Catch-22: Not as great as remembered.

If any time in the last fifteen years you’d asked my opinion of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, I would have replied without reservation that it was a great book. Fifteen years is how long it’s been since I read Catch-22 as a teenager.

joseph heller catch-22

Picture my disillusionment when I picked it up again this week and came across writing like this:

The swarthy, middle-aged lieutenant colonel with the rimless, icy glasses and faceted, bald, domelike pate that he was always touching sensitively with the tips of his splayed fingers disliked the chaplain and was impolite to him frequently. He kept the chaplain in a constant state of terror with his curt, derisive tongue and his knowing, cynical eyes that the chaplain was never brave enough to meet for more than an accidental second.

Heller occasionally falls into this narcotizing pattern of adjective-adjective-noun, adjective-adjective-noun, which I assume signifies a lapse of his self-editing faculties. Why do we need faceted, bald, and domelike? Why curt and derisive, knowing and cynical? It’s not so much the redundancy – after all, none of these twinned or tripleted adjective are quite synonymous, although they’re often close enough to suggest a simple failure of decisiveness on the author’s part. The problem is the rhythm. Good writing modulates, syncopates, takes a pause then skips across the room. Too much of Heller’s prose just clops along like a three-legged horse.

Still, I can’t dismiss Catch-22. For every ungainly passage there are two inspired ones; the story of Major Major Major Major’s swift and humiliating rise through the ranks, for instance, or this description of the “soldier in white”, a plaster-encased mummy in the casualty ward:

Sewn into the bandages over the insides of both elbows were zippered lips through which he was fed clear fluid from a clear jar. A silent zinc pipe rose from the cement on his groin and was coupled to a slim rubber hose that carried waste from his kidneys and dripped it efficiently into a clear, stoppered jar on the floor. When the jar on the floor was full, the jar feeding his elbow was empty, and the two were simply switched quickly so that stuff could drip back into him.

Heller can’t help but use more than the necessary number of words (a silent zinc pipe?), but that’s okay. The soldier in white, a helpless conduit for the recycling of clear fluid, is the perfect emblem for a book of paradoxes, circular arguments, and self-negating statements. The term “catch-22” is now used rather too vaguely to mean something like Hobson’s choice. The vagueness was inevitable; in the novel, the regulation is brought in whenever the author is in want of a bureaucratic absurdity, paradoxical or not. The elegant recursiveness of the term as it ought to be used is demonstrated in this  scene where Yossarian goes to his squadron’s flight surgeon to get his reckless tentmate grounded:

“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?”

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

At its best, Catch-22 reads like the kind of bleak farce Kafka might’ve cooked up in collaboration with the Marx Brothers. At its worst it’s just frantic and amateurish (like the Marx Brothers at their worst). Here’s an example of Heller at his best and worst, just after Kid Sampson meets his messy end on a raft offshore:

Everyone at the beach was screaming and running, and the men sounded like women. They scampered for their things in a panic, stooping hurriedly and looking askance at each gentle, knee-high wave bubbling in as though some ugly, red, grisly organ like a liver or a lung might come washing right up against them. Those in the water were struggling to get out, forgetting in their haste to swim, wailing, walking, held back in their flight by the viscous, clinging sea as though by a biting wind. Kid Sampson had rained all over.

I’m not sure if a “biting wind” is a good metaphor for the resistance of the sea; wind pushes, it doesn’t pull. And once again Heller’s twinned adjectives (“gentle, knee-high”; “viscous, clinging”), tend to weaken rather than reinforce one another. But Heller catches the right details; the bathers cringing from the tainted waves, those in the ocean “forgetting in their haste to swim” as they lumber to shore, everyone fleeing yet unable to look away from the scene of the tragedy. Later the lower half of Kid Sampson’s body washes ashore “like a purple twisted wishbone”, and the men of the squadron, unwilling to touch it, creep down to the beach to peek at it through the bushes.

Overall, I still think Catch-22 is a pretty great book. I can grudgingly forgive its prolix, overlong, redundant excesses. But it’s a relief to escape at last from Joseph Heller’s world to one where the author has scrupulously considered each word and set it in its proper place in relation to the others; I’m now reading J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg. Heller’s voice drifts too often to that prophetic pitch that appeals to intelligent eighteen-year-olds but wears the patience of grown-ups less certain of their intelligence. Give me an author with the humility to scratch out a line.


Update #1, July 27, 2020: In 2018 I quoted Martin Amis eviscerating a later Heller novel for “[w]riting that transcends mere repetition and aspires to outright tautology.”

Update #2, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker