Friday, February 01, 2013

Reader's Diary #942- Joseph Heller: Catch-22

There's a hilarious Simpsons bit in which Ned Flander's beatnik parents have taken him, then a child hellion, to a psychiatrist. "You gotta help us, Doc." His mother begs, "We've tried nothin' and we're all out of ideas." I didn't realize it at the time, as I hadn't read the book, but it's a very Hellerian sort of phrase. Only— and fortunately— this is only one type of joke in Simpsons cartoons. In Catch-22, it seems to be the only kind of humour, and similar jokes are told ad nauseum. In other words, the humour overstays its welcome, going from tiresome to downright grating.

The joke, also the point of the entire novel, seems to be that there's a snafu in the system. Which system? Definitely military bureaucracy, but arguably Heller extends his point to society at large. It should be a decent theme to build a novel around, but egad, it's an annoying book. The plot revolves mostly around Captain Yossarian who desperately wants to get out of the war and go home. It seems like every time he comes close to flying the required number of missions, they keep upping the number of missions. (I read the book on my Kobo and could relate to the feeling. Every I felt like I was getting close to the end, it seemed like Heller and my Kobo conspired to raise the number of pages left to go.) Unable to reach the required total, Yossarian tries to leave on grounds of insanity. The catch, or Catch-22 as Heller coined the term, was that anyone who feigns insanity in order not to fly a dangerous mission, clearly understands the peril and is therefore sane. Again, sounds like a delightful bit of satire when you hear the joke once. Try having it rammed down your throat for 500 pages.

There's also so many overblown characters that it's next to impossible to keep track. The chronology is equally confusing. So when the misogyny reared its ugly head (and suddenly there was a lot of it) I pretty much decided that I'd be finishing the book for the sake of finishing it, nothing more.


indiscriminatecritic said...

I laughed out loud at Kobo and Heller conspiring to raise the page total. Too funny. I'm glad I chose the audio format for Catch-22, because I don't think I would have shared your perserverance with the book. Well done, sir. You have my respect.

leavesandpages said...

I read this one in high school, about 30 years ago now (she says in shocked realization) and I loved it at the time. Thought it was all subversive and awesome, and me the same for "getting" it. Me and millions of others - this was certainly a bestselling bestseller. I tried a few other Joseph Hellers through the years & none of them "took"; and I've never re-read Catch-22, though I flirt with the idea occasionally. It's here on my shelf. Your review cuts right to the chase, and probably identifies the hidden reason why I've never re-read this one. And I'm dedicated re-reader. The point was obviously well made the first time around. 500 pages - is it really that long? It is a substantial chunk of paper, that one, come to think of it.

John Mutford said...

Indiscriminatecritic: Did they have different readers for the different characters?

Leavesandpages: Actually, it's slightly less than 500 pages (a little over 450)— too long either way.