years ago.  For those of my generation and younger, it seems Catch-22 has always been a part of our cultural DNA.  But can you imagine coming across the loopy rhetoric of the novel for the first time in 1961?  How the brows must have first knit in puzzlement and then lifted as the face gave way to laughter when dialogue like this appeared on the page:
      Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. "Is Orr crazy?"
      "He sure is," Doc Daneeka said.
      "Can you ground him?"
      "I sure can but first he has to ask me to. That's part of the rule."
      "Then why doesn't he ask you to?"
      "Because he's crazy," Doc Daneeka said. "He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's had. Sure I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to."
      "That's all he has to do to be grounded?"
      "That's all. Let him ask me."
      "And then you can ground him?" Yossarian asked.
      "No, then I can't ground him."
      "You mean there's a catch?"
      "Sure there is a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."

If Catch-22 debuted today, surely there would be a swarm of WTFs and LOLs flying around the Twitterverse.  Indeed, it's the LOL novel of all time.  Couple that with the viscera-smeared wartime setting and there'll be plenty of involuntary gasps of "What the fuck?!"

But take a look around.  Almost from the moment the first well-meaning American set foot on Iraqi sand in 2003, the Global War on Terrorism has been a bungle cut from the cloth of Catch-22.  Afghanistan and Iraq both have had their share of General Peckems and Colonel Cathcarts, as well as the Yossarians who cry foul and call their bluff and bluster.  We need to heed the bitter truths of Catch-22 now more than ever.

As we mourn the loss of more than 6,000 servicemembers, we find laughter is the best medicine.  Even sour laughter can be a comfort.  I think, I hope, Joseph Heller would be pleased to see his novel has endured and even gained more relevance in this era when wars seem to be fought on cyclic hamster wheels.

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