December 03, 2007
Warning: spoilers and politics.
When describing the prose and plot of Catch-22, it's nearly impossible to avoid the word "circular." Circular writing, circular reasoning, circular logic. Things are because they are because they are.
At first I though Heller was just using this style for humorous effect, much as my grandfather's letter did. But, reading on, it became clear that recursion was more than just a gimmick, it was the central theme of the novel.
And so the titular Catch-22, which states that you can only get discharge from the military if you are insane, but the mere act of asking for a discharge proves your sanity (after all, what sane man wouldn't want to get out of war?). And so Colonel Cathcart, a terrible leader because he spends so much of his time angling to get mentioned in The Saturday Evening Post as a great leader. And so Milo, who runs a syndicate, in which "everyone has a share," that mostly consists of his using the money of the syndicate's members to buy foodstuffs and then selling them to the members at a profit. Parts of the novel reminded me of nothing so much as that party trick, where a dozen people stand in a circle and then everyone simultaneously sits on the knees of the person behind them. Everyone is propped up by everyone else, just the events in Catch-22 all lent support to each other even though none would be able to stand on it's own.
At a deeper level, all this highlights the cyclic nature of war. Once a nation marches down the path to conflict, it almost inevitably finds itself locked into a positive feedback loop, with every event--good or bad--only amplifying the case for further aggression. Retaliation begets retaliation begets retaliation; a stronger power oppresses a weaker one for so long that they dare not stop, knowing that the aggrieved, given the chance, would rise up in (justifiable) anger.
To see war's perverse ability to self-perpetuate, you need look no further than the Israel / Palestine conflict. Or this Tom Toles cartoon.
Driving home from work today, I heard an NPR piece on an upcoming supreme court case about Guantanamo Bay. Honestly, this story could have been written by Heller himself. David Rivkin, a lawyer who worked for the first President Bush, described the prison as "a gigantic al-Qaida training cell." In other words, even those who who were wrongly detained, and originally harbored no ill-will toward the US, might join the terrorists when released. Second, as detainee lawyer David Remes puts it, "one of the cruel ironies of the whole Guantanamo situation [is that] we bring them to Guantanamo, we call them dangerous terrorists, we call them the worst of the worst, and then we expect their home countries to take them back." Were we to throw open the gates, these guys would have nowhere to do. And so, the very problems that Guantanamo are logically cited as reasons to keep it running. And justifiably so, as they are perfectly logical--just as it would is perfectly logical for those who were mistakenly put into Guantanamo to now hate the nation that put them there. Round and round we go.
* * *
At first I wasn't sure what to make of the ending. Yossarian is given the opportunity to go home, provided that he "like" his superior officers. It's the chance he's been waiting the whole book for. And yet, in the end, he declines, and instead deserts, heading off to Sweden. What's the point? It's dereliction of duty either way--why wouldn't he take the route that wouldn't get him in trouble?
But it's the very illogic of his decision that makes it significant. Like Alexander slicing the Gordian Knot, it's as if Yossarian realized that the only solution to the problem of Catch-22 was to sidestep it entirely. To accept Colonel Korn & Cathcart's bargain would is to remain in the feedback loop; the only escape is to gather enough momentum to get flung free of the cycle entirely. And so he--of all the soldiers in the novel--opts to abandon rationality and free himself from the hamster wheel of war.
* * *
Good book. I enjoyed it, but will strive to complete the novel in two weeks or less in the future if I ever opt for a reread. I'm a little unsure as it's status as one of the "Great Novels"--I'd recommend it, to be sure, but don't know if I'd rate it up there with, say, 1984. I've certainly read some contemporary books that I thought were superior, such as The Hours (just to pluck one out of the hat). And I wouldn't have complained if Heller had excised 100 pages out of there, somewhere--seems like it could have been done without too much difficulty.
November 28, 2007
Catch-22: Chapters 33-37
Chapters Read: 33. Nately's Whore, 34, Thanksgiving, 35. Milo the Militant, 36. The Cellar, 37. General Scheisskopf
Page reached:: 377 of 448 (84.15%).
Status Report: Holy smokes, the bodies are starting to pile up. In the last 50 pages this book his gone from Hogan's Heroes to Platoon.
Not that that's a bad thing. After a hundred pages of holding pattern, having main characters expire left and right strikes me as a pretty good indicator that we are approaching resolution. This is how Hamlet ended too, as I recall.
For those of you who have not yet started the book, it's probably too late to jump in now and still hope to finish by Friday. Thankfully, Heller summarizes the entire novel in the chapter Nately's Whore, with this passage:
The middle-aged big shots would not let Nately's whore leave until they made her say uncle.You can only have it if you don't want it. Catch-22.
November 23, 2007
Catch-22: Chapters 24-32
Chapters Read: 24. Milo, 25. The Chaplain, 26. Aarfy, 27. Nurse Duckett, 28. Dobbs, 29. Peckem, 30. Dunbar, 31. Mrs. Daneeka, 32. Yo-Yo's Roomies
Page reached:: 335 of 448 (74.78%).
Status Report: Sorry about the hiatus in status reports, folks. I spent much of last weekend reading Michael E. McCullough's papers on gratitude in preparation for my Morning News essay on the subject. Then, the library informed me that my copy of Catch-22 was due, and I was unable to renew it because holds had been placed on all available copies. WTF LITERATI!!!!!¡!! When I initially checked the book out, there were no holds at all, so I can only assume that much of the Greater Seattle Area is frantically trying to jump into NaNoReMo 2007 at the last possible moment, a hypothesis corroborated by the fact that I had to visit five bookstores before I could rustle up a new copy. ("I know we had copy a few weeks ago," the staff at the first four bookstores told me, "but now it looks like we are out ...")
The article about Catch-22 I linked to last week contained this passage:
The doubling of the digits [in the title of Catch-22 happens] to emphasize a major theme of the book: duplication and reduplication. When the book was first published, critics objected to its monotony and repetition. 'Heller's talent is impressive,' said Time magazine, 'but it is also undisciplined, sometimes luring him into bogs of boring repetition. Nearly every episode in Catch-22 is told and retold.'Nice of Time to do my summary for me.
For this block of chapters the reader is like a paper boat caught in the eddies, looping around and around, hopefully gathering enough momentum to eventually escape and continue his journey. That's an observation, not a complaint--though it's probably best that I took a little break before tackling these hundred pages.
I do have a gripe, though. In my Layer Tennis commentary, I mentioned a concept called douche ecossaise. Literally the term means "alternating between very hot and very cold showers," but it was later adopted by Le Theatre du Grand-Guignol to describe their macabre performances, which would switch back and forth between humor and horor and, in doing so, enhance the effect of each. was the reigning venue for all things macabre. The sudden shift between horror and humor--two opposing emotional "temperatures"--each heightening the effect of the other. Heller does this to good effect throughout the novel.
But in a few places he takes the joke a bit too far. In chapter 24, he has Milo bombing the American camp and getting off scot free; in chapter 31., he has Daneeka mistakenly reported as dead, and all the folks in the camp refusing to recognize that the doctor walking around in their midst is, in fact, still alive. The first scenario you can attribute to satire (after all, Milo is essentially a metaphor for capitalism, and a business conspiring with America's enemies to make a buck isn't exactly far-fetched), but the Doc. Daneeka bolding strides into the realm of farce. In doing so, it lessens the horror of subsequent events, rather than heightens them. Turn your story into a cartoon and no one is going to recoil in shock when characters are killed by falling anvils.
Criticizing a subplot of Catch-22 for being absurd is like complaining that trash compactor on the Death Star is scientifically implausible, I know. But a book as labyrinthine as Catch-22 needs some internal logic to keep things cohesive, and I thought these two vignettes violated what little the novel contains.
Favorite Passage:"What about my wife?" Colonel Scheisskopf demanded with disgruntled suspicion. "I'll still be able to send for her, won't I?"
"Your wife? Why in the world should you want to?"
"A husband and wife should be together."
"That's out of the question also."
"But they said I could send for her!"
"They lied to you again."
"They had no right to lie to me!' Colonel Scheisskopf protested, his eyes wetting with indignation.
"Of course they had a right," General Peckem snapped with cold and calculated severity, resolving right then and there to test the mettle of his new colonel under fire. "Don't be such an ass, Scheisskopf. People have a right to do anything that's not forbidden by law, and there's no law against lying to you. Now, don't ever waste my time with such sentimental platitudes again."
November 18, 2007
Catch-22: Chapters 22 & 23
Chapters Read:22. Milo the Mayor, 23. Nately's Old Man
Page reached:: 235 of 448 (52.46%).
Status Report: In the last thread, Greg remarked: "Is anyone else finding their humor being infected by the circular logic and non sequiturs used in the book? The witty remarks I make daily to friends and colleagues have started to sound like dialog from Catch-22."
I thought nothing of the comment at the time. But the following day, I posted this to an online forum I frequent:
When more of a company's stock is purchased, the price per share goes up, right? And when more of it is sold, the price per share goes down. So say I buy a huge amount of company X's stock--so much stock that it actually causes the price per share to go up. Then I immediately sell it for a profit, causing the price to go back to it's original valuation. Then I buy it again ... and so on, continually making a profit out of thin air. Someone explain to me why this doesn't work--or does it.And the day after that, I read chapter 22, in which Milo Minderbinder pretty much does exactly this.
It's true! I'm infected with Heller-Ouroboros!
P.s. Halfway though, sucka.
Favorite Passage: "You put so much stock in winning wars," the grubby iniquitous old man scoffed. "The real trick lies in losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost. Italy has been losing wars for centuries, and just see how splendidly we've done nonetheless. France wins wars and is in a continual state of crisis. Germany loses and prospers. Look at our recent history. Italy won a war in Ethiopia and promptly stumbled into serious trouble. Victory gave us such insane delusions of grandeur that we helped start a world war we hadn't a chance of winning. But now that we are losing again, everything has taken a turn for the better and we will certainly come out on top again if we succeed in being defeated."
Words Looked Up:
Panatella: American Spanish, meaning 'a long thin biscuit' and Italian, meaning 'small loaf'.
Concupiscent: A strong desire, especially sexual desire; lust.
Crump (as in "Tubas crumped"): 1. to crunch or make a crunching sound, as with the teeth; 2. (of an artillery shell) to land and explode with a heavy, muffled sound; 3. to make a crunching sound, as in walking over snow. (Hmm, I think Heller mighta just made that one up.)
November 14, 2007
Catch-22: Chapters 19-21
Chapters Read: 19. Colonel Cathcart, 20. Corporal Whitcomb, 21. General Dreedle
Page reached:: 209 of 448 (46.65%).
Status Report: In my recent review of Primer, I wrote: "I'm a total sucker for movies that break open your head and punch you in the brain, so Primer was right up my alley. ... It's one of those films, like Memento and Mulholland Dr., that pretty much necessitates repeated viewing." These movies have come to be known as "puzzle films," because rather than simply handing the audience a linear narrative, the director instead distributes clues throughout the picture like a farmer throwing seeds into a field. It's up to the viewer to find all the relevant information and piece it back together, to have any hope of understanding the plot.
Now, here's a passage from General Dreedle:
Major _____ de Coverley was an ominous, incomprehensible presence who kept him constantly on edge and of whom even Colonel Korn tended to be wary. Everyone was afraid of him, and no one knew why. No one even knew Major _____ de Coverley's first name, because no one had ever had the temerity to ask him.At long last we know what the underscores are about. And the reader is learning additional details about other previously underexplained events as well ... so long as he's alert enough to spot 'em.
This aspect of Catch-22 really appeals to me. Though it's unlikely that I'm going to immediately read the book a second and third time after completion, to see what I missed the first time through.
November 12, 2007
Catch-22: Chapters 14-18
Chapters Read:14. Kid Sampson, 15. Piltchard and Wren, 16. Lucina, 17. The Soldier in White, 18. The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice
Page reached:: 171 of 448 (38.17%).
Status Report: A few welcome diversions in this block of chapters, fueling speculation that this thing might have a plot after all. Piltchard and Wren contains an actual action sequence. Lucina, meanwhile, is a break from the chapters devoted solely to the foibles of the military and the men therein.
Yossarian is shaping up to be a pretty great antihero. Craven, carnal, self-absorbed, and downright dangerous at times, he often reflects on and epitomizes the ridiculousness of the war. The central problem, of course, is that every character is looking out for himself alone, and therefore butting heads with all the other vain and self-serving characters strewn throughout the book. By getting us to sympathize with one, Heller demonstrates that, individually, everyone is acting sanely, insofar as their only aim to to advance their own interests. It's only when you look at the "Big Picture" that you see that the whole is much, much less than the sum of its parts--a bunch of rational actors to collectively make up the enormous clusterfuck of war..
Favorite Passage:"Don't tell me God works in mysterious ways," Yossarian continued, hurtling on over her objection. "There's nothing so mysterious about it. He's not working at all. He's playing. Or else He's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about - a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?"
"Pain?" Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife pounced upon the word victoriously. "Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers."
"And who created the dangers?" Yossarian demanded ... "Why couldn't He have used a doorbell instead to notify us?"
Words Looked Up:
November 09, 2007
Catch-22: Chapters 11-13
Chapters Read: 11. Captain Black, 12. Bologna, 13. Major ______ De Coverely
Page reached:: 124 of 448 (27.68%).
Status Report: Folks are dropping out of NaNoReMo left and right. I guess since I, the founder of NaNoReMo, dropped out of it myself last year, everyone is allowed one bail. But next year when we read Ulysses: no quitters.
Well too bad for you guys, because things just got great. Captain Black was my favorite chapter so far. Its tale of "Loyalty Oaths Gone Wild" reads like "United States, 2002: A Year In Review." Actually who am I kidding, ascribing this to 2002? We're still a nation that freaks out if a presidential candidate opts not to wear a American flag lapel pin. What is such flair, if not a loyalty oath in pewter?
Plus, as John F. pointed out in in the comments of the last post, the chapter Bologna shows the first unmistakable signs of an emerging plot.
By the way, I honestly think it's not too late to join NaNoReMo 2007. If anything, I think Catch-22 is probably best read in two weeks or less. My greatest difficulty, this year, is pacing myself out, so I don't just dash the rest of the book off over a weekend. (Too keep myself on schedule, I've alternated my reading between this and latest issue of Murdaland.) The circular writing is a bit taxing, spread out over a full month. But I suspect, were you to just bolt the whole novel as quickly as possible, it would probably go down a lot smoother.
If you are still in, and have a blog, mention it in the comments: I'll migrate the links up to this post. Plus, I'd be curious to see a headcount.
Favorite Passage: I would reprint "Captain Black" here in full, were it not for copyright law.
Still in NaNoReMo:
November 07, 2007
Catch-22: Chapters 9 & 10
Chapters Read: 9. Major Major Major Major, 10. Wintergreen
Page reached:: 105 of 448 (23.44%).
Status Report: So far I have compared Heller's writing style to Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, A. A. Milne, and Abbot and Costello. And yet, the whole time, I have had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that there was some other author to whom he could be more justifiably compared. Someone who also wrote sentences that would gently lead you down an alley and then suddenly turn to hit you over the head with a sap.
I couldn't remember who the other writer was, though, until I read this passage, about Major Major's farming father:
He specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn't earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce ... He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county.Ohhhh yeah. I know who this reminds me of. My Grandpa.
We are very busy farming. We have three cows, but we are going to sell one because we can't milk him. Eggs are a good price. That's the reason why they are so high. I sure hope we can get a lot of them. We just bought 2 roosters and one old hen. Some of the ground is so poor that you can't raise an umbrella on it, but we have a fine crop of corn. I think it will make about five gallons an ache. Some worms got into our corn last year but we just fished them out and drank it anyway. Our romance started with a gallon of corn and ended with a full crib ...Catch-22 was published in 1962. Is this how everyone talked back in the sixties? Because of all the drugs? Or did people take the drugs to cope with other people talking like this?
As for these chapters, "Major Major Major Major" is like an extended LOST flashback, and Wintergreen is only mentioned five times in his own chapter. Weird.
[Yosarian says:] "I don't want to be in the war any more."
Words Looked Up:
Other Bloggers Commenting On These Chapters:
November 05, 2007
Catch-22: Chapters 5-8
Chapters Read: 5. Chief White Halfoat, 6. Hungry Joe, 7. McWatt, 8. Lieutenant Scheisskopf
Page reached:: 76 of 448 (16.96%).
Status Report: On the one hand, the "Who's On First" routine is getting wearisome; on the other, the book is a pretty easy read ("because of" or "despite of" the schtick, I haven't yet decided), so I'm not sure it matters. Still, I hope this doesn't become one of those novels I find myself devouring at every available opportunity not because it is compulsively readable but simply because I want it to be over.
Now my biggest concern is the sheer number of people to which we have been introduced. Heller uses more characters than most authors use verbs, and this may prove to be a problem. I have the mental wherewithal to hold about four characters in my head during any given story, and then only if they are all suitably distinct--preferably one man, one woman, one child, and a pet of some sort, all with wildly divergent names. I'm the kind of guy who can lose track of the characters in My Dinner With Andre.
Worse, it's never obvious, in Catch-22, which characters are "real" (i.e., essential to the alleged plot, which people swear is going to stroll onto the scene at some point) and which are just extended shaggy-dog jokes, never to be seen again. I'll tell you this much: any character that doesn't surface at least once every third chapter is going down my memory hole. Even as I typed the chapter titles above I was, like, "Chief White Who?"
Fun book, so far. That said, this dog-chasing-its-tail style of writing is certainly not for everyone. I'm at the point now where I can, with some confidence, make two predictions: after I finish reading Catch-22, I (1.) will have enjoyed it, and (2) will not begrudge anyone who hated it.
Clevinger was one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains, and everyone knew it except those who soon found it out. In short, he was a dope. He often looked to Yossarian like one of those people hanging around modern museums with both eyes together on one side of a face. It was an illusion, of course, generated by Clevinger's predilection for staring fixedly at one side of a question and never seeing the other side at all.
Words Looked Up:
November 02, 2007
Catch-22: Chapters 1-4
Chapters Read: 1. The Texan; 2. Clevinger; 3. Havermeyer; 4. Doc Daneeka
Page reached:: 33 of 448 (7.37%).
There was a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma; there was a pathologist for his pathos, a cystologist for his cysts, and a bald and pedantic cetologist from the zoology department at Harvard who had been shanghaied ruthlessly into the Medical Corps by a faulty anode in an I.B.M machine and spent his sessions with the dying colonel trying to discuss Moby Dick with him.Ha! Dude, I totally sympathize.
Before I got any further, I'd like to point out that I knew pretty much nothing about Catch-22 two days ago, aside from these three facts:
Now, four chapters in, I'm pleased as punch to announce that, yes, this book is funny in a not-strictly-hypothetical way. Funny in the sense that it actually produces guffaws. Chuckles, even.
Despite being billed as a great American novel, the humor strikes me as distinctly British, of the sort a Monty Python sketch would be built around.
In one of the Pre-NaNoReMo 2007 posts, in fact, someone in the comments likened the writing in Catch-22 to that of Douglas Adams. I see it! Take this passage, for instance:
"They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him.Reminiscent of Douglas Adams, sure. But, to my mind, even more so of a slightly older English author:
"You should say what you mean," the March Hare went on.And, more recently, this bloke:
"Hallo!" said Piglet, "what are you doing?"Two of my all-time favorite authors, as luck would have it. The absurd and the surreal and the non-sequiturian are my preferred forms of humor.
That said, I hope this book has a plot. There's really no sign of it yet. And the fact that nearly every chapter title to follow is the name of a character doesn't bode well. If the whole novel is nothing but descriptions of wacky personalities and recollections of past events, the schtick may get tiresome. Quickly.
Still, a promising start.
Favorite Passage:The chaplain stirred again. He looked from side to side a few times, then gazed up at the ceiling, then down at the floor. He drew a deep breath.
"Lieutenant Nately sends his regards," he said.
Yossarian was sorry to hear they had a mutual friend. It seemed there was a basis to their conversation after all.
Words Looked Up:
October 22, 2007
NaNoReMo 2007: Catch-22 Syllabus
Okay, you know what? Reading this book is going to be easy peesy. My copy of Catch-22 starts on page 15 and ends on 463. That's 448 pages in total. Round up to 450, divide by the 30 days in November--15 pages a day. No sweat.
Of course, your book may have different pagination, so we'll go by chapters. I plan to write about Catch-22 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in November, which works out like this:
Now let's take a moment to briefly review the NaNoReMo rules. Ha, sike! There are no rules. Start reading the book early, finish late, translate the thing into Klingon as you go--I don't care.
But I intend to adhere to the above schedule. If you are reading along, we'd love for you to join in the conversation, either by chiming in on the threads I initiate on the designated days, or by posting your thoughts on your own site and sending me the link (which I will compile and include in my posts).
October 08, 2007
NaNoReMo 2007: Catch-22
Wait, what? Really? Wow, I would not have predicted that. In fact, I don't even need to use the conditional tense: I did not predict that. I was sure it was going to be 1984 or Catcher In The Rye. Shows ya what I know.
But Catch-22 is great--one of only two books on the list that I haven't read already.
I'll send out a syllabus next week. In the meantime, you may want to think about picking up a copy.
October 03, 2007
As you may recall (lord knows I do), I spent last November attempting to plow through Moby Dick. It was supposed to be a clever spin on National Novel Writing Month, the idea being that it would be easier to read a book in 30 days than write one. Rarely have my prognostic powers proven to be more incorrect. Knocking out my 750,000-word fantasy novel about obese wizards would have been a cinch compared to getting through The Dick.
Or so I am forced to assume, as I didn't actually complete the book. Fortunately, I think my daily progress reports reduced my readership to approximately one (hi Mom!), so no one noticed when I scotched the project.
As with most fiascoes, I blame my failure largely on you. I had hoped that people would join in the endeavor, reading the book along with me and adding their own insights to my daily posts. Let's ignore, for the moment, the fact that I didn't get around to announcing my intention to spend November reading Moby Dick until 11:45 PM on Halloween, leaving you no time to secure a copy of the novel. In fact, let's just ignore that fact forever, shall we?
In fact, I'll even give you a vote as to what we read. Here are the 10 novels I am considering. For each, indicate if you want to read it for NaNoReMo, would read it for NaNoReMo, or absolutely won't read it for NaNoReMo. (If you will not read any of these books, or just don't care to participate in NaNoReMo, just click here to see the results so far.)
** Voting has ended; click here for results **
Now let me tell you my preferences, in an effort to influence your decision (he says, as if he's not just going to throw out all the votes at the last moment and decide that we're all going to read back-issues of Heavy Metal ...)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: My top pick my a healthy margin. I figure most folks of my generation haven't read it in 20 years, and most folks of subsequent generations were prevented by The Naughty Word Police from reading it at all.
The Adventures Of Augie March: Clearly I am in the mood for adventure. I don't know the first thing about this book, but, in doing my research for NaNoReMo 2007, I found it at the top of nearly every list of "Great American Novels." Intriguing. Violates the < 500 pages rule, though.
Catcher In The Rye: Read it in college, didn't think it lived up to the hype. Of course, as a dedicated counter-counter-culturalist, I would have come to that conclusion regardless of the quality of the book (see also: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). Would like to read it again as an adult (i.e., free of the obligation to come to a different opinion that everyone else for the sake of faux individualism).
Those are my front-runners, though I'd be happy to read any of these. Let me know your thoughts. We'll keep the poll open until the 8th--that will give those who want to play along at home plenty of time to get the selected book from the bookstore or library.