Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
Howard Jacobsen writes effusively, in the introduction to my edition, of Catch 22’s magnificent unruliness – its unkempt transgression of bookish conventions about form, symmetry and balance, its rampant comic energy in the grand ribald tradition of Rabelais through Dickens. From Huck Finn and Moby Dick to The Adventures of Augie March and Gravity’s Rainbow, this is also characteristic of many of the books typically bracketed under that most macho of literary categories, the ‘potential Great American novel’. Like Ernest Hemingway hunting big game, the entire idea of this mythical pursuit smacks of testosterone. Jacobsen accordingly high-fives Joseph Heller for his manly swagger, ‘leonine Jewish Byronic’ looks and dashingly rough edge.
Unsurprisingly, contenders for the Great American Novel gong in the second half of the 20th century often had a military theme (The Naked and the Dead, Gravity’s Rainbow, Slaughterhouse Five, at a historical remove, Blood Meridian); not only did a lot of the defining events of the period involve violence, a lot of the most prominent post-war US authors are also ex-servicemen (many of whom returned to university on the GI Bill): Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy. Even when they’re not writing about war, their works and themes are testosterone-pumped, and if truth be told they don’t often have much to say about one half of the human race.
It’s not atypical for British authors to go a bit starry-eyed in the face of this priapic quality in American literature, and it’s particularly entertaining when, like Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, they try and take it off. Jacobsen himself is a self-styled ‘British Roth’, another US author whose novels are so preternaturally virile that they have been known to spontaneously impregnate blushing librarians if accidentally unsheathed from their protective latex dust-jackets.
If the British novel is a sober, cerebral Inspector Morse, the postmodern US novel is a shit-faced, unshaven Jimmy McNulty banging some broad whose name he doesn’t even remember over the back of a car in a Baltimore parking lot. It’s the Hemingway to our Fitzgerald, the Obelix to our Asterix, the Batman to our Robin. It’s Cormac McCarthy riding a horse around New Mexico and dismissing James and Proust as ‘not proper literature’; it’s Norman Mailer having a hammer fight with Rip Torn live on film; it’s even Saul Bellow, that most unashamedly learned of ex-GI authors, walking it like he talked it with his string of ex-wives, his Chicago street-slang and his macho intellectuals like Augie March, Eugene Henderson and even big, barrel-chested Moses Herzog.
Jacobsen goes on to draw a distinction between the gargantuan, trouser-bulging rambunctiousness of a novel like Catch 22, and the austere, cerebral Flaubertian novel that ‘minds its words’. However, he maintains that this hysteria effect – a contemporary reviewer famously noted that it seemed Catch 22 had been ‘not so much written as shouted onto a page’ – is achieved only with the most meticulous craftsmanship and technical control. While on face value he may be accused of rather too obsequiously allowing Heller to have his cake and eat it – despite Jacobsen’s claims to the contrary, is it not fundamentally easier and less sophisticated to trade in shouty caricature than in delicately observed detail? – Catch 22’s blundering lack of subtlety is an important part of its response to its subject matter.
The manic energy and unrelenting volume of the narrative is used as a means of conveying the endemic insanity of the wartime predicament. The narrative is screamed into your face like a bollocking from a US sergeant major who likes a bit of napalm with his cornflakes – there’s no time for subtle observation or gradations of emotional detail, wrenching Michael Furey disclosures or profound moments of madeleine-prompted recollection. A reasonable amount of the dialogue is literally shouted, and the accompanying narrative is for the most part set to 11.
However, this hysteria is also the novel’s central trope – applying caricature and exaggeration to describe, with ironic aptness, a situation already more grotesquely exaggerated than any fictional scenario imaginable. Ironic too, that the figure who seems the most implausible is Nately’s whore – a darkly comic, crazed caricature who over the course of the last 50 pages lurks around every corner waiting to stab at Yossarian with a kitchen knife in revenge for Nately’s death – rather than the young men who drop bombs on people they have never met.
Yossarian, the novel’s unremarkable hero, is a kind of reprise on Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin – an everyman who functions as a yardstick by which to measure the absurdity of the characters and situations among which he is placed. He’s also a prototype for a kind of self-protecting numbness in the face of the unspeakable horror of war. Unfashionably serene and rational amidst the novel’s cast of grotesques, the embodiment of the central postmodern trope of sanity being rendered inversely ‘insane’ when insanity is the status quo, Yossarian also voices our own inability to linguistically accommodate the horrific potential of sheer physicality. Kurt Vonnegut wrote ‘there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre’, and just as the birds’ ‘tweet’ is the enduring response to the Dresden bombing in Slaughterhouse 5, the ‘There there’ that is all Yossarian can offer to an eviscerated Snowdon as he lies dying is a symbol of this linguistic redundancy.
James Wood, that traditionalist in sheep’s clothing, famously dissed ‘hysterical realism’ a few years ago – his genre-tag for the contemporary gaggle of show-offy, google-happy, polymath vaudeville acts like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Dave Eggers’ A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. These novels all took their cue from Don DeLillo’s Underworld, he said – using sheer scale, glitzily redundant idea-flaunting and shouty stylistic gewgaw to mask their lack of psychological depth.
Alongside Thomas Pynchon, Catch 22 is in many ways a forerunner of this sort of hysterical realist novel, and its brand of energetic absurdity influenced a generation of American writers. However, the Emperor’s New Clothes maximalism and caricature excess of contemporary ‘hysterical realism’ seems far more appropriately applied when set against the deathly black backdrop of Catch 22. A formless postmodern howl rather than a modernist well-wrought urn, in its very implausibility and excess it still manages to convince you that it constitutes an all-too-appropriate literary response to the most implausible situation mankind has yet managed to concoct.