Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Classic #4

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

What I took away from reading this novel again: satire is funny but exhausting.

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Heller sets his classic satire on a small island off the coast of Italy during World War II. The characters – in fact, caricatures – make up a bomber squadron whose members have resigned themselves to being killed. The stats in fact were against them: the average length of service of a tail gunner or bombardier was about a month. The pathetic organization man of a CO keeps raising the minimum number of missions one must fly, so the airmen are essentially trapped until they are killed.

The action is told in episodes. The bitter jokes about the powerful exploiting the vulnerable never let up. Takers get the honey, givers sing the blues. Catch-22 is the paradox of life: life is tedious, bitter, meaningless, full of suffering and we’d do any deal to prolong it. Catch-22 is that bullies, cowards, sneaks, cynics, snobs, bigots, and hypocrites “have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” This novel is so relentless that I was unable to read it for more than 30 pages at a time. But the last 150 pages or so are riveting that I couldn’t tear myself away.

A guy told me once that serving in the Navy he felt was like being dipped in shit. But he was also chagrined that he was the only one of the radio guys in his group the CIA didn’t try to recruit. Heller wrote this book for irked guys like this, for whom the military could do no right even when it was correct in deciding not to hire a guy that would have been bored, unhappy, and cracked just doing what he was told and keeping his mouth shut. The whole novel is full of oxymora like this, which only remind us life is full of them, all the time.

The audience, I think, is readers who think that the squares deserve all the disrespect and contempt that they get. All the dumb, panicky, dangerous types that merit every thumb in the eye they get from condescending people who are sick of asking stupid-on-purpose know-nothings, “Where did you hear that? Why do you think that? Show me how that’s true.”

What makes it a classic is that it captures the impertinent and derisive attitude many people in our country started to feel about our leaders and their willing minions due to the Vietnam War and Watergate. This satirical novel doesn’t spare any target. It will stay a classic as long as ordinary people feel contempt for red tape, shabby patriotism, self-serving leaders, and bullies that enjoy making people they don’t like feel afraid. I would recommend this novel only to readers stoic enough to face Heller’s grim view of death, insanity, sex, competence, and obsession.

In a sense, this is a dangerous novel because it makes us readers feel pissed off about realities of life that we can do nothing to change. It’s cold comfort to feel upward contempt for leaders who think they have a real good bead on things, but they don’t really know squat. We can’t really control business, government, cops, spies, much less creeps that change our neighborhoods into shitholes, much less gasbags that text while they speed in massive SUVs. And let’s face it: we got responsibilities of our own, so who cares of the bastards thrive when we can’t do a thing to stop them? We already have ours to take care of.

What if everybody felt like that, asked Major Danby, then where would we be? Well then, says Yossarion, I’d be a damned fool to think any other way, wouldn’t I?

I grew up in a small white working class suburb in Downriver Detroit. In the mid-Sixties, most of the minors in the neighborhood were teenagers. Like lots of 10-year-olds I looked to teenagers as the taste-makers of fashion in language, dress, and media preferences. This novel was brought into my awareness by teenagers carrying it around, whether as pleasure or assigned reading, I don’t know.  It seems equally weird – so few teenagers like to read and what high school teacher would assign such a radical book full of dirty words?

The movie was released in 1970. Among my 14-year-old buds, the buzz caused much lurid hushed talk. Rated R, so howdayaa get in? Did Dave really sneak in? She, like, stands on a raft, wearing nuthin, you can see her front. And you can see everything. No chit?

I think I read it in high school, during a summer vacation, but I can’t recall any of my boyish opinions about it beyond I thought it was funny. The scenes I always remembered were the first combat scene where Yossarian is punching a puzzled Aarfy; Col Cathcart’s interview with the chaplain about the briefing prayer and firm ripe tomatoes; and the woman pummeling Yossarian because she doesn’t believe in Yoassarian’s inept JD God , but that in fact she doesn’t believe in her good, just God. Of course, as in the above reference to high pitch of incredible writing in the last third of the book, which to discuss would constitute a spoiler.

In late 1974, at Michigan State, 18 and game, I made sure one of the first things I did was see Catch-22, the movie. Later I took a 20th Century American Lit class with Dr. Clinton S. Burhans, Jr. who assigned this as a text. A deep reader in the days before Theory, he wrote Spindrift and the Sea: Structural Patterns and Unifying Elements in Catch-22 (Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 19, No. 4 [Oct., 1973], pp. 239-250). I seem to recall half the class liking the novel for its irreverence, half detesting it for its formlessness, tiresome skits, and length.

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