What's the appeal of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller?
March 3, 2007 10:30 AM   Subscribe

What's the appeal of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller?

I picked up this book because I've heard/read so many people who say they love it. I'm about 200 pages into the book, but I don't get it.

I mean, yes, I see that it is a commentary on the absurdity of the military. And, yes, I think I recognize most of the jokes -- I get a good smile on just about every page.

But the story... I'm having a hard time getting into it. It seems like an endless procession of jokes and puns. There's very little continuity, and the characters' actions seem to have almost zero consequences (unless Heller sees an opportunity to show how the military will reward incompetence).

The characters seem like 2-dimensional caricatures. I don't see a central conflict. I am really having a hard time relating to Yossarian, and as a result, it's difficult for me to care what happens to him. I have to almost force myself to read the next chapter -- my goal is just to finish the book, rather than to find out what happens next.

What am I missing? Please help me enjoy what is supposed to be an American Classic.
posted by jknecht to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Keep reading it. There is a story, and it does come out as the book progresses.
posted by vernondalhart at 10:42 AM on March 3, 2007


FWIW, I read the whole thing through and still didn't get it nor why everyone makes such a big deal about it. The story was weak and the jokes barely funny.
posted by rhapsodie at 10:50 AM on March 3, 2007


I see that it is a commentary on the absurdity of the military

That's not the main story. It's about the absurdity of war. If you weren't into by the time they explained what the Catch-22 was, then you may never get into it.

Sure, it's seems a bit long, like Robin Williams on a maniac swing, but final 10 pages or so tie it all together. There are several characters doing very specific things for a specific reason that will make sense later. But yeah, some are just insane. War is insane you know, and tends to drive people insane.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:58 AM on March 3, 2007


Catch-22 was written after World War 2, when people had this glamorous, romanticized vision of war, the military, and the honor that came along with both. The book's depiction was a stark contrast to what everyone considered war to be. The absurdity of all of it all made it a very popular book in the Vietnam War era, which was also a time when people were waking up and realizing that war was more horrifying, wasteful, dehumanizing and unnecessary than romantic, glorious, masculine and all that. This is why it's an American classic. The plot does tend to come secondary to the message. It's not a page-turner, but it does have a story, and the ending is rewarding. Good luck.
posted by almostmanda at 11:05 AM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


There's a certain type of humor which should have a name. Maybe it does, but if it does, I don't know what it is. But I know it when I see (or read) it. It's the sort of thing "the smart kids" quote in High School and college. It's generally anti-establishment, filled with non sequiturs, wordplay, and references to ideas in classic literature, history and/or philosophy. And it often contains some sort of message.

Think "Monty Python", "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy", "Dr. Strangelove" and, if you want to trace this stuff back to its roots, "Importance of Being Earnest" and Lewis Carroll's Alice books.

When I was in high school and college, these books and shows were badges one wore to show one "got it." If you could quote "the parrot sketch" or be seen reading "Catch 22", it meant you were part of the liberal smartset. Ordinary people were (thought to be) too dumb (or conservative) to get the twisted non sequiturs. Or they were to philistine to get the references (think Monty Python sketches football matches between Greek and German philosophers).

These books also toy with philosophical issues and paradoxes, and since many people -- even smartset people -- don't actually read philosophy, these books are their introduction to chesnuts like, "this sentence is false."

In a nutshell, these are "books my beer-bellied dad wouldn't like."

Twenty years ago, these were my favorite kinds of books and shows. I'm sure many of them have intrinsic merit, but since I'm no long interested in rebelling or proving my membership in an "intellectual elite", they generally fall flat on me now.

I loved Catch-22 as a 20-something. When I was nearing 40, I started to re-read it and couldn't connect with what I once loved.
posted by grumblebee at 11:15 AM on March 3, 2007 [11 favorites]


If I remember correctly, the novel gels as more incidents and storylines accumulate. I remember loving the book. I read it when I was twenty, so that may have something to do with it.
posted by ambulance blues at 11:18 AM on March 3, 2007


It's very funny, but about halfway through its pretty much the same thing over and over.
posted by four panels at 11:44 AM on March 3, 2007


I always saw it as trying to present to the reader what the experience of being in something as absurd as a war might be like. Welcome to craziness. That sort of thing. As an example of that sort of experiment, Catch-22 worked very well. It may be that we now have other ways to get that across, but I always loved that book.

Grumblebee, the label you are looking for is probably "self-consciously intellectual." Ain't nothing wrong with being intellectual. Being self-conscious about it is a phase we all go through, to some extent.
posted by mmahaffie at 11:50 AM on March 3, 2007


I liked the way the structure of the novel reinforced the themes. The repetition, the disjointed chronology, etc.

I love the movie too, for what that's worth.
posted by padraigin at 12:02 PM on March 3, 2007


If you don't think it's funny so far, you're probably not going to like it any better as you go on, so I'd advise bailing out now. But do me a favor and don't go around saying "I read Catch 22 and it sucks"; recognize that the book is great to those who do "get" its humor, and it's not the book's fault that you don't. (It's not your fault either, of course.) I don't think Douglas Adams is nearly as hilarious/wonderful as many people do, but I just put it down to different senses of humor.
posted by languagehat at 12:05 PM on March 3, 2007


Spoiler from a rather weak memory:





========
Yossarian obsesses over the ludicrous aspects of the military in order to avoid thinking about the more horrifying aspects of his job. The pay-off comes when Heller pulls back the curtain to reveal the gory details of a friend who was killed in spite of the body armor given to protect him. But I also think that it's a humor that seems to be shared by the WWII veterans in my family.

I'd say Slaughterhouse Five has aged a bit better.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:11 PM on March 3, 2007


I think grumblebee just means "satire."

When Catch-22 came out, it was considered offensive to most American readers. World War II was a war that people quit their well-paying jobs to volunteer for. My own father received a draft deferment for his job in an airplane factory - helping make military aircraft! - and cancelled the deferment the day he received it because he felt he could not hold his head up in public if he refused to go to war when called.

Everyone felt that way, not just the religious right. I think it's probably a little difficult for the modern American reader even to understand that context. Tens of millions volunteered, millions died on each side, in what is unarguably the greatest single catastrophe the human race has manufactured to date. Next to WWII, Iraq I and II and Vietnam and the Cold War just don't look like much in terms of the scale of mass destruction. And people were respectful of that. You were no more likely to tell a joke about WWII in public then, than you are to call someone a "nigger" at work today.

Catch-22 was one of the first motions of the social pendulum in the opposite direction. And when a war came along that a lot of Americans disagreed with, folks went back and reread it and it touched a nerve.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:12 PM on March 3, 2007


Its a book you either click with or you don't. In my opinion, its not remotely great literature, but I absolutely love reading it, and have done so many times. The characters are somewhat one dimensional, but it turns out that doesn't matter so much, because except for Yossarian, they're supposed to be stereotypes. Yossarian is the only one that's sane enough to see everything that's fucked up, but he's fucked up because of it.

I wouldn't worry if you don't like it. You're not missing any deep message it has. Its very similar to Dr. Strangelove, as was pointed out above... its supposed to show a point in an entertaining way, which I think it does.
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:12 PM on March 3, 2007


grumblebee, if I could favorite your comment 10 times, I would. That's exactly it. Ex-freaking-zactly.
posted by limeonaire at 12:22 PM on March 3, 2007


I think grumblebee just means "satire."

No. That's too broad. Much of Saturday Night Live is satire, but it doesn't fit into my category. It's more lowbrow than Monty Python, etc. Same with The Simpsons. Actually, the Simpsons is something of an achievement. It has some of the hallmarks of the stuff I'm talking about, but the writers have figured out a way to make that kind of humor more mainstream. I think they do it by creating many levels of humor. Different people will enjoy different levels.

It's funny how, on hip websites, people now quote The Simpsons the way my generation quoted Monty Python. Even though The Simpsons is mainstream, it seems like when people write "Worst. Website. Ever.", they still feel like they're asserting their membership into a smartset. Or am I wrong? Are they just making a joke that they figure most people will find funny?
posted by grumblebee at 12:56 PM on March 3, 2007


I hope I'm not offending anyone. I'm not claiming superiority to people who like Catch-22 or its ilk. There's plenty of stuff I find funny that other people don't. And I still use references to proclaim my membership in various "clubs." I think that's human nature. I just belong to different clubs than I did when I was younger.
posted by grumblebee at 12:59 PM on March 3, 2007


When it was published, the satire of Heller's novel pointed out the inherent problems in a bureaucratic society that had begun to face new issues of the last century. Everybody has made some good points here, but I would just like to say that Catch 22 is a model novel of the 20th century. It speaks to the existential mindset that was forming before and during Heller's lifetime.

Catch 22's content was fresh for it's time in that it was bold to comment satirically on such a popular war. We take for granted the photographs and sounds of war that come to us so quickly these days, but Heller successfully pointed out the horrors of a war portrayed romantically in the American mindset at the time. This was a very important thing.

The disillusionment portrayed in Catch 22 is symbolic of the disillusionment that was forming in the American conscious throughout the 20th century. Just look at Vietnam, a war that began just a few years after Catch 22's publication. And I would say that the same ideas are still with us, maybe growing. Our Presidential and congressional leaders seem just as incapable of hearing the truth as any authorities in Catch 22.

All one can do is navigate through the bureaucracy, using its illogical rules to our own advantage whenever possible.
posted by sneakyalien at 1:00 PM on March 3, 2007


Just to clarify... I do get the humor. I actually find the individual scenes quite funny. But as four panels said, it appears to just be the same thing over and over.

My issue is not with the humor. What I'm struggling to understand is the story-telling.

Thanks everyone for your comments. Keep 'em coming!
posted by jknecht at 1:10 PM on March 3, 2007


Catch-22 was written in a very nonlinear style. Lots of people don't like this sort of thing, and I think it's sort of an acquired taste. Personally, I love nonlinear storytelling, and enjoy the works of Pynchon, Barthelme, and Vonnegut as well as Catch-22.

So yeah, maybe it just isn't your thing.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:22 PM on March 3, 2007


K. I loved this book and I think Grumblebee is kinda right in a lot of ways, which irks me a bit. I haven't reread this book in years and maybe thats why. Its always kinda hard to confront something you used to love, and find that it didnt change, just you did. Read it to find out what happened to Snowden. Its one of the most heartbreaking death scenes in American lit. And read it for disaster that becomes McWatt. I find McWatt's fate has become kinda totemic to me. I think about it a lot. It is really hard to structure a random event. Most books/ movies that try really irritatingly fuck with structure just to try to get across something that occurs every day in real life. One day you will get a phone call, and someone you know will have been hit and killed by a car on their way to get a bagel. Something so mundane it becomes tragic. Its really hard in a novel to have a major character, one you care about, die inconsequentially. It "won't make sense" to the reader. McWatt makes a small error that has tragic implications and makes a decision we could all make. Finish the book. The human lessons are deliberately obscured in noise and filth and unfeelingness, because i think, if you were able to care so much about people in war, you wouldnt be able to fight in one.
posted by cascando at 1:26 PM on March 3, 2007


I'm very much with almostmanda -- in an time where a reader can all say "war is absurd, yeah yeah I get it" the book might not have as much impact. But how did we come to that understanding? Catch-22 is one of the important literary stepping-stones.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:27 PM on March 3, 2007


My issue is not with the humor. What I'm struggling to understand is the story-telling.

'sfunny. We're used to films with broken-up narrative these days, but we're sufficiently distant from that post-war period of literary experimentation -- which includes Waiting for Godot, in which nothing happens, twice -- to find it jarring. I don't find fault with you at all for that: I read it first perhaps fifteen years ago, with a similar response.

I'm not sure Catch-22 has aged well, as a result -- and it's not a tight novel by any means -- but if you're going to read it, read it lightly, that kind of reading where you're not skimming, but not bathing in the prose.

It speaks to the existential mindset that was forming before and during Heller's lifetime.

It came out in the same year as Franny and Zooey, and just a year before Pale Fire and A Clockwork Orange. Putting it in that kind of context seems to help: the sensibility of the Fifties is fading away.
posted by holgate at 1:34 PM on March 3, 2007


I think I recognize most of the jokes -- I get a good smile on just about every page.

Is that not enough? Even if you take away all the deeper or higher meanings, even if commentary be damned; for me, a lot of the appeal is that Catch-22 is very. fucking. funny.

That scene where Clevinger is being tried by the Colonel and Major Metcalf for not being insubordinate in the latrine, oh my God I just re-read it and it still cracks me up. It starts on page 84 of the version with the blue cover and the red silhouette that everybody has.
posted by ChasFile at 1:42 PM on March 3, 2007


Just to clarify... I do get the humor. I actually find the individual scenes quite funny. But as four panels said, it appears to just be the same thing over and over.

It's meant to stop being funny, and get punishing. That's why the jokes are so unrelenting. You're supposed to go "ha ha" and then "war is absurd yeah yeah we get it" and then "ouch god stop" and that's what grumblebee's comment and a lot of the discussion seems to miss: the constant patter of Catch-22 is actually kind of adversarial, which is very different from Monty Python, Hitchhiker's, etc.

I couldn't read more than 20 or 30 pages of the book in a sitting, actually.
posted by furiousthought at 1:43 PM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


if you're going to read it, read it lightly, that kind of reading where you're not skimming, but not bathing in the prose.

Yeah, I have to agree with this. I read it as a loosely-related series of vignettes, rather than as a complete, functional narrative whole. Even now, I sometimes just turn to a random page and start reading, and that's for me the best way. If some I knew were thinking about reading Catch-22, I think front-to-back is about the last thing I 'd tell them to do. I think it works better if you keep it on your shelf and once or twice a week pull it down and read 20 random pages.
posted by ChasFile at 1:47 PM on March 3, 2007


people now quote The Simpsons the way my generation quoted Monty Python. Even though The Simpsons is mainstream,

matt groening's "Life in Hell" series was definitely part of the "smartset" humor you're talking about when I was a teenager. The fact that it went mainstream is what made the 90s so fucking weird. All this semi-undergroundy "smarter" alternative culture crossed the gap & became widely known.

But I never thought of these things as badges to prove I was part of something. They were cultural products I could actually relate to, unlike most sitcoms and music and popular culture, which just made me hate human beings, because it was just so freaking bad.

Sure, lots of this "alternative" stuff gets old, and I absolutely agree that it fits best with a certain age, but not because you're trying to rebel or be part of the cool kids. It's because that's the period when you feel alienated and curious and naively philosophical and hurt by the fact that the world doesn't work the way you think it should etc, so dark, intelligent, self-reflective humor hits the spot, and reassures you that other people understand what you're going through. Later it seems kind of self-indulgent and melodramatic, and maybe just generally a lot more obvious / less subtle than you realized.

I think there are a lot of things you have to come across at the right point in life for them to work - kurt vonnegut was a god to me in 7th grade, but might've just been a fun read if I'd found it too late; likewise I tried to read Jane Austen as a teen & could not get into it, but I'm told I should give her a second chance when I'm middle aged. Likewise I always adored van gogh when I was young, but a couple years ago I suddenly began to really appreciate cezanne, and feel as if I had been missing something far more profound in his work.

How much is due to my changing as I grow older, and how much due to a question of novelty, my becoming too famililar with one thing and discovering somethiing new, I can't say. But it does seem like certain things are more universally adored by the young...
posted by mdn at 2:07 PM on March 3, 2007 [3 favorites]


Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove are the two works I can think of where the humor is more corrosive than the blood in Alien; it finally burns through anything you set up to try to contain it, and dissolves its way down into the center of your mind, where it proceeds to slowly liquefy everything above it for as long as you live.
posted by jamjam at 2:08 PM on March 3, 2007


What am I missing? Please help me enjoy what is supposed to be an American Classic.

Yeah, Catch-22 can be a little disjointed, and I remember feeling like it wasn't going anywhere when I read it, but it does come together at the end. More or less. But this is one of those books that isn't really about the destination, it's about the journey. So I'd suggest that you keep reading it, and enjoy your one laugh per page for as long as there are pages to read.

Oh, and grumblebee, I've always heard the types of "in on it" humor you refer to as "absurdist" in some cases and "black humor" in others.
posted by lekvar at 3:08 PM on March 3, 2007


It's meant to stop being funny, and get punishing. That's why the jokes are so unrelenting. You're supposed to go "ha ha" and then "war is absurd yeah yeah we get it" and then "ouch god stop" and that's what grumblebee's comment and a lot of the discussion seems to miss: the constant patter of Catch-22 is actually kind of adversarial, which is very different from Monty Python, Hitchhiker's, etc.

This is a fascinating observation. My initial reaction was hostile: it's all too easy to excuse bad art by saying it's meant to be bad. I know that's not what you're saying, but I think it's a related concept. And it brings up a couple of deep questions:

1) Is there value to art as irritant? I don't believe there's such a thing a Value in a cosmic sense. Even so, it's a meaningful question on a personal level. Will I take something worthwhile from art that irritates me? My guess is that the answer is "yes, sometimes." Sometimes I grow by being irritated, worn down, fought with.

But I think there are two dangers you face, if, as an artist, you use this tactic (or if, as a critic, you excuse an irritant as provocative): (a) as mentioned above, you risk confusing the provacative with the merely bad, and (b) you risk placing too high a value on provocation (maybe most people shut down when provoked).

2) What aesthetic rule(s) allow us to tell the good irritant from the bad irritant?

For me, Ravel's Bolero is a good irritant, though I can't explain why. I can only explain the effect it has on me. I go through several stages when I listen to it. But in the end it someone allows me to break through awareness of its repetition to something greater: some sort of meditative effect.

Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove are the two works I can think of where the humor is more corrosive than the blood in Alien; it finally burns through anything you set up to try to contain it, and dissolves its way down into the center of your mind, where it proceeds to slowly liquefy everything above it for as long as you live.

I'm baffled by this, and maybe my bafflement is why I don't place Catch-22 or Dr. Strangelove in the same category as Bolero.

The humor doesn't "corrode" anything I've set up to try to contain it, because I haven't set up anything to try to contain it. I already hate war, bureaucrats and war mongers. (There is probably a part of me that IS bureaucratic and violent, but those works DO allow me to set up barriers against confronting those parts. They make me feel like the bad guys are other people, and that I'm the lone voice of sanity.)

So what about someone not like me. I doubt anyone pro-war is challenged by Catch-22. There's a nice liberal fantasy of The Man reading such a book and realizing that he's been wrong all along, but I think that's a childish (untrue) view. His defenses won't be corroded because, as much as we'd love to believe that Art is a weapon, art is rarely more powerful than one's personal biases.

So The Man's brain isn't liquefied. Nor is mine.
posted by grumblebee at 3:19 PM on March 3, 2007


I felt very much as you did, jknecht, when I was reading it for the first time. I too felt like I was "supposed" to really love this book (because it was a classic, because my best friend said it was her favorite book, because I was really behind what I thought of as the central theme of the book) rather than just kinda be amused by each passing incident. I too was distressed that I didn't seem to be getting it.

Just keep reading it, there is a plot line there, you just have to look at the story as being told out of sequence and through the voice of someone just utterly insane, and driven so by what he has experienced. It is on the surface a funny, bizzare little book but at its core very bleak, existential and purposeful.

Everything just comes together at the end and you will, I swear, get it. You may not fall forcefully into love with it on the final page as I did, but hopefully you'll have a better sense of why many considers it worthwhile. If that still doesn't help, I feel this wikipedia article does well in capturing essential plotline and themes at least in an academic sense.
posted by nelleish at 3:25 PM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


I read it for the first time about 12 months ago and, like you, went "meh, so?". To me, its reputation seemed to lie in it being the proto-M*A*S*H (before the "maudlin" knob was wound up to 11). I kept reading because, well, it's supposed to be a classic - so there must be something in it, right?

I disagree with those who say "if you haven't got it by halfway through, you won't get it" though. Up to about that point it seems to be running on recirculate mode, just a bunch of sitations with each being yet another riff on the same lone theme, and it got boring pretty quickly.

After about half-way, though, that theme starts to expand, in scope and impact if not in complexity. I can't put my finger on exactly why, but it became more engaging in the last half.

Having said all that, I read it just that once and not since. It does stick in my mind as an undoubtedly good book, but I just can't be bothered trudging through the first half again to get to the payoff of the last half.
posted by Pinback at 3:36 PM on March 3, 2007


It's meant to stop being funny, and get punishing.
This is a fascinating observation.
Is there value to art as irritant?


Yes. Guernica is an ugly painting about an uglier subject. The ugliness is the point, though.

Is there value to art as irritant?

I had the same reaction to Catch-22 as I did with ... stay with me now ... American Psycho. The obsessive detail on the page about haute couture, gold-embossed business cards and Genesis albums was meant to inure you from the goriness of the murders, which were themselves obsessively detailed on the page.

Catch-22 hammers you with jokes and then mixes in horror amid the jokes until you get the "Heyyyyy..." reaction.

But let's be honest ... part of the allure of Catch-22 -- and any "classic" book for that matter -- is that it's the first, best example of whatever it is. Catcher In the Rye, if it were released today, when we already know how hard it is to be a fragile teenager, wouldn't be considered all that great. But it was the first of its kind, to a certain degree.
posted by frogan at 8:18 PM on March 3, 2007


I read Catch-22 a gazillion years ago for the same reason I read Illuminatus!: here's this weird term ("catch-22" or "fnord") that obviously has deep semantic content, that I don't get. I absolutely loved it.

The thing that I think might help you is to stop thinking of it as a novel, with characters whom the author loved and about whom you're not expected to care, and a plot that will meander from Inciting Incident to Denoument with the clockwork precision of McKee's ten-point formula. The characters are stereotypical props placed primarily as foils for Yossarian and his incessant pissing and moaning.

I treat Catch-22 almost as satirical allegory. Every time I hear that it's cheaper to ship a product from Philly->Memphis->NYC than it is to ship direct or that it makes more business sense to hire fifteen programmers sight-unseen in Bangalore, I think of Milo Minderbender and buying eggs high to sell them low.
posted by Netzapper at 8:43 PM on March 3, 2007


Heller's second novel, Something Happened, is one of the most affecting, funniest, bleakest, and most devastating novels I've ever read.

But yeah, Catch-22 doesn't really do it for me, either. It's not that I don't "get" its humor; I get it! I love it! And after a couple hundred pages, I've gotten it, I've loved it, and I'm prepared to move on.

Then again, this comes from someone whose least-favorite Anthony Burgess novel, out of 18 or so I've read, is A Clockwork Orange. So maybe I'm just resistant to being told what to like.

Anyway, I recommend Something Happened.
posted by staggernation at 9:14 PM on March 3, 2007


Catch-22 hammers you with jokes and then mixes in horror amid the jokes until you get the "Heyyyyy..." reaction.
Right. Check the "Rome" sequence, near the end, when the jokes drop out altogether, subjects of prior gags turn up broken and despairing... and then there's a nightmare lurch back to humor that's intended to be worse than the despair.
On the subject of outdated humor, 33 years later Heller wrote a direct sequel, Closing Time, set in nineties New York. It... didn't work for me at all.
posted by ormondsacker at 9:21 PM on March 3, 2007


Is there value to art as irritant?

Yes. The opening bars of Le sacre du printemps still make me listen.

From memory, I was like others in reading Catch-22 in snatches. I'm not a great believer in saying 'the author wants you to share in the characters' experience through the laboured process of reading it', because I don't think books are written that way.

But I do think it's a novel that depends upon recapitulation, like a musical piece that starts with a simple theme and gets more and more off-kilter as it goes through its umpteen variations, until it comes together and smacks you at its end. It's like a Badly-Tempered Clavier.
posted by holgate at 10:25 PM on March 3, 2007


It's funny how different people can be. I don't find "Guernica" ugly or the opening of "Le Sacre Du Printemps" irritating (I love both works), and though I've read many teenage angst novels, I still like "Catcher in the Rye" best -- and not because it was first.
posted by grumblebee at 6:06 AM on March 4, 2007


It's been a while since I read Catch-22. It's certainly not linear in time, but I felt it made a bit of sense when viewed as linear in Yossarian's insanity.
posted by rlk at 7:29 AM on March 4, 2007


I doubt anyone pro-war is challenged by Catch-22.

I'm not sure what you mean by "challenged," but my Uncle Gene was a WWII vet (Marine Corps) who saw some of the worst fighting of the war (Iwo, Guadalcanal) and was a proud vet and proud, cranky American (supported Wallace and Perot), and he surprised the hell out of me by absolutely loving Catch 22, reading sections out loud to anyone present at the drop of a hat and laughing himself sick. It obviously captured something essential about the military experience for him, and I submit that an existentialist, antiwar novel that can win over a man like that is not so easily dismissed.

Catcher in the Rye, on the other hand, is a book I loved in adolescence but found almost unreadable as an adult.
posted by languagehat at 9:24 AM on March 4, 2007


I have no idea what Pynchon read or didn't, but I see Catch-22 as John the Baptist to Gravity's Rainbow's Jesus.
posted by jamjam at 9:34 AM on March 4, 2007


Grumblebee, I think you're missing the point by setting yourself up against the "pro-war" camp in reading the book - of course no one who was strongly pro-war is going to have their mind changed by a book. That's not how the world works. But the world doesn't consist of only people who are pro-war and anti-war. Mostly it consists of a lot of people who just haven't thought much about war, or who don't have any idea what being in a war is really like. Catch-22 can give those people a level of insight - as languagehat says, it captures something essential about the daily happenings of soldiers, about the absurdity of real life as opposed to the big picture of whatever patriotic abstract that the war is supposed to achieve. In that sense, I do think it can be valuable as satire and as a "corrosive" art.
posted by marginaliana at 10:41 AM on March 7, 2007


You may find this essay by Elizabeth Wadell helpful; here's an excerpt:
The novel cycles and re-cycles through a series of incidents: the battle over Bologna, the mission to Avignon, the time Milo bombed the camp, the forging of Washington Irving's name. Events are endlessly discussed, revisited, relived, both by the characters and by the narrative itself. Reading it the first time, one is already rereading. Although the book does move forward in the narrative present, we do not seem to progress. It is a mobius strip, constantly turning in on itself. We think we have grasped something, gone forward, only to find ourselves back at the beginning. And for Yossarian and his fellow bombardiers, life itself is a mobius strip.

Of course, a Catch-22 is itself a mobius strip: the logic very neatly twists, turns, and leads you straight back to where you started. For the powerless like Yossarian and the other officers and enlisted men, any attempt to escape the logic somehow drops you right back at the beginning. As Robert Burnstein wrote in The New Republic on the book's release, "Like all superlative works of comedy--and I am ready to argue that this is one of the most bitterly funny works in the language--Catch-22 is based on an unconventional but utterly convincing internal logic." And logic is built of language: bureaucracy manages to disguise and justify itself through the sentence-level logic. Time and again we are told that if A equals B, and B equals C, then A must equal C. Forget about worrying what exactly makes A, B, and C the same.

We see this neat turnaround countless times during the book, buried in seeming throw-away quips...
posted by languagehat at 2:07 PM on March 7, 2007


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