The Books: “Catch-22″ (Joseph Heller)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Catch22Heller.jpgCatch-22 – by Joseph Heller

As per usual, I get a little bit nervous when I come to a book in my shelf that is this important to me. I was nervous when I came to Cat’s Eye, I was nervous when I got to the Emily books. Having to write about Possession in a calm manner freaked me out.

Believe it or not, I work hard at my writing – even here on this blog – and these book excerpts – which appear every day like clockwork – take a lot out of me. I try to do my best. I try to express what it is in each book I am left with, what is the “take away”. And if I love a book dearly … I feel the need to get into words in just the right way. And that takes work, and contemplation. It’s easier to talk about what pisses you off than what pleases you. At least I’ve found that to be the case for myself. I could probably write a blistering essay on why I despise Forrest Gump, and it would be funny and raging – and it really wouldn’t take a lot out of me. It’s at my fingertips right now. But to write about something I love – to really get into what I LOVE about something … I can’t just sit down and rattle that off. I have to think about it, and plan it out. Where am I going to start from? What IS it about such and such that I love? I usually take the book for the next day off the shelf the night before, and flip through it … just thinking about what I want to say, the excerpt I want to choose … and what it is I want to lead off with. Writing isn’t easy. It gives me great pleasure, but it is hard work. I say this thinking of my friends on the picket line right now, but I also say this because sometimes I look at my own blog as though I am not me – and it’s not mine – and it seems like perhaps a ROBOT is in charge of the thing. Like: did I actually write that much about Tess of the D’Urbervilles?? Where did that COME from? I had no idea I had so much to say about that book and about Thomas Hardy. I couldn’t have written that if I hadn’t, so to speak, cleared the deck mentally before I wrote it. That’s how I work, with these excerpts. It’s one of my favorite things I do on this blog – because I limit myself to alphabetical reality – I am not randomly choosing books, I am not editorializing in the choice of books – if a book is on my shelf and I’ve read it – then I include it. It forces me to write about things every day – and it also forces me to write about something even if I’m not really in the mood. I love the “book excerpt” thing. I am not always in the mood for Tennessee Williams. Or for Emily Bronte. Or Charles Dickens. But it’s good for me, I think, to force myself to “get in the mood” for my daily book excerpt. It’s excellent writing practice. So now I pull Catch-22 off the shelf, and thoughts cyclone through my brain, crowding in on each other. Where to begin?

I’ll begin with my own story, because I can’t help but think about that when I think about Catch-22. Weirdly, once I finished Scarlet Letter, in line in Central Park (I linked to that story yesterday) I took out the next book in my bag – and that was Catch-22, a book I had never read.

Catch 22 is an O’Malley favorite. Everybody talks about it, everybody quotes from it constantly. I started to read it in August of 2001 and was deep in the midst of reading it on the bus when the second plane hit the WTC. I couldn’t pick up Catch-22 again for months. First of all, I wasn’t ready for fiction, escape, pleasure, amusement for a long long time. Second of all, every time I looked at the book, I remembered the morning of September 11. When I finally picked up the book again, I was amazed to read the paragraph where I had left off. It was one of those weird cosmic-tumbler clicking moments – that gave me a chill like no other. The book was telling me, in no uncertain terms, what was coming, what was headed our way. Here’s the essay I wrote about that morning, and about that paragraph from Catch-22.

So that always comes up for me now, when I think about Catch-22, the surrounding circumstances of my first reading of it.

Now onto the book itself.

Heller wrote: “Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy. Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts, and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society?”

There is no other book quite like it. It has no heirs, as far as I’m concerned. It’s stand-alone.

The Catch-22, acknowledged right up front as an unspoken rule of the universe, is directly responsible for the black is white and white is black insanity of the book. (Here’s an explanation of the rules of Catch 22.) The book is so much fun to read, because literally: almost every sentence contradicts the one that came before it – BUT it does so in a way that SOUNDS LIKE it’s in agreement. Hard to describe, but so so funny when you get into the rhythm. There’s a ba-dum-ching quality to every sentence – but the punch line is never what you expect. You think you’re going one way, and then Heller whips you around and forces you to go the OTHER way. In sentence after sentence after sentence. And it’s not a gimmick, or self-conscious … It is a completely correct style for a book that is about the ultimate insanity of the universe. Don’t try to make sense of it. Only INSANE people think the world makes sense! This is Yossarian’s dilemma.

Heller fans will know that the “catch-22” dilemma of the book was originally a “catch 18”. He completed the book, and sent it to his publishers with the title Catch-18. One problem though: Leon Uris had just scored a huge hit with his book Mila 18, and Heller’s publisher didn’t want there to be any confusion. So they made him change it. Which … God, it just goes so perfectly with the random no-cause-no-effect universe Heller describes in his book. Like: He had created this “rule”, and it was called, in his mind “catch-18”. I mean, that’s the title of the damn book, so you know how Heller must have felt about it, the importance he gave it. He was BUMMED that he was forced to change it, and to him – it would always be “catch-18”. Of course. It would be like changing a character’s name. Yossarian is Yossarian. Captain Ahab is Captain Ahab. jane Eyre is Jane Eyre. I don’t care if they’re fictional characters. They are real people to the authors who create them – and what they CALL their characters is of the utmost importance. So imagine how Heller must have felt … He never really reconciled himself to Catch-22 – which, again, is so amusing – because look at what he has wrought. He has actually created a phrase that now exists in our language. It did not exist before he created it. How many feckin’ authors do that nowadays? I’ll tell you how many. NONE. You say, “Man, I’m in trouble. It’s like a total catch-22” and everybody knows what you are talking about. “Catch22” entered the language almost immediately. Again; extraordinary.

But forever in Heller’s mind, it should have been a catch-18.

Damn Leon Uris.

The book is LAUGH OUT LOUD funny. I mean, please. Major Major Major Major. The chaplain. Dunbar. (I have a huge crush on Dunbar). Nately’s whore chasing him through Europe with a knife, popping out from bushes, from behind buildings. Colonel Cathcart. Even just the names make me laugh out loud. Please: Major Major Major Major? That is SOMEONE’S NAME. I reiterate: his actual name is Major Major Major Major. I’m dying. And I think my favorite is the bitter Indian named Chief White Halfoat. He’s a pissed-off murderous Indian, and everyone is rightly afraid of him. The book moves so quickly – it never dwells on itself, which is part of its charm. But dammit, he makes his points. Every other paragraph has some deep insight about insanity, incompetence, war, stupidity … but they flash by so fast you don’t feel bludgeoned. If you get it, you get it, if you don’t … too bad, we’re moving on!! Life’s short, baby, keep up!

Heller keeps going – where other authors would say, “Okay, that’s enough.” His sense of the absurd, his vaudevillian sense of humor, his love of upping the ante, his adoration of long insane twisted sentences that build and build and build – until, in a jujitsu move in the last 2 words, you are left wondering: “Wait … did he just say what I THINK he just said??” He is so so good.

If you haven’t read it yet, all I can say is: do yourself a favor and pick it up.

It’s certainly one of the great novels of the last century or any century, for that matter. And try as I might, I can’t think of any book to compare it to. It is its own thing. If you read me a passage of Heller’s writing, and didn’t tell me it was Heller – I bet I would guess the author. He’s that distinctive. And sense of humor, of course, is a very individual thing – so maybe some people would read this and not “get” the humor. If you don’t “get” the humor, I would imagine the book would seem dreadfully stupid and perhaps way too long. But I click with that humor – so every page rollicks, roars, rolls, ba-dum-chings … and I am wiping tears of laughter off my face about Chief White Halfoat or Major Major Major Major … and at the same time overwhelmed by the sensation of how insanely violent and awful the world is – and how Yossarian, by choosing to check out, pretty much has a point.

His whole thing is:

“When I go on bombing raids – there are people down there who are shooting up at me!!!!

The usual response to that is, “Yossarian, they’re shooting at everyone. It’s war.”

Because of catch-22, this is not a satisfactory answer to Yossarian. He’s like, “So??? And this is normal to who??? They’re shooting at ME, PERSONALLY, I don’t care what you say!”

Brilliant brilliant book.

And I’m going to have to do more than one excerpt with this one.

First excerpt is from the first chapter. Yossarian and his buddy Dunbar are faking sick in the hospital so they don’t have to go back out to war. Nobody can figure out what is wrong with them, and they linger … as long as they can … in the sick ward.
The book opens with Yossarian’s sick-leave job of censoring letters home. He takes a creative approach to it. You can see how Yossarian’s actions would be completely crazy-making to the folks back home receiving the butchered letters … like : you would go INSANE if you got such weird letters … and that’s Yossarian’s point. The world is nuts. I’m just behaving accordingly.

EXCERPT FROM Catch-22 – by Joseph Heller

All the officer patients in the ward were forced to censor letters written by all the enlisted-men patients, who were kept in residence in wards of their own. It was a monotonous job and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. After the first day he had no curiosity at all. To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the. That erected more dynamic intralinear tensions, he felt, and in just about every case left a message far more universal. Soon he was proscribing parts of salutations and signatures and leaving the text untouched. One time he blacked out all but the salutation “Dear Mary” from a letter, and at the bottom he wrote, “I yearn for you trafically. A.T. Tappman, Chaplain, U.S. Army.” A.T. Tappman was the group chaplain’s name.

When he had exhausted all possibilities in the letters, he began attacking the names and addresses on the envelopes, obliterating whole homes and streets, annihilating entire metropolises with careless flicks of his wrist as though he were God. Catch-22 required that each censored letter bear the censoring officer’s name. Most letters he didn’t read at all. On those he didn’t read at all he wrote his own name. On those he did read he wrote, “Washington Irving”. When that grew monotonous he wrote, “Irving Washington.” Censoring the envelopes had serious repercussions, produced a ripple of anxiety on some ethereal military echelon that floated a C.I.D. man back into the ward posing as a patient. They all knew he was a C.I.D. man because he kept inquiring about an officer named Irving or Washington and because after his first day there he wouldn’t censor letters. He found them too monotonous.

It was a good ward this time, one of the best he and Dunbar had ever enjoyed. With them this time was the twenty-four-year-old fighter-pilot captain with the sparse golden mustache who had been shot into the Adriatic Sea in midwinter and had not even caught cold. Now the summer was upon them, the captain had not been shot down, and he said he had the grippe. In the bed on Tossarian’s right, still lying amorously on his belly, was the startled captain wtih malaria in his blood and a mosquito bite on his ass. Across the aisle from Yossarian was Dunbar, and next to Dunbar was the artillery captain with whom Yossarian had stopped playing chess. The captain was a goodc hess player, and the games were always interesting. Yossarian had stopped playing chess with him because the games were so interesting they were foolish. Then there was the educated Texan from Texas who looked like someone in Technicolor and felt, patriotically, that people of means – decent folk – should be given more votes than drifters, whores, criminals, degenerates, atheists and indecent folk – people without means.

Yossrian was unspringing rhythms in the letters the day they brought the Texan in. It was another quiet, hot, untroubled day. The heat pressed heavily on the roof, stifling sound. Dunbar was lying motionless on his back again with his eyes staring up at the ceiling like a doll’s. He was working hard at increasing his life span. He did it by cultivating boredom. Dunbar was working so hard at increasing his life span that Yossarian thought he was dead. They put the Texan in a bed in the middle of the ward, and it wasn’t long before he donated his views.

Dunbar sat up like a shot. “That’s it,” he cried excitedly. “There was something missing – all the time I knew there was something missing – and now I know what it is.” He banged his fist down into his palms. “No patriotism,” he declared.

“You’re right,” Yossarian shouted back. “You’re right, you’re right, you’re right. The hot dog, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mom’s apple pie. That’s what everyone’s fighting for. But who’s fighting for the decent folk? Who’s fighting for more votes for the decent folk? There’s no patriotism, that’s what it is. And no matriotism, either.”

The warrant officer on Yossarian’s left was unimpressed. “Who gives a shit?” he asked tiredly, and turned over on his side to go to sleep.

The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.

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14 Responses to The Books: “Catch-22″ (Joseph Heller)

  1. Paul says:

    I absolutely love this book. Have you read the sequel? I don’t really remember much about it, but found it disappointing at the time.

  2. DAW says:

    I love this book.

    How does a book make you laugh out loud so often and yet still pull you to the edge of despair? I found the last third of the book extremely rough going: do you notice that Heller doesn’t let you grieve? The chaplain finds out Nately’s dead, but there’s no break: the next thing he knows he’s being interrogated and threatened.

    I’m impressed that you could limit yourself to one excerpt — there are too many good ones to just stop at one. Clevinger’s nutty court martial is one of my favorites.

  3. red says:

    Paul – I haven’t read the sequel, but I’ve heard the same thing that you say from my dad, who’s a huge Catch 22 fan.

  4. red says:

    DAW – I want to do multiple excerpts actually because I did find choosing only ONE way too daunting.

    Do you have any requests?? Any favorite sections?

    hee hee

    LOVE this book.

    And that’s a great point about not giving you time to grieve. Yup. It’s horrible!!

  5. tracey says:

    Oh, man. I have a confession. I was reading this for the first time two years ago — then I got pneumonia. I kept trying, through the all-night coughing, through the hallucinations, to read this book. But I had to stop. Literally, HAD to, for my health because it made me laugh too hard and then I would cough and cough and die and such. So. I didn’t finish it, but I need to, I WANT to. I remember Major Major Major Major. A whole chapter about him and — were there chocolate soldiers involved or was I hallucinating?? This book is now so intertwined for me with my own crazy brain fog at the time that I can’t remember what’s from the book and what’s from my delirium.

    Which is weirdly perfect, don’t you think?

  6. red says:

    tracey – hahahaha It is weirdly perfect!!

    Some of the bits in the book just echo thru my head. The mummy in white in the sick ward – Orr putting apples in his cheeks – the serial killer mindset of Chief White Halfoat – the car accident – the trips to Rome …

    It’s just a great book, man.

    Read it when you are not suffocating from a wasting tubercular illness!!

  7. red says:

    DAW – I just realized that you did mention a favorite section – so of course I will include it. I’ll probably do 4 or 5 excerpts – this should be fun!!

  8. Stevie says:

    i have tons of favorite passages — i think the book is brilliant from beginning to end. here are a few:
    -orr telling yossarian about how he wanted apple cheeks
    -dunbar’s plan to live longer (brilliant)
    -yossarian trying to convince clevinger not to tell scheisskopf what he’s doing wrong (i assume we all know what ‘scheisskopf’ means)
    -the opening of the major major major major chapter
    -the morning when nately’s whore wakes up in love w/ him
    -the moaning during the bologna briefing
    -everything aarfy says throughout the book
    -the grisly death of kid sampson, which moves the book from funny in a kinda sick way to really really darkly sick but still somehow funny…
    -milo & yossarian in the tree at snowden’s funeral
    -the whole ‘snowden’ chapter, which amazed me the first time i read it (20 years ago), and still does, every time (i’ve probably taught it at least 8 times by now). very few works actually disturb me to the point of shivers, but this is one of the very very few. brrrrrrrrr.
    -the last word of dialogue: JUMP!

  9. red says:

    Stevie (who is not MY Stevie – but another stevie – just want to make that clear … there’s another Stevie who comments here who is a dear friend o’ mine):

    A goldmine! Thank you!!! Talk to me more about the snowden chapter – I now have to re-read it. I would love to hear more of your thoughts about it.

    and yes – the whole apple cheeks thing! hahahahahaha!!!!

  10. DAW says:

    Some really nice ones there, Stevie. I’d forgotten about the Yoss/Clevinger one you mentioned. Poor Clevinger: “He wants me to tell him!”

    And Snowden — really, the whole book revolves around Snowden, doesn’t it?

    I second the moaning scene — that was just great, particularly the very end of it.

    I also liked the conversation between Yossarian and the psychologist which came to a head when Yossarian declared himself to be “ambivalent”.

    TS Eliot.

  11. Melanie says:

    I too love this book. I first read it in high school, when I didn’t really understand much of it, but was just carried along with the crazy flow of it. I love it, and as you say, there are SO many perfect scenes, and the writing itself reflects his point so well. Who can forget Yossarian, or Kid Sampson, or Major Major Major Major, or… A Brilliant book.

  12. Stevie says:

    yes, i’m a different stevie who found the page a few months ago after doing a search for pics of scott & zelda to show my students.

    “ou sont les neigedens d’antan?”

    how did i forget ts eliot? students of mine on a ski trip called up people’s rooms in the hotel, said ts eliot, and hung up. how cool is that?

    oh, and the fish dream that’s a sex dream…

    i’m flattered that you care enough about what i have to say about the snowden chapter… in a day or so i’ll type up something for ya…

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