I first encountered Catch-22
while on duty in Vietnam. A college friend “without-a-clue” (actually probably my best friend in life though I haven’t seen him for several years) sent it to me because he found it both enlightening and funny. Unfortunately, I found it neither. Caught in the middle of my own catch-22, I had no desire to truly see my situation. After reading the first fifty pages, I discarded the book and turned to the schmaltzy writings of some Muslim mystic-poet long since forgotten. What I needed in Vietnam wasn’t a dose of reality but rather pure escapist literature that allowed me to avoid looking at the harsh reality of a badly-fought war fought for, at best, questionable reasons.
It wasn’t until years later that I again encountered this novel on the reading list for my Master’s Degree Program and, though it wasn’t covered in a course, it was required reading for the written and oral exams. Luckily I had put enough distance between Vietnam and myself that I could look at the novel with a new perspective, and it became one of my favorite 20th century novels. Later, I chose to teach it in my Honors American Studies class as representative of a “modern classic,” and as my sole attempt to deal with the effects Vietnam had had on our country.
That said, it’s obviously not an easy novel to read. Some people are put off by its lack of a straightforward, narrative. This lack of narrative structure isn’t made any easier by the misleading titles that suggest each chapter is a devoted to a particular character, when in reality the character may not appear until the very end of the chapter and turn out to be merely a minor part of the chapter bearing their name, only to become a major character in a later chapter bearing the name of an entirely different character.
Anyone who has made it through Joyce or Faulkner, though, should find Heller’s novel relatively easy to follow. In fact, it seems to me that Hellers’ method of telling a story is probably more “realistic” than the common literary technique of merely retelling a person’s whole life directly. This, not straightforward narrative, is how we learn about people in real life, as bloggers well know. Most of us are introduced to people indirectly, either through comments made on a site visited by both or through references made on another site. Even when do read a blogger’s site we learn very little about them directly. Instead, we begin to understand them little by little as they reveal themselves through their commentary on other issues. Readers who are willing to trust this kind of self-revelation will find that Catch 22
is a very perceptive novel that isn’t all that difficult to follow.
Some readers may find its strange mixture of humor and harsh reality both confusing and repulsive. I must admit, that I found the movie version a bit more violent than I liked. That violence is also in the novel, but for those like myself who lack imagination, the violence is mitigated by the words themselves. It’s one thing to visually experience violence, something quite different to read about it. In this novel, words are a much-needed mitigating factor.
I suspect it also helps if you appreciate “military humor,” that dark, ironic sense of humor that makes it possible to get through the impossible. I found it embarassing to read the book while students read it because they were always startled when I would break out laughing. Unfortunately, they seldom laughed while reading it, though I did have a few break into tears while reading it. Those readers old enough to fondly remember the series Get Smart
, or so lacking a life that they’ve followed it in re-runs, will appreciate the humor in this novel if they found lines like “Would you believe”” both funny and apt. This kind of humor makes it possible to laugh when you really want to cry out in rage or despair. This sense of humor is so ingrained in me that, as a hiking friend noted, I resort to such humor when I find myself in dire straights, facing undesirable alternatives.
I doubt that many patriotic supporters of the Great SUV-Wars will appreciate Heller’s humor, though. Heller is a true radical, one who sees with laser-like vision through the patently false patriotism that demands the ultimate sacrifice for some while generously rewarding those willing to cash in on other people’s idealism.