Wednesday, 8 June 2016


Joseph Heller Catch-22 (1961)
I guess I shouldn't feel so bad about failing to connect with yet another supposed classic of twentieth century literature given that a significant quota of the reviews I've found posted online seem to express a general sense of bewilderment, and actually I liked it more than most of the people who actively hated it, so I suppose there's that.

It's beautifully written, but extraordinarily repetitive. There's a point to the repetition but acknowledgement of the fact doesn't really help. Unless you've been living in the proverbial cave since 1961, you will almost certainly be aware that Catch-22 is about absurdity and contradiction, or rather it dissects the second world war in terms of these qualities. The catch of the title is the idea that Yossarian - around whom the novel revolves - aspires to get out of flying yet another bombing mission on grounds of insanity, an aspiration which unfortunately proves him to be entirely sane; and almost every page is crammed with actions rendered meaningless by this sort of circular logic, and there are nearly five-hundred pages. Harold Pinter employed similar devices, but usually required only an hour or so of our time to make his point. Kafka also managed it with greater brevity. My guess would be that Heller was simply hammering the point home, striving for a sort of scale vaguely analogous to a Rothko painting wherein no part of the canvas draws greater focus than any other; or if you prefer, the book is kind of boring, but maybe it's supposed to be boring, like Tony Conrad drawing a single note from his violin over the course of an hour because, as Eno puts it, repetition is a form of change. Maybe I'm getting carried away with the analogies, but I'm guessing the point is boredom plus absurdity times scale in contrast to the horror of the details, the bombing, the severed limbs flying all around, even the rape, all reduced to the absurdist wallpaper of conversations about shoes; for, as Kurt Vonnegut also discovered, war eludes description because the actual experience cannot be replicated, so it's easier to describe its psychological habitat.

Unfortunately though, the uniformity of absurdist surface texture serving to level everything out to actions of equivalent consequence makes it difficult for the reader, or this reader, to really care about any of it, or about who is even who. Such is the quality of writing, not least the jokes, that it's easy enough to keep on going, and is even a pleasure for the most part, so while I didn't feel inclined to pack it in at any point, I frequently found myself thinking that Spike Milligan's war diaries did pretty much the same thing but were funnier and more engaging, and so made the same points better.

I don't know if Catch-22 is quite a classic, although I guess it must be simply because we've all already agreed that it is - which is possibly ironic given that this is more or less what the book is about, namely a world which behaves in such a way entirely because we've agreed that it is so. I'd dispute its being anything like the roller-coaster described by the cover blurb of this edition. My best guess is that its popularity is in part mainly just numbers, and that it first saw print just as a great many Americans really began to ask themselves what the fuck just happened?; and in that context it's probably a better response than the gung-ho or else purely statistical alternatives.

On the other hand, Slaughterhouse Five is half the length, considerably more confusing, and yet clearly a fucking masterpiece, so maybe the previous three paragraphs really aren't much more than word salad and excuses.

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