Finally got round to reading Catch-22
 by Joseph Heller.  It’s one of those 20th Century classics that it seems everybody else has read, so I thought I’d better plow through it.  If you don’t know, and you probably do, it’s a absurd and satirical novel set amongst American pilots in WWII, and centres around one Yossarian, and his efforts to get sent home. What did I think?  Umm… it’s alright, not my sort of thing to be honest.  Although I’m sure that everyone who claims it’s an absolute masterwork are right, and I’m not going to try to argue with them, I have to say I found it a bit of a trial.  I felt I was being beaten over the head with the satire a bit (‘see, it’s all got all so crazy, they’re being bombed by their own side.  Do you get it?  Do you?  Do you?  Madness!’) and it culminated in a decision for Yossarian which was a pale echo of a similar situation faced by Winston in Orwell’s 1984.  Possibly part of the problem is that Heller’s style of humour was so influential (M*A*S*H*, and loads of other vaguely counter-cultural films made between 68-74 that ripped off M*A*S*H*), that it now feels all a bit tired.  Having said that, however, I also think that’s its very absurdity makes it too easy for its target. If military leaders are presented as soulless buffoons, then it’s not so hard to understand why they make such horrendous decisions. The real, hard question is why such decisions are made by thinking, feeling men. For this, you need three-dimensional characters, not caricatures.

There is another reason I didn’t enjoy it that much, however, and not something that Heller could have done much about given his choice of subject matter.  It’s just, and maybe I should have taken this into consideration when deciding to read it, I really don’t like books about the military.

Why not?  Firstly:  Too many characters.  Any story involving a fighting unit is generally going to feature quite a few characters, as they tend to consist of quite a few people, and not just, say, three.  Unfortunately, in my view, novels tend to start sagging when you throw too many characters into the mix, so a whole load of them’s going to risk buckling the whole thing right from page one.  Add to this the task of remembering who is who, what rank they are, who outranks them, who’s been demoted, who’s dead etc. and, as a reader, you’ve got quite a task on your hands.

Secondly, no decent female characters.  Women in military novels tend to be nurses or prostitutes, and both, it seems, are there for the sexual servicing of the male characters and nothing else.  This is especially true in Catch-22 where, despite the multiple perspective technique of the story, no female character has anything resembling a complex internal life, or deserving of recognition as a full human being.  Indeed, in one scene, Yossarian and his companion Dunbar carry out what would be recognised today as a rather nasty sexual assualt, but is presented as just another example of them anarchically bucking the system.  Hilarious at the time, I’m sure, but leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth now.

Thirdly, I just can’t get my head round a lot of the specifics of military vehicles and hardware.  I know, I know, I should go and look it up, but when you’re lying in bed reading you’re not likely to pop on to the Internet to get the specs on a particular type of bomber so you know how far the gunner is meant to be from the pilot.  Unless you’re into that sort of thing, in which case, you’d probably know already.

Fourthly, shore leave.  How much are soldiers/pilots/sailors etc. entitled to?  In every war novel I’ve read, half the book is spent cavorting around in captured territory with said prostitutes, with the men coming and going apparently on their own schedule.  Isn’t anybody keeping tabs on them?  What if one of them just disguised themselves as an onion seller or something and never came back?  They seem to have a level of freedom that is just too ambiguous, and so I can’t get to grips with the situation I’m presented with.  Again, a little bit of research on my part would probably alleviate this problem, but I don’t know where to start.  Maybe there’s a WWII veteran out there who would be willing to tell me exactly how much time he was allowed to spend cavorting with prostitutes, and the ease and frequency with which he accessed them.

Fifthly, I don’t like the colour green.  I know I can’t see it when I read a book, but I can imagine it, and I know they’re wearing it.  All of them.

So anyway, I didn’t get much out of Catch-22, and those are the reasons why.  Some of them flaws I perceive in the book, some of them failings of my own as a reader, and some of them just the way things go.

Next week:  Why all books set on board boats are shit.


3 Responses to “Catch-22”

  1. Thanks for the well-considered & enlightening review. I’ve read the book and seen the film, but only after reading your piece, am i really able to articulate what’s disappointing about both. Perhaps paradoxically, the film proved more worthwhile: partly because of the camera-work and direction (using a fleet of actual WW2 aircraft instead of special effects, and so forth) and partly because in a film, many of the criticisms you make in your piece do not apply. Furlough will seem proportionally longer because it is portrayed in more detail, and the repetitive boredom of the time on duty can be lightly sketched. The characters can be made vivid enough so as to prevent confusion and we don’t care about their names. Also many minor characters and sub-plots can be dropped.

  2. Have you read ‘Day’? AL Kennedy’s war novel is fabulous.

    “The real, hard question is why such decisions are made by thinking, feeling men.” Not really, I give you Bush and Blair.

  3. No, the sad thing is they do think, they do feel. Just in ways that are very, very weird. Maybe we need art to help us understand. What’s that, Mister Stone, you’ve just made a film that you think might be of some assistance? How convenient!

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