Re-reading Catch-22

By Byron Spooner

“When I read something saying I’ve not done anything as good as Catch-22, I’m tempted to reply, ‘Who has?’”  
-Joseph Heller

Some years ago my wife and I took a vacation driving slowly up the coast from Marin to Portland, Oregon.  All the way we listened  to cassettes—which should give you an idea of just how long ago this was—of collected bits from Bob & Ray’s radio shows from the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies.

Terrific parodists, Bob and Ray did mock radio broadcasts which included phony commercials that were difficult to distinguish from the real; man-on-the-street interviews with characters who sounded like everyday people but with their insanity meters turned just a half a degree or so more toward MAX than most; hilarious satires of radio serials; dopey newsmen; and bumbling sports reporters.

The characters, gags and situations were revisited frequently over the decades, giving the broadcasts an extra level of madness as you came to know who was who and realized that no one was seeking help, ever.  As with all the best satire, Bob & Ray’s bits worked because they hewed so closely to the realities, eccentricities and banalities of everyday life; the closer they stayed to actual experience the funnier they were.

Somewhere around Eureka we started to experience a strange phenomenon.  All our interactions had begun to sound like Bob & Ray spoofs to us.  Conversation made even less sense than normal, logic seemed to have been banished permanently.  Everyone seemed two or three points dopier than normal.  Suddenly we found ourselves saying things like:

“Did you notice that that motel clerk was completely out of her mind?”

And then it dawned on us that not only had we been inhabiting the absurd World of Bob & Ray for the past several days, but that now the World of Bob & Ray was inhabiting us.  I guess you could call Post-Bob-&-Ray-Over-Exposure-Disorder (PB&ROED), a temporary but very real affliction that strikes hapless people unawares after hours of exposure to high levels of good-natured satire. The main symptom is the sensation that they are living in a world that is just slightly madder than the one they’ve become accustomed to.  In order to keep our sanity intact, we decided, we would have to switch away for a while—listen to music or the ballgame or something—anything but more Bob & Ray.

***

I found myself in the same state as I re-read Joseph Heller’s Catch – 22 after forty years.  It is an absurdist, surreal masterpiece that has the same hilarious effect on your perceptions as do Bob & Ray.  The feeling of being trapped in a world ruled by the insane is a universal experience and can be either hellish or hilarious, or, like Heller’s most famous book, both. A book that is mostly thought of as an anti-war novel, which it very much is; Catch-22 also bears comparison with Waiting for Godot and Rhinoceros as essential absurdist texts.  It is at once satirical in its send up of American life and revolutionary in its utter and cynical condemnation of authority.  It is Duck Soup and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo rolled together.

One of the great books of the postwar generation, Catch-22 bridged the WWII and the Vietnam generations.  It didn’t sell well in hardcover and was hardly noticed by the press. It wasn’t nominated for any of the standard literary awards. (Later satiric World War Two novels fared better in the awards department: Slaughterhouse Five [1969] was nominated for both Nebula and a Hugo Awards, reflecting the prevailing notion at the time that Vonnegut was a science-fiction writer. Gravity’s Rainbow [1973] was nominated for a Pulitzer but no award was given that year due to split on the committee over the book’s merits.  It shared the National Book Award and was nominated—inexplicably— for a Nebula.)  It became a bestseller only after it was released in paperback a year later, in 1962, but once it became widely read it was quickly recognized as an America classic.

Many veterans of the Second World War who had hated their officers and their petty rules as much, if not more, than the enemy that was shooting at them, embraced Joseph Heller and his protagonist Yossarian, as someone who gave them a voice.  Near the end of the book Yossarian says to his friend Major Danby:

Christ, Danby, I earned that medal I got, no matter what their reasons were for                              giving it to me.  I’ve flown seventy goddam combat missions. Don’t talk to me                              about fighting to save my country.  I’ve been fighting all along to save my                                               country.  Now I’m going to fight a little to save myself.  The country’s not in                            danger any more, but I am.

A lot of veterans probably nodded to themselves as they read that, thankful that someone had rescued them from heroism. There are only a couple of brief, if harrowing, combat scenes in the entire book; the preponderance of it deals with the boredom of a life spent awaiting, and—primarily—avoiding, combat.  Most of Heller’s characters are shirkers, either active or passive, and the gung-ho few who actually want to go into combat are treated like freaks to be mistrusted and ostracized.  It was an aspect of the war hadn’t been addressed in American literature before.  There were far more WWII vets to whom this held an appeal than anyone at the time wanted to admit.  My father always told the story—one of the only stories he told about the war and, interestingly, one involving not combat but men behind the lines when they were stationed in London waiting for the invasion of France to commence, much the way the airmen in Catch-22 are stationed on an island in the Mediterranean dealing with boredom as much as their fear of death—of a colonel who at every mess needed a pat of butter with each bite he took.  It was not enough to simply bring one big plateful; he wanted brought to him one at a time and demanded that some poor enlisted man run back and forth from kitchen to table all through the meal with pat after pat, and probably doing more to ruin his men’s morale in the process than all the bombs the Luftwaffe could drop. If Heller had heard this guy he could have built an entire character around him.  Paul Fussell’s book Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War has a chapter dealing with just this kind thing entitled simply Chickenshit.

For others of the WWII generation, the rebellious cachet of Catch-22 made it into something of a hipster icon to the Playboy; an essential item to be arranged on the cocktail table in a bachelor pad before the big date along with Sketches of Spain, back issues of Esquire, and the inevitable Brubeck albums.

Later the book was picked up on by the anti-war generation and became de rigueur reading for the draft dodgers and war protesters by reinforcing the prevailing idea that Vietnam was folly by contextualizing WWII—the heroic war, the “good” war—and all war in fact, as folly.  They clung to its apostasy as hope, as a way out.  “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” as one American officer had said of the shelling of a Vietnamese provincial capital called Bến Tre, sounded all too familiar to those who had read Catch-22. It had as much influence on the shaping of that generation as The Wretched of the Earth and MAD Magazine.

I read it for the first time in High School when the draft was in full swing.  I found it just as funny and uproarious and insurrectionist then as it remains today.  I missed a lot on the first time through, but there was also a little more dread folded into the confection, a chill that pervaded the book and colored my reading of it.  There was constantly the reminder, on every page, that I could easily be next, drafted into America’s latest lunatic enterprise and ordered to die for it.  It’s easy to see how this would dampen the hilarity some.

Heller’s career in advertising probably helped to sharpen his eye for what lay over the horizon.  He foresaw the changes that were coming in American life and that was made is what has made the book timeless. That timelessness is why Catch-22 continues to sell briskly to this day, appealing to generations that were never threatened with the draft and for whom WWII is history.  The book’s anticipation of Nixon’s twisted relationship to the language is prescient in its scary precision. The fictional Lieutenant Scheisskopf achieved immortality when, channeling through the unfortunately very real Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, he said, “The president is aware of what is going on in Southeast Asia. That is not to say that there is anything going on in Southeast Asia,” and “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.” Heller also anticipated the Bush era’s penchant for perfect nonsense. It was as though Joseph Heller himself had been ghosting for Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 when Rumsfeld said, “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.  There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know.  But there are also unknown unknowns—there are things we do not know, we don’t know.”

The book also anticipated, again probably from Heller’s Madison Ave. experience, our crazed consumerism where all humanity can be sacrificed on the nearest convenient altar to appease the demented god of ever greater profits.  It is a commentary on contemporary life that anyone who has ever run afoul of a self-serving company policy or a computer designed and programmed by crypto-Nazis to thwart all rationality will recognize how Heller’s perception of a nightmarish military bureaucracy  ruled by verbosely illiterate morons has become the model for the entire corporate society. In this passage, one of the saddest and most harrowing in the book, an airman (Snowden) is dying of his wounds in the belly of a bomber as Yossarian tries to save him:

There was no morphine in the first-aid kit, no protection for Snowden against pain but the            numbing shock of the gaping wound itself.  The twelve syrettes of morphine had been         stolen from their case and replaced by a cleanly lettered note that said: ‘What’s good for         M &M Enterprises is good for the country.  Milo Minderbinder.’  Yossarian swore at    Milo and held two aspirins out to ashen lips unable to receive them.

Milo Minderbinder’s boundlessly greedy monetization of the war is one of many, many running dark jokes that run through the story.  That the joke shows up in the middle of an otherwise heartbreakingly tender scene is testimony to Heller’s courage as a writer and an example of his conviction that all things in life, no matter how terrible, are at some level also futile and absurd. The plot of Catch-22 repeatedly backtracks over itself; by the time the morphine is discovered missing we’ve visited and revisited Snowden’s death, and most of the major plot elements, over and over.  This backtracking is not some Rashomon-like re-examination of the proceedings from different characters’ points of view, but consists instead of the same characters constantly chewing over the same events, turning them every which way and looking at them from some different angle each time, only to find them as inexplicable as ever.  It can be confusing and one comes away from the book without a clear idea in which order everything has happened.  Things get confusing sometimes. Whether you’re travelling up the Pacific Coast listening to Bob & Ray or bombing or, more accurately, trying to get out of bombing, the Germans off the face the planet, things get confusing.  Not that it matters: Join the club, along with Yossarian and Joseph Heller and everyone else.  As McWatt says before flying his plane into a mountain, “Oh well, what the hell.”

And don’t forget that this book is very, very funny; funny throughout and relentlessly.  If, as Sherman said, war is hell, then Catch-22 may be the only book that is, literally, funny as hell.

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