Monday, April 27, 2009

Book Review: Catch-22

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
This is a book about death. At its best and brilliant, the book is about death. Yes, it's funny at times. And there's the whole catch-22, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't thing. But, really, it's about death. Witness the following snippet:
Man was matter [...] Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot like other kinds of garbage. The spirit is gone, man is garbage [...] Ripeness was all.
The narrative of Catch-22 has an oddly swirling motion. Events circle around, repeat, expand, and disappear. You wonder if maybe you've read something before, if it has been repeated, or if you are purposefully being made to be confused. One character has deja vu, the others are at best unstable. The climactic scene contained within the book's final pages actually happens, briefly, early on in the storyline. My confusion over all of this is, of course, acerbated because it took me months to read this, only getting through a few pages at a time.
The book, though, is not that good. I give it high marks because, at its core, it is a bit existential and death and violence (in dramatic and humorous forms) permeates the text. The humor was a little lost on me. I like to think that I enjoy absurdity, pure humorous absurdity. What takes place here is pointless, empty absurdity.
The writing itself, does not stand out, unless it is discussing death. In the extended quote below, the books protagonist, Yossarian is considering the way people inside a hospital were safer than those outside:
The didn't explode into blood and clotted matter. They didn't drown or get struck by lightening, mangled by machinery or crushed in landslides. They didn't get shot to death in hold-ups, strangled to death in rapes, stabbed to death in saloons, bludgeoned to death with axes by parents or children, or die summarily by some other act of God. Nobody choked to death. People bled to death like gentlemen in an operating room or expired without comment in an oxygen tent. There was none of that trick now-you-see-me-now-you-don't business so much in vogue outside the hospital, none of that now-I-am-now-I-ain't. There were no famines or floods. Children didn't suffocate in cradles or iceboxes or fall under trucks. No one was beaten to death. People didn't stick their heads into ovens with the gas on, jump in front of subway trains or come plummeting like dead weights out of hotel windows with a woosh!, accelerating at the rate of thirty-two feel per second to land with a hideous plop! on the sidewalk and die disgustingly there in public like a paca sack full of hairy strawberry ice cream, bleeding, pink toes awry.
The paragraph, speeds, itself accelerating towards the vivid imagery that, again, hints at something that will reappear much later in the book.
I can knock another one of those "great books" off my list, now, but I'm happy to have read it. I sometimes found myself astounded by what I read, and at other times I wondered about the point of it all.

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