Sunday, July 02, 2017

Catch-22 (1961)

Catch-22 remains significant, important, and brilliant, though it's all reducible to variations on the paradoxical idea signified by the title. Interesting to find out that it was written first as "Catch-18," but then was scheduled for publication in the same year as Mila 18 by Leon Uris, which necessitated the change. For a while Heller was determined on 14 but editor Robert Gottlieb said it had to be 22 (one wonders how these conversations went)—22 seems so right now it's hard to believe it was ever anything else. The concept is all spelled out early. You have to be crazy to fly bombing missions in a war because people try to kill you. But asking out of the duty is the proof you're sane. That's the catch—Catch-22. Therefore you have to fly them. You can actually look up the term now in the dictionary. It's part of the language: "a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem." Catch-22 is sometimes described as an antiwar novel, but it's actually closer to anti-bureaucracy, sawing away on the kind of witty paradoxes that also populate Oscar Wilde narratives: "Fortunately, just when things were blackest, the war broke out.... The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.... [Colonel Cathcart] was someone in the know who was always striving pathetically to find out what was going on." And so forth. I remember it as delightful the first time but the totality produces something more of a slog on later visits. It's very funny in places. It's very horrifying in others. Sometimes, as when the ambitious mess officer Milo Minderbinder contracts with the Germans to bomb the American base where they are all stationed, I'm really not sure which is which and it's unsettling. There are dozens of characters coming and going, but they are all working through the same dense fog of comic paradox, playing out the roles assigned to them. There are some great sendups of the vainglories of military rankings. Though it's set in "the good war" it seems much more suited to the '60s, heralding them even in some ways, published in 1961. I think it could have been shorter, mostly for my own convenience, because I also think it could have been longer, and I really wouldn't know where to cut or add. In its capering way it's somehow a certain model for postmodern war novels, transcending earlier and more conventional work from James Jones, Norman Mailer, and the rest with a fractured nesting narrative strategy that makes it vivid and absurd to the point of alienated. But the resulting lack of narrative momentum also works against it a little, at least in terms of taking it on as a whole. You only need to read it once. Then you can go back for pages or chapters at a time. By the fragments, it's one of the best we ever got.

In case it's not at the library.

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