Monday, June 26, 2006

Live Forever or Die Trying

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, Read by Jim Weiss, Books on Tape, Inc., 1980

My wife’s grandmother was once asked what was the most profound change she’d seen in the course of her many years of life. After a moment’s thought, passing over horseless carriages and television and a man on the moon, she said something so brilliant, so perfect, and so right, but something so obvious and under our noses that we take it completely for granted.

“Plastic,” she said.

And you need do no more than simply take stock of everything surrounding you at this very minute to see how spot-on her observation is. This computer, the pens, printers, cars, water bottles, shoes, telephones, televisions, clothing, toilet seats, refrigerators, the list goes on and on. Our society, our world, our lives have been radically altered so much by one small simple thing.

The point of that story right now, though isn’t to get you thinking about how the world has changed or what effects, negative and positive, plastics might have on society or the environment, but it partly illustrates why I had to revamp an answer I once gave to four books that I dearly loved.

Whenever you answer these kinds of things, there’s a temptation to put in a little of everything — something topical, something literary, something obscure, something unexpected. I always have a hard time answering those kinds of questions, partly because my list is always changing (favorite music, food, movies, authors, whatever, it’s constantly in flux), and partly because suddenly the question makes me self-conscious. What is the person asking asking for? What do they expect to read into my personality from my answers? What kind of judgment are they going to form about my character?

Then I usually just give my typical answer, though I always forget the most obvious one to me. Stranded on a desert island, if I only had one book, this is it. If there is any book on my bookshelves I can pick up on any day, at any hour, in any mood, this is it. If there is one book I read repeatedly regularly, at least once a year (though sometimes twice), this is it.

Catch-22 is the obvious book I always forget about when it’s list time because it’s just so much a part of my existence that I’ve taken it for granted. It’s like oxygen or plastic. It’s very ubiquity has rendered it invisible.

It was not technically reading this time as I sat through my favorite novel. I’ll admit, I was leery about what reader Jim Weiss might do with the material, but he impressed me at every turn. There is a sick little smile in his voice all the way through and he reads in a Brooklynese reminiscent of Heller’s own voice, an almost perfect American idiomatic voice for satire, the wise-cracking side of the mouth, quick-on-your-feet smart guy. He is also able to stifle that quality in order to deliver other accents and characters with a breathless bravado.

The story of Yossarian, an American Air Force bombadier who is trapped in an insane world during an insane time, Catch-22 follows our hero as he tries to escape the thousands of people who want to kill him. There’s Colonel Cathcart who keeps raising the number of missions his men need to fly to be sent home, there’s Nately’s whore, there’s:

Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, and they were all out to kill him. There was Lieutenant Scheisskopf with his fanatism for parades and there was the bloated colonel with his big fat moustache and his fanatism for retribution, and they wanted to kill him, too. There was Appleby, Havermeyer, Black and Korn. There was Nurse Cramer and Nurse Duckett, who he was almost certain wanted him dead, and there was the Texan and the C.I.D. man about whom he had no doubt. There were bartenders, bricklayers and bus conductors all over the world who wanted him dead, landlords and tenants, traitors and patriots, lynchers, leeches, and lackeys, and they were all out to bump him off...

Along the way, we meet a strange cast of characters such as Major Major Major Major who will only allow visitors to enter his office when he’s not there and will not see anyone when he is in; Milo Minderbinder, the capitalist mess officer who controls a black market syndicate in which everyone has a share and profits can be made even by bombing his own men; Dunbar, who wants so desperately to live as long as he can that he convinces himself to be constantly bored in order to stretch out his sense of existence; Chief White Halfoat, a drunken Indian who has decided to die of pneumonia; Lieutenant Scheisskopf who is obsessed with parading; and Ex-p.f.c. Wintergreen, who, even if he is constantly losing rank, is the most powerful man in the Air Force due to his intercepting and forging mail; along with dozens more.

In specific, the book is a savage satire of the madness of war as bureaucratic clusterfuck in which various parties jockey for power, strive to make themselves look good while damaging their enemies’ status, and pursue policies using human lives as mere things. In general, the book is about society as a whole, whether in war or peace, and how everything is a trap. Throughout there are traps of logic, traps of circumstance, traps of fate. Every day is a good day to read Catch-22.

Most everyone is familiar in a general sense with the concept of a catch-22, so thoroughly has Heller’s world infected (or should I say reflected?) our own. For the sake of precision, reproduced below is the actual technical usage:

“You’re wasting your time,” Doc Daneeka was forced to tell [Yossarian].

“Can’t you ground someone’s who’s crazy?”

“Oh sure, I have to. There’s a rule saying I have to ground anyone who’s crazy.”

“Then why don’t you ground me. Ask Clevinger.”

“Clevinger? Where is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I’ll ask him.”

“Then ask any of the others. They’ll tell you how crazy I am.”

“They’re crazy.”

“Then why don’t you ground them?”

“Why don’t they ask me to ground them?”

“Because they’re crazy, that’s why.”

“Of course they’re crazy,” Doc Daneeka replied. “I just told you they’re crazy didn’t I? And you can’t let crazy people decide whether you’re crazy or not can you?”

Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. “Is Orr crazy?”

“He sure is,” Doc Daneeka said.

“Can you ground him?”

“I sure can but first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.”

“Then why doesn’t he ask you to?”

“Because he’s crazy,” Doc Daneeka said. “He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”

“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”

“That’s all. Let him ask me.”

“And then you can ground him?” Yossarian asked.

“No, then I can’t ground him.”

“You mean there’s a catch?”

“Sure there is a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, that specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of the clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka replied.

When my wife finally decided she was going to read it on our vacation, I was so overjoyed that she was at long last going to read what is without doubt one of the greatest novels of all time, that I encouraged her to do so without even considering the consequences. (My wife is terrified of flying, and a novel taking place among a bunch of pilots in World War II as they try to avoid getting shot down, as one character repeatedly crashes his plane, and as the majority of the characters eventually die is not the right novel for her to read on a plane.) And then I was almost tempted to ignore that, just so she could dive into this truly, blackly hysterical novel.

It is almost impossible for me to review adequately the book, so much does it fill me with sick glee that I am probably legally blind to any faults or flaws within the work. None of Joseph Heller’s other novels even compare, especially his late in life attempt at a sequel, Closing Time which is more like his other novels than it is like a true sequel to Catch-22.

With all the ra-ra maudlin memorialization of “the Greatest Generation” and how they won “the good war,” it is important to remember that even such noble enterprises undertaken by the holiest people ever to live saw its fair share of rat’s ass bastards. No matter how much Tom Brokaw may worship the ground trod by his father and men of that age, Heller stands there (along with Vonnegut, in good company) reminding us that no time is possessed of a surplus of decency and goodness, no age lacks for wicked men, no generation stands untouchable.

While all the haloes are being burnished by their descendants, Catch-22 stands there as a testament, stands there with mouth twisted into a wry, absurd smile, about to blurt out one of those bitter evident truths that are too close to be seen. Late in the novel, an Italian woman explains Catch-22 another way, a more blunt way, a way which is true everywhere in every age among every race, sex, religion, and ethnicity, in every club, group, committee, and board. It is as obvious as breathing:

“Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing.”

1 comment:

Perx said...

For me, it was as boring as it gets.. with several unsuccessful attempts to finish reading it at least once...