Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review - Joseph Heller's Catch-22

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: 1955
Format: Paperback, 453 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Yossarian is stationed on the small island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean west of Italy. He's on a bombing raid, he's on leave in Italy, he's in hospital, he's out of hospital, he's in the mess, he's not welcome in the mess, his friends are dying, he might die, he just wants to go home. He knows he's in real and immediate danger, which is the thought of a rational mind. If he asks to go home he's admitting that he knows he's in danger and therefore sane. If he wants to stay he is obviously insane and must be grounded. Yossarian is trapped in a frustrating situation by contradictory regulations because of a non-existent clause. But the genius is the simplicity of this clause that controls everyone's life, it is Catch-22.

Sometimes a book just isn't for you. You read it, you give it a try, and it's not that you hate it, you just don't like it. There are many books I love which some of my best friends dislike and a few they outright hate. I let them have that hate because it's an educated hate. They read the book or books and decided it wasn't for them. I'm not here to judge, it happens, and it is a two-way street. I just didn't like Catch-22. I tried. I really wanted to like it knowing how special a place it holds in some of my friend's hearts, but it just wasn't for me. Like Austen tends to alienate a good portion of the male population, I felt that Heller alienated a good portion of the female population. This book is a guy book, and that's the clearest way I have of saying it wasn't for me.

And I don't think it's the war aspect that makes it a guy book, but more that the depiction of the women alienates women readers. In fairness, not many of the characters are likable. They can be fascinating and compelling, but likable, not at all. The problem I had was that Heller depicted all women as whores who have a love of money or as wanton sluts. OK, this can be the starting point of a character, but you need to build beyond that. Don't make this a cookie cutter stereotype that applies to every single woman in your story. There's this misogynistic undertone that carries through the book and finds it's outlet in the rape and murder of the innocent Michaela, the one realistic woman. I can ascribe many what ifs to justify Heller's writing that he was parodying the way soldiers denigrate women or that he was trying to make women on a lower par with his men, but whatever I say or whatever is true, it still made me, as a woman reader, uncomfortable and not wanting to finish the book.

Though the content of the story bothered me far less then the literary techniques that Heller used. I didn't take issue with the non-linear narration, I only mention it because I have a feeling that this technique makes the book a better re-read then initial read, so I have that working against me. My main problem was that the book doesn't feel of it's time. How can I explain this? The book is about World War II but it was published in 1961. It feels like a book from the sixties instead of a book from the forties. The unattributed dialogue, the narrative structure, even the narrative tense felt more in line with writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and Kurt Vonnegut.

This disassociation between the time the book is set and this later writing style jarred my sensibilities and never meshed into a cohesive book for me. The best comparison I can give is between Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. I love the later book while disliking the former. The reason this newer writing style works for Vonnegut where it doesn't work for Heller is that Vonnegut's story goes forward and backward in time, it isn't just about World War II, so it is able to accept these new literary techniques, whereas Catch-22 is fighting against them every step of the way. A book needs to have harmony with itself to work. And a book really needs harmony to be an enjoyable reading experience.

The unattributed dialogue is on of the techniques that annoyed me the most. I know I'm not alone in being against this stylistic wordplay. I distinctly remember in one of my high school English classes that we had to read this short story that was all unattributed dialogue. Whomever had the book before me was obviously not a fan of this style either because they had gone through the entire story and written who was talking when, like in a screenplay. I was almost annoyed enough to do this here, but I really got to a why bother phase with this book rather fast. The writing would veer between being lugubrious to nonsensical, like an unsuccessful Lewis Carroll parody. At times it felt unoriginal and derivative of the worst and most repetitive of vaudeville sketches. Vaudeville can work, but think clearly, it works because there are actors delivering the lines and therefore keeping you away from the unattributed dialogue trap. This was like reading a vaudeville sketch; who's on first? Who knows, and really, do I care?


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