Wednesday, September 07, 2011

What We're Reading: Catch 22

Catch 22

Joseph Heller

This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a novel that has become one of the classics of 20th century American literature. It is a book that most of us of a certain age remember reading in our youth, or thought we had read. I’m not sure which of those categories I fall into, and so I’ve read it again. Or for the first time. Simon and Schuster has released a 50th anniversary edition of the novel with an introduction by Christopher Buckley. This edition has at the back an interesting essay on the history of how the book was written and how it came to be published. But probably the nicest feature of this edition is that it contains excerpts from early reviews and criticism of the novel. The review that stands out in particular is the one written by Robert Brustein for The New Republic in November of 1961. It is a remarkable piece, an astute and perceptive review that will remind the reader of the value of good literary criticism, something that got buried, for this reader at least, after a few years of reading too much criticism in graduate school that was either recondite or simply wrongheaded. It was the kind of stuff academics burbled out like soap bubbles and had each other read until their eyes burned. Brustein shows you how a good critic can clarify and make articulate the impressions and responses to a work that the average reader only senses darkly.

Catch-22 holds up pretty well after all these years. It became arguably the most famous underground novel of the 1960s, mostly on the strength of its satire of military and establishment bureaucracy, deceit, and hypocrisy. What resonated with its expanding readership was not so much that it was a novel about the insanity of war, or a novel of World War II, but because its major themes struck a chord with both older readers and a new generation of readers. To those who had lived through the years following the war and through the 1950s, an uneasiness and even outrage with the events of the Cold War, Korea, the McCarthy era, the sense of growing American consumerism and complacency and national conformity were discernable in the narrative of Catch-22. For a younger generation, one that began to have a growing sense of distrust in the pronouncements and apologetics of those in positions of social and political power, Heller’s dark humor and wit seemed to unmask well crafted illusions and uncover the violence, hypocrisy, and horror that lay beneath the platitudes and noble-sounding bunkum. He revealed the ugly way the world really worked.

What gives Catch-22 its staying power is not, however, that it is a satire about the political and cultural faults of a particular time, but rather that Heller’s work has, unlike some of the other satire we associate with the era, a certain existential dimension. Yossarian’s world is a metaphor for the state in which man finds himself, something we are reminded of most forcibly in the concluding chapters of the book where Yossarian as a kind of everyman takes his hellish peregrination through the darkened streets of Rome. The trap and tautology of “Catch-22” is not about just the ineluctable insanity of military bureaucracy; it suggests some fundamental catch that thwarts human desires and ambitions. And that’s what makes Catch-22 still worth reading. It’s also still pretty damn funny.

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