Friday, March 6, 2009

Catch-22


After waiting about 25 years to read it, I finally finished “Catch-22” the other day. I did not love it.

My mom had a copy and urged me to read it back when I was in high school. I remember starting it, but I didn’t get very far. (It was probably a yellowed mass-market paperback from the 1960s with about nine million tiny, tiny words on each page.)

Recently, while I was at Barnes and Noble, I saw a new trade paperback version with nice clean, wide pages. I bought it and gave it my best shot.

It’s pretty much a guy’s novel -- one long military joke, about stupid officers and inept decision-making. The reader has little emotional investment in the characters. With a few exceptions, we learn virtually nothing about the men and their backgrounds, and their inner lives -- if they have them -- remain obscure. Even the few exceptions seem more like cartoons than full-fledged characters. The rare compelling moments, like when the main character is nursing a dying man in the back of a bomber, get overwhelmed by the slapstick.

I can see how it would have been more sharply relevant when it was being read by veterans of World War II and Korea, during the years of our growing involvement in Vietnam. But it’s interesting that now, even with our military deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the book doesn’t make that same connection. We as a society are so separated from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The structure of the military is so different these days.

Anyway, in terms of relevance, I did find one segment that really spoke to me:
“Won’t you fight for your country?” Colonel Korn demanded, emulating Colonel Cathcart’s harsh, self-righteous tone. “Won’t you give up your life for Colonel Cathcart and me?”

Yossarian tensed with alert astonishment when he heard Colonel Korn’s concluding words. “What’s that?” he exclaimed. “What have you and Colonel Cathcart got to do with my country? You’re not the same.”

“How can you separate us?” Colonel Korn inquired with ironical tranquility.

“That’s right,” Colonel Cathcart cried emphatically. “You’re either for us or against us. There’s no two ways about it.”

“I’m afraid he’s got you,” added Colonel Korn. “You’re either for us or against your country. It’s as simple as that.”

“Oh, no, Colonel. I don’t buy that.”

Colonel Korn was unruffled. “Neither do I, frankly, but everyone else will. So there you are.”

Now, who does that remind you of? Did Colonels Korn and Cathcart go on to occupy the White House, decades later?

(Photo: Snow on E. 30th Street, March 2009)

7 comments:

kishenehn said...

Geez, you meet someone on the net and you think you get to know him ... and then something like this is revealed. I"m shocked! :-p

Without going into a full-blown defense of the book here, I will say that I don't think you're really supposed to develop an emotional investment in most of the characters ... except maybe for a couple of minor ones like Snowden. They're stereotypes and caricatures by intent -- and they had to be, in order to convey the absurdity which is the point of the novel.

Very much like most of the characters in Dr. Strangelove ... and if you tell me that you didn't like that, either, I may have to defriend you! :-p

mouse (aka kimy) said...

I haven't read catch-22 in over 30 years but I do recall being blown away and finding it incredibly powerful, satirical and relevant. when I read it the vietnam war was raging on and although set in wwii it's message was still ringing my bell....

perhaps I should reread it and see what I think now.

last year my book group read fahrenheit 451; I found the book more AMAZING and powerful when I read it now than when I first read it (which was about the same time as I read catch-22)

I just read kishenehn's comment, excellent point about the absurdity of war....

Steve said...

That IS a good point, Kishenehn -- and I realize that certain characters, particularly the ones in power, are meant to be little more than buffoons. But I still think something is lacking in the sympathetic characters, and even in Yossarian -- the ones that we HAVE to care about in order for the novel to be truly successful.

For the record, I loved Dr. Strangelove. That's an interesting comparison. I'll have to think more about why that worked for me and this didn't.

Kim, I'd be interested in what you think if you reread it! As I said, I can see how it spoke to people in the era of Nam.

Barbara said...

Catch-22 has sat on my bookshelf for years, probably contributed by my husband, and I have never read it. After your review, I may let it continue to collect dust.

I'm really glad there is no longer a military draft.

Merle Sneed said...

I enjoyed Catch-22, but that was years ago.

Reya Mellicker said...

Back then it was so unusual to resist being part of the army that the book was very cutting edge.

I admire you for reading the whole thing! When I can't get into a book, I abandon it, though I'll give any book at least 50 pages before I give up.

Happy weekend! It's spring here - and I assume there as well. The weather gods were psycho this week.

Squirrel said...

I loved Catch 22 when i read it oh so many years ago--it's on of those --once you start you can't put it down deals!