I’m going to bet that of all the books on the Klaw 100, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is one of the five most-read among dish readers. The book, which appears on several greatest-books lists (it’s #7 on the Modern Library 100, #15 on the Radcliffe 100, #74 on the Guardian 100, and on the TIME 100) certainly seems like a book that many of us read during our high school or college years, whether or not it was assigned reading, simply because it was so damn funny and its status as one of the “it” books of its era never fully went away, the same way Catcher in the Rye has maintained its cachet after forty years*.
*I’m going to steal a page from JoePo today and insert some asides. I was accused in chat in a question I didn’t post of being “anti-cliché” because I didn’t like Catcher. I don’t really know how those two things are connected – neither Salinger nor his novel seem clichéd to me – but, more to the point, is anyone actually pro-cliché? Romance-novel publishers? Slasher-film producers? Actually, a few mainstream sportswriters come to mind so I’ll stop here.
Catch-22 is now one of only a handful of novels I’ve read twice, a list that also includes Pride and Prejudice (didn’t like it in high school, read Emma as an adult and loved it, re-read P&P and realized I’d missed all the wit the first time), Things Fall Apart (first read it at 13, didn’t get the point at all), and The Great Gatsby (just because). I think Catch-22 earns the prize for the longest gap between readings – I first read it in the fall of 1989*, which means it’s been an almost-unthinkable almost twenty years since my first trip through the dystopian anti-war masterpiece.
*I can tell I’m going to beat this gimmick into the ground. I first read Catch-22 by choice, but as it turned out, it was an assigned book during that same school year in AP Lit. We actually had a choice of three novels – this one, Slaughterhouse-Five, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next – and while I eventually read all three, I took the easy route and wrote my paper on Catch-22.
The funny part of this story is that that class, taught by Mrs. Glynn, was a substantial learning experience for me beyond the books we were supposed to read. I skipped several of the books assigned in that class, including Tess of the d’Urbervilles (rented the movie, then read the book in 2005 and loved it) and An American Tragedy (800+ pages of tiny print and I know the SOB gets it in the end, I’m all set with that, used the Cliffs Notes), and consistently scored 5′s on the papers, which Mrs. Glynn graded on the AP scale. Catch-22 was one of only two books I really read word for word and cover to cover in that class, the other being Ellison’s Invisible Man. Unfortunately, while the paper was in Mrs. Glynn’s hands, she overheard me bragging to a classmate that I hadn’t read the majority of books in her class, and sure enough, on that paper, I got a 3. The lesson I took was that it doesn’t actually matter whether you do the work as long as you act like you did and present it well. I sleepwalked through college on this newfound confidence, only really working hard in math and foreign-language classes. There may also have been a lesson in my AP Lit experience in the value of keeping my mouth shut, a lesson I have never learned and promise you all that I never will.
My memory of Catch-22 was that it was a hilarious, often absurd anti-war romp, almost like an angrier, funnier Vonnegut. I remembered anecdotes, like Nately’s whore, Milo the entrepreneur, and cracks about flies in someone’s eyes. What I didn’t remember – or perhaps didn’t realize the first time through – was that it is a profoundly cynical book, satirizing and savaging more than just war, with democracy, capitalism, government, religion, and often just plain ol’ humanity all taking it on the chin and ending up bleeding on the floor. The plot is pretty thin; the novel itself is more a meandering collecting of anecdotes told in a nonlinear fashion, an effective technique for humor that left me often confused as to the order of events*, although to read and enjoy this book you don’t really need to worry too much about sequence.
*Well, except for when someone was killed – that sort of cleared things up a bit.
In fact, I’d argue that even considering the book’s deft wordplay and ironic humor, the book’s greatest comedy comes from Heller’s scene-shifting gimmick: In the middle of dialogue between two people about a third person, Heller will jump to the third person discussing the same subject without any transition whatsoever. The quotes themselves are usually funny, but the momentary disorientation – hey, he wasn’t in the room a moment ago – increases the humor.
I’ve read one of Heller’s other novels, the unusual God Knows, a sort of deathbed memoir of King David of Israel. It too uses a nonlinear storytelling device, but lacks the humor of Catch-22, and I haven’t felt compelled to read anything else by Heller.*
*From Heller’s obituary in the New York Times: “When an interviewer told Mr. Heller that he had never written anything as good as Catch-22, the author shot back, ‘Who has?’”
Next up: A collection of Raymond Chandler’s short stories, The Simple Art of Murder.