Saturday, August 6, 2016

Catch-55: Rereading a celebrated novel, finding it pretty bad after all, yet oddly relevant in 2016

I have too many books — too many for the available shelf space, too many to read in the likely amount of time I have left. So I'm more motivated than ever before to reread. A large collection of recordings, which I  also have, begs for lots of relistening, so why wouldn't too many books call for rereading?

Another motivation: To see how books read long ago might hold up upon rereading. This incentive, when obeyed, dredges up some surprises, the latest of which is my discovery that Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" isn't very good. And it wasn't much fun to read the second time around. It's tedious, overwrought, sophomoric.

Dust jacket of the book that made a name for its author
I remember acquiring my hard-cover copy ("seventh printing") not long after the book came out in 1961. I recall being shocked and stimulated by its vigorous nose-thumbing humor, the wildness and sheer abundance of its characters and incidents.

Heller's moment couldn't have been better. "Catch-22" appeared when the thrill of America's triumph in the Second World War had subsided. The Cold War cast an anxious pall over Americans, and suspicions that we had just entered a decade about ready to burst overhead in a host of explosions, both foreign and domestic, flashed on the horizon.

For me, a teenager trying out adversarial attitudes toward the Establishment and all its verities, Heller's first novel was a godsend. The previous decade's "Catcher in the Rye," which I caught up with late, just as it had started to acquire its "classic" patina, had a similar effect on me. And many of my respected literary and journalistic elders raved about "Catch-22": A.J. Liebling, Art Buchwald, James Jones, Kenneth Tynan, Robert Brustein, Nelson Algren all hailed it. Their blurbs on the dust jacket strike a common note of praise -- "best," "truest," "most sensible," "masterpiece," and so on.

But right after I started to reread "Catch-22," I became uneasy. Surely the book so proudly hailed in 1961 cannot have maintained its luster, I thought. It seems like a period piece:  Relentless smart-aleckry, labored humor rife with serial misunderstandings and non sequiturs descended from Wilde, Beckett, and Ionesco.  I wanted my uneasiness to take whatever course my sensibility dictated, so I hesitated to search online to trace the novel's reputation since it was new. When I did, my heart sank: ranks it No. 33 (among all books, ever, apparently). The Modern Library's board (whoever that is), puts "Catch-22" at No. 7 among the 100 best 20th-century novels; the reader's list (why the singular, I wonder) places it twelfth. I read no more about it.

The sinking feeling that "Catch-22" itself conveyed to me began on the second page. Yossarian, a malingering bombardier in hospital, is assigned the task of censoring other sick warriors' letters home. To relieve boredom, he blacks out words and letters with increasing capriciousness, eventually censoring everything but the salutation, then adding a purple-patch closing and signing the group chaplain's name. He goes on to obliterate even more, including envelope names and addresses. What a merry prank!

I did not know how to take this; it was supposed to be funny. But it resembled a drunken frat-boy stunt, and it still symbolizes for me the cruelty of Yossarian's iconoclastic whims. Men in service trying to communicate with loved ones at home don't matter, apparently, if the censor is bored. And if the author is mostly interested in casual dehumanization.

The anti-establishment verve that drives Yossarian's increasingly bizarre behavior is rooted in  the double-bind situation keyed to the title. The basic form of Catch-22 is that no member of a flight crew can be grounded for medical reasons unless he is deemed insane. Wanting to be grounded, no matter how many missions you've flown, is an indication you are sane, so you have to fly. As the colonel in charge keeps raising the number of required missions in order to enhance his career, Yossarian's comrades who retain their enthusiasm for flying are thus insane by normal standards of judging mental health, and tend to die or occasion the death of others.

Heller's novel is very highly "worked"; the dust jacket text ends with the information that "Catch-22" was eight years in the making. The narrative structure is unusual; there's little clear forward motion. Each chapter carries the name of an individual character about whom we are to learn a little more than we knew before. My second reading left no doubt that making this book required some heavy lifting.

But oh! the flood of paradoxes and absurdities, the sentences that double back on themselves, the painstaking cleverness, the fallen archness! "Colonel Cathcart had courage and never hesitated to volunteer his men for any target available." Yossarian says of a friend: "Nately had a bad start. He came from a good family." Yossarian himself is described this way: "That crazy bastard may be the only sane one left." "This sordid, vulturous, diabolical old man [an Italian at a Roman bordello] reminded Nately of his father because the two were nothing at all alike." And the visual absurdities: The hospital patient bandaged from head to toe and being fed by tube with his own excreta who may not be inside the mummylike wrapping at all; the two standing legs of Kid Sampson at the beach after a low-flying plane lops off his head and torso. Malpractice and mayhem are always good for a jaw-dropping laugh.

Smart, wary, and suddenly successful: Joseph Heller at 38, when Catch-22 was new.
One could go on. The effect is numbing. Maybe Heller was on to something about the frustrations of military life, especially when fear becomes endemic. The Bologna mission, for example, is a source of deep anxiety among the airmen on the small island off the Italian coast, whether it's delayed or about to be launched: "The more it rained, the worse they suffered. The worse they suffered, the more they prayed that it would continue raining."

A few witty paradoxes like this hit the mark. But amid the jokes and vaudeville rimshots, the reader's conviction grows that Yossarian and a number of other characters are unconcerned with anyone but themselves. Can you stay interested in such people? It's a challenge. Some, including the bombardier, are worse than narcissists, which would suggest that a high self-regard drives their actions. No, they are solipsists, acting on the belief that the world outside their own needs, drives, lusts, and fugitive comforts is unreal. In wearying detail, the nonsensical dialogue reinforces their psychic isolation.

Only near the end are there signs of Yossarian's humanity. He becomes aware of other people and of other than
mean ways to value his own survival. Heller finally sets aside the maniacal chatter  to describe a near-fatal attack on Yossarian by the deceased Nately's distraught whore; then, in a moving chapter, goes into Yossarian's experience of the death of the tailgunner Snowden, a harrowing event alluded to several times earlier. These experiences justify Yossarian's crucial decision at the end, which will not be revealed here on the assumption that someone reading this may not have read "Catch-22." (Good luck with that!) Maybe it was this final flash of light over his hero that won for Heller such widespread acclaim. After 400 pages, the reader, exhausted by all the forced yuks, finally gets a chance to empathize, to sense a real world behind all the sputtering satire and shtick.

Fifty-five years after its publication, "Catch-22" has now produced a "Catch-55" politically, especially for Republicans. Donald Trump is Col. Cathcart: His outrageous words and acts resemble Cathcart's self-centered, continual increase of the number of required missions. The airmen's loyalty and commitment are shown by struggling to stay sane and trying to meet the new number required, just as Republicans are tested by Trump's accumulated outrages. They must continue to "fly missions" for the man in charge, though unlike Heller's Army Air Force men, they are the ones who put him there. Trump also resembles Yossarian in his casual cruelty and cynicism, the entrepreneur Milo Minderbinder in seeing every measure of success as a matter of applying business principles to all situations, Col. Cathcart in his ruthless desire for good publicity and attention, and the vain General Peckem for smug assertions of his special administrative ability.

"I have a happy facility for getting different people to agree," the general announces.

To which a colonel confides to a buck private: "He has a happy facility for getting different people to agree what a prick he is."

Something apropos there, for sure.

Though showing its age at 55, "Catch-22" thus has an odd pertinence in this difficult election year. If there is a President Trump, he might just as well swear his oath on "Catch-22" as on a Bible. He is likely as familiar with one as the other.

But by no means, despite the firm niche its title has on the language, is "Catch-22" even a good novel, let alone a great one.

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