Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Catch-22" by Joseph Heller

Though audiobooks obviously take me longer to "read" than traditional novels, I still typically finish one or so a month. I've been listening to Catch-22 since mid-March, which means this one took me three months to finish. Oops. It was life craziness, not the book, that caused the lengthy timeline, but in some ways I'm glad it took the time it did as that meant I got to savor the novel for a long while.

Even people not familiar with Heller's work typically know what a catch-22 is: an inescapable paradox that today would perhaps be phrased simply as "FML." In the novel, the term refers to the predicament of Yossarian, a bombadier in World War 2, who desperately wants to escape further flight duty in order to avoid being killed. The "catch-22" is simple:
- Any pilot who is crazy cannot fly.
- Any pilot who does not want to fly must ask to be grounded.
- Any pilot who asks to be grounded is sane, and thus must fly.
It's bureaucracy at its best, and though most of us will never serve in war, I think we can all identify with daily absurdities inherent in the idea of catch-22.

The novel is probably best known for its structure. It's non-linear, and even though Yossarian is the protagonist, the presence of a third-person omniscient narrator means that a reader follows multiple characters. The story is more a series of vignettes than a traditional narrative, and the majority of the book is comprised of dialogue between the characters.

This roundabout dialogue is one of the book's highlights, as it draws attention to the maddening nature of communication and the trivial and mundane state of much of our existence. Take this exchange between the downtrodden and timid chaplain and Colonel Cathcart:
“Haven’t you got anything humorous that stays away from waters and valleys and God? I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can."
The chaplain was apologetic. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid all the prayers I know are rather somber in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.”
“Then let’s get some new ones.”
Intelligence, common sense, and human decency are constantly squashed for greed and self-interest. Nonetheless, most of the novel maintains a humorous tone, and the characters' constant exasperation is more funny than saddening.

In the last part of the novel, however, Heller's tone takes an abrupt turn. Many of Yossarian's friends die in succession, and Yossarian wanders through Italy facing cruelty at every turn. Though we might have laughed when a whore beat Orr over the head with a shoe early in the novel, there's no way to laugh when Aarfy rapes and kills a maid. Though the first part of the novel clearly establishes the absurdity of war, this part cements the real depravity of war and human nature.

Given that turn, and perhaps familiar with cynics like Golding (Lord of the Flies) and Orwell (1984), I was surprised that Catch-22 ends with a thoroughly hopeful conclusion. Heller seems to be arguing that life is shitty and frustrating, but that you choose whether to be defined and shaped by that.

I've had a lot of success with listening to classic novels on audiobook, and I would highly recommend this audio version. The narrator, Jay O. Sanders, did an excellent job with an enormous range of characters' voices (though whenever he did a Southern accent he ended up sounding like a parody of George W. Bush, which made me giggle). The dialogue is definitely enhanced by hearing tone (rising annoyance; calm patronization).

As a last thought, though the books are remarkably different, I kept thinking of The Things They Carried while listening. Perhaps because I think both achieve Truth--particularly about something as mythologized as war--through fiction.

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