Apart from this central theme – or perhaps running gag would be a better phrase – of the world being beyond one’s control and there being no way out of an all-encompassing Matrix of Irony, I don’t remember much about Catch-22 at all, and while I rarely if ever read a book twice, in this case, something told me that it would be worth giving this one another try, if only to remind myself of why it had such a big effect on me in the first place.
So, from a week or so before we left for Japan until a couple of weeks after we arrived, I became engrossed once more in the world of Yossarian: of his ever-increasing allocation of bombing missions, his ever decreasing circle of friends and his wildly eccentric air force colleagues and comrades.
The front cover of the Vintage paperback edition that I was reading calls it ‘one of the great novels of the century’, and I would be inclined to agree, although I have a feeling serious literary critics might look down on it as being rather cultish (instead of Pulp Fiction or Scarface, did students in the sixties have posters of Catch-22 on their dormitory walls, I wonder?). The writing style takes some getting used to, but after a while I managed to satisfy myself that Heller’s excessive use of adjectives and adverbs was a stylistic choice and not a literary shortcoming. In fact, his long, ornate and elaborate descriptions of almost every character in the book (each chapter bears the name of a character as its heading) are one of its most impressive aspects, even if they do, for some reason, leave very little impression – in the mind of this reader, at least – of the physical appearance of those characters. The other thing that made me appreciate how much craft had gone into its writing – and something that went straight over my head as a teenager – is the way in which the narrative jumps back and forth in time without making this into an overt formal device: Catch-22 may be about six hundred pages long – albeit in fairly large print – but I have a feeling it was the structure behind those pages that was one of the main reasons Heller took such a long time in writing it.
There is an introduction by Heller to the Vintage edition that talks about this process, and about the subsequent critical reception and staggering success of Catch-22 (incidentally, why the hyphen, I wonder, and not just ‘Catch 22’?), although I have to say that Heller in his non-fictional guise impressed me much less than in his fictional one. For one thing, the introduction not only manages to spoil the ending of Catch-22, but also of its sequel (Closing Time, published in 1994), which must be some kind of spoiler world record, and justifies my policy of avoiding the introductions to classic books until I have finished reading them. For another, he comes across as rather self-satisfied, in an ‘imagine my surprise when I woke up one morning to find out that I had sold three million copies of the book and was therefore fabulously wealthy!’-kind of way.
I had assumed that Heller wrote Catch-22 directly after returning from his wartime service, its absurdities gleaned from bitter personal experience and transcribed straight from his diaries in an heroic effort to purge himself of post traumatic stress (cf. Primo Levi’s masterful autobiography of the holocaust, If This Is A Man), but Catch-22 was in fact written from the mid-fifties onwards, while Heller was working as an ad man in New York.
Still, much of the writing is so vivid that it can only have been drawn from reality – the description of a mid-air collision that causes a plane to crash into the sea, for example, or of exactly how claustrophobic and terrifying it feels to be cooped up in the back end of a plane that is flying through a storm of enemy flak – and however comfortable Heller’s post-war life became, however little he conforms to my romantic image of the suffering artist, fighting in a war is not something I ever wish to experience first-hand.
Oddly enough, reading the book made me want to see the Mike Nichols film again: a film that I watched just once about twenty years ago and that is by no means regarded as a classic (something tells me that Orson Welles puts in a cameo appearance, although my memory for movie trivia could be deceiving me), but which, looking back on it, contained some very powerful images, not least that of poor Kid Sampson’s top half being vapourised by the propellers of a small plane.
As with almost everything in the book – apart from one particularly bleak and depressing passage towards the end in which Yossarian goes AWOL in Rome – even Kid Sampson’s death is ultimately played for laughs (because he was on the passenger list of the plane in question, which is subsequently flown into the side of a mountain, Doc Daneeka is deemed to have been lost in action, even though he is perfectly fine and walking around the air base as normal), and it is this blackest of black comedy that is the book’s finest achievement, and what makes Heller’s central premise – not so much that war is a futile undertaking as that it is an absurd one – so powerful. Another device that Heller uses here is repetition, so a typical exchange might go something like this:
‘There’s a dead man in my tent,’ said Yossarian.
‘There’s a dead man in your tent?’ replied Dunbar.
‘There’s a dead man in my tent.’
‘But if there’s a dead man in your tent, why haven’t they taken him away?’
‘They can’t take him away because he’s not there.’
‘I thought you said there was a dead man in your tent?’
‘Oh no, his plane was shot down before he moved in.’
‘But if the dead man in your tent has never been in your tent, what’s the problem?’
‘He was in my tent once. He just left his things.’
‘If he just left his things, why don’t you throw them out?’
‘Because he never officially joined the squadron. I can’t throw out his things because if I did then the air force would have to acknowledge that he existed, and they don’t want me to do that because up till now he didn’t. The paperwork would be a nightmare.’
And so on and so forth.
In the hands of a less skilled writer this could come across as a sub-standard comedy routine or a ruse to fill out the book’s word count, but here it is used ingeniously, and no matter how many variations on the Catch-22 theme the narrative throws up, they always manage to torture Yossarian and his more self-aware friends in new and ingenious ways: Major Major Major Major’s decision to only accept visitors to his office when he is not there; the patient who is admitted to hospital encased from head to toe in plaster, and who is drip-fed the same liquid that emerges from his catheter in a continual recycling process; the Chaplain whose sociopathic assistant is constantly trying to undermine him and doesn’t even believe in God; Milo Minderbinder’s contrivance to bomb his own air base for economic reasons. The brilliant thing about all of this is that with one or two exceptions (some of Milo’s followers getting trampled to death as he parades through one of the many towns where he has been voted in as mayor; Nately’s girlfriend managing, like Jaws in the Bond films, to come back from the dead again and again), Heller keeps matters just the right side of credible, so that despite all of the absurdity, one imagines that most of the events depicted really could have taken place – hence my original belief that Catch-22 was, as the saying goes, based on a true story.
The distorted lens through which Yossarian views the world is so expertly conceived that once you are caught up in his story, you start to see the real world in the same way, and like chaos theory or the golden ratio, its patterns begin to crop up all over the place. So for now – or at least until I decide to re-read The Catcher in the Rye or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – I shall be lying awake at night trying to stop myself from believing that Japan is in fact a Matrix of Irony in which I am trapped against my will.