Thursday, January 18, 2007

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Title: Catch-22
Author: Joseph Heller
Rating: Neutral

I've been slogging through two different books lately, neither has been fun, and neither is all that interesting, but this one finished up first.

"What?" I hear you cry. "Catch-22 is famous! It's one of the top 100 books! It's a classic! It has to be good! It is good!"

Forget it. I don't care that it appears at number seven on The Modern Library's list. It's not that good. Not even remotely. I'm giving it a neutral rating for a very specific reason, rather than the negative rating I think it really deserves.

My reasons for such a harsh judgment are pretty straightforward:
  1. It borders on incoherent. The story isn't told in any order the reader can fathom. Yes, perhaps, if you take detailed notes about a couple of things you might be able to track some of it, but overall, it's impossible to follow.

  2. There is no - and I mean zero - character development. None. Not a single one of the characters we meet changes in any appreciable way during the book, except that a bunch of them die. At the very end you might think that the Chaplain has possibly changed, but three pages later the book is over and you never find out. Yossarian - in theory the hero of the book - also never changes. Right up until the very end he's still the same confused git that he was at the start.

  3. There are no characters to care about in here. People talk about Major Major Major Major as being hysterically funny. He's a bit player, mentioned in any depth in a couple of short chapters and just a passing character after that. What about the guy who's extending his life through boredom? There's almost no actual mention of that here. Again, he's just not there. None of the characters has a role significant enough to cause me to get interested in them. I kept wondering when someone would do something interesting, and if I should even bother finishing the book if they didn't.

  4. The characters have no motivations. Why is Yossarian good (or at least as good as he is)? Why does Nately's whore go off the deep end like she does? Why are Colonels Cathcart & Korn slimy bastards? We don't know. Nothing is ever explained about them. This just adds to the fact that I don't care about any of the characters in the least.

  5. The writing is poor. Heller describes the appearance of characters we've met before almost every time we meet them again. Each time he blurs the few distinct impressions we have of them until they're all just faceless, pointless people. That may be deliberate on his part, but it keeps them from being memorable. Again, maybe that was part of the point, but if he's going to write about people we're supposed to forget, why bother writing about them in the first place?

    Oh, and every so often Heller tosses in a word or two that you need an OED to lookup. I'm good at picking meanings up from context - I do it all the time - but this was just pointless. All it did was irritate me.

  6. It's not funny. Pure and simple. It's just not funny. I never even cracked a smile while reading this, let alone laughed out loud. It's so off that it doesn't even work as farce. That was my biggest frustration with the book. I'd been lead to believe that it was hilarious when it simply wasn't.
So why am I giving it a neutral rating? I suspect there is a matter of perspective here, and I grant that I may not have the right one. It is possible that - for its time - this was a ground breaking book. Maybe no one had written like this about WWII before. Perhaps no one had made fun of "The Greatest Generation" in this way. If so - and I think it is possible - then taken in that context it may be an important work. Viewed with my sensibilities, from 2007, though, it fails totally. But on the assumption that lots of people think it is either important or funny or both, I'm not going to trash it completely. I don't claim to understand those points of view, but perhaps there is something to them. I'm giving it a neutral rating for that reason only.

Lastly, I have another frustration to go with this book that I want to call out separately. For as long as I can remember I've known the expression "Catch-22" and wondered where it came from. I'd been told it came from this book, so I was hoping for a real explanation here. Not of what the expression means - that I understand - but why that phrase was picked. Is there perhaps some historical reason for it? Or does it come from some obscure legal jargon?

Nope. He made it up. From whole cloth. There's nothing in the book about it at all. Nothing except the first explanation of what it means. But if you search wikipedia for "Catch-22" you learn (as of the date this review was written anyway) that the book was originally titled Catch-18 and the publisher wanted it changed to avoid confusion with Leon Uris's Mila 18. Read the wiki page for the details.

Now let me be clear. If an author is good enough to get some new phrase stuck into the language as completely as "catch-22" has become a part of idiomatic English, I congratulate him or her for the achievement. Heller deserves full credit for that. But when I stand back and say "OK.. why that phrase?" there is no answer. If he'd done something really clever - based the phrase on something that was obscure but interesting or relevant, I'd really applaud him. But in this case he could just as easily have called it the "olgleblat rule" as "catch-22" (or "catch-18") and it wouldn't have mattered in the slightest:
"That's some rule, that ogleblat rule," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.
See. No change. Nothing important differs. It's just silly. Now I do admire and appreciate silliness, but for it to work it has to be funny, and as I pointed out above, it's not.

I wish I'd enjoyed this book.

As it happens, I saw the movie of the same name just before starting to read the book. The movie is actually much worse than the book. Entire series of events are explained even less well in the movie. For example, I had no idea who it was that was stabbing Yossarian in the movie at all. None. I had to read the book to learn that tidbit. Of course I still didn't care, but at least the book let me know who it was. So give the movie a pass along with the book. Neither is any good.