Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Catch-22 | Joseph Heller

“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller is a satirical take on WWII, dripping with social commentary. The book’s hero or anti-hero if you’d prefer, Yossarian, is a bombardier [like Heller himself] fighting the Germans in Italy in WWII. Yossarian is trying his best to get himself out of the war. He tries everything, first attempting to fly the number of missions set by his Colonel, then faking illness, then trying to appear crazy in front of a psychologist and eventually just refusing to fight. The catch-22 is this: you can only leave the army if you’re crazy, but if you’re crazy you don’t want to leave the army. In Heller’s own words:

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's 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.”

A series of events amongst his squadron in the army show just how insane each of the characters are. The novel shows the idiocy of the superiors by focusing on trivialities [a jab at corporations?] and bureaucracy of the war and points out that only the low level workers ever get killed. The characters produce an interesting parody, but they all lack a certain amount of humanity. Heller has made the choice to make these characters completely one dimensional for a reason... but as a fan of more complex ‘human’ characters, this left me with a feeling that something was lacking.

Colonel Cathcart was obsessed with getting ahead. General Peckam was obsessed with beating General Dreedle at everything, and ignoring everything associated with the real war. Milo was obsessed with business, and I believe his vantage point was an interesting commentary on how stupid our system of wealth creation can be. The incident with Aarfy and Yossarian show us just how ridiculous our criminal system can be. The incident with the Champlain shows us just how ridiculous interrogations can become. In this sense, the novel was very Kafka-esque - “The Trial” being a parody of our legal system.

While I appreciate the novel’s wit and statements about war, I didn’t find the novel very humorous in aggregate. It seems as though the author was going for something more like “The Galapagos” by Kurt Vonnegut... poignant, sharp and witty. The humour in this novel on the whole, felt like it was written for a stereotypical dumb jock in a football locker room.

With some exceptions, the plot essentially rambles on with not much to say during the first half... apparently setting the scene. The picture is painted so early, that most of the additional ‘plot’ is superfluous. Only in the later half does the plot really pick up when we become less sheltered from the actual war. From Wikipedia: “it is in chapters 32-41 of the sixth and final part where the novel significantly darkens. Previously the reader had been cushioned from experiencing the full horror of events, but now the events are laid bare, allowing the full effect to take place.” I think that if a Hemingway-like chop job was done to the beginning of the novel, the conciseness may have helped the story.

The prose in general was okay, but nothing to write home about. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Hardy have corrupted me. Either I get such strong feeling from the novels and characters or I have such a high opinion of the writing, ideals and layered approach to writing. I found only two layers in this work by Heller. The plot as it was written, coupled with some nice insights scattered infrequently throughout. “Point Counter Point” by Huxley had so many insightful ideas, but was not a particularly cohesive novel... and this work was the complete opposite. It wasn’t deep enough, but at least it was a cohesive story.

On the whole, I can see how poignant this novel would have been in 1961 with anti-war advocates. With war continuing in various parts of the world today, including the most recent war in Afghanistan, this novel is still as current as it was in the sixties. I would argue that nothing will eclipse the feeling of power to fight injustice that was instilled in Americans in the sixties in California. For that reason, I understand that the novel would never strike the same chord in our current society, as it did back then.

I was glad that I plugged through the early stages of the novel so I was still around to witness the end of the madness. While the novel was neither humorous, nor eloquent, the commentary was interesting and allows us to take a step back from all the patriotic bullshit we’re fed in the media, and stresses the importance of challenging ‘the system’, as this system was created by people that probably lack intelligence and shouldn’t have the power to create the system in the first place.

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