Friday, October 8, 2010

Catch 22

I decided I should toss my catchy titles for the sake of readability.  I'm probably the only one who cared about coming up with a clever headline, and it will be easier for you guys to find the different books if you can click right on their titles.  So sorry to take away the suspense, but this entry is about Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.

I want to talk about a very simple concept in reading this book because once I grasped it, my whole perspective on the novel changed.  When I started reading it, I had no prior knowledge of the book except for a generic understanding of the way in which popular culture has coined the title phrase.  I didn't read it for a class or with a friend, so I had to process it on my own, which is never ideal.  To be honest, I had trouble getting through it.  I found it funny, of course, and often chuckled at the unique writing style and ridiculous situations.  It was my first real exposure to this idea of "black comedy" and I found it poignant and interesting.  However, there was no driving plot that kept me turning the pages.  At the end of the chapter, it was easy for me to set the book down and forget about it for a while.  This frustrated me because I found myself progressing through the book very slowly even though I enjoyed the writing style.  Sadly, this effect made me think less of the book and resist admiring it as one of the great classics.

But not anymore!!  I was studying the genre of Short Story Cycles when it suddenly dawned on me that Catch 22 makes much more sense as a short story cycle than a novel.  Each chapter is a short story, a complete subunit on its own.  You can read the chapter without reading any of the others and understand what happened.  The characters are frequently introduced, and each chapter takes turns highlighting another person.  There is not a clear sense of chronological progression, for sometimes it seems to backtrack and return to a character who has already left the plot.  When the chapter ends, it reaches a feeling of conclusion, which is why I was able to set it down for a while without that urge to keep going.  However, there are a number of returning themes in all of them.

Yossarian is the strongest common thread among them.  The story subtly centers around him, showcasing his friends and fellow soldiers in their interaction with him.  The concept of "Catch 22" also appears in several of the stories, bring unity and black humor to the pieces of the book.  There is also a list of returning characters whose stories we learn more about bit by bit.  The way a short story cycle works is that each story can be read on its own, but when you read them all together, you gain a much greater appreciation for the text as a whole.  Each story reveals something of another one without depending one another.  It's a cycle rather than a series, so they can be read in any order and still make sense.  Then when you read them together, you get a fresh understanding of each part and discover some recurring ideas and messages.  Once I viewed Catch 22 in this way, I suddenly had great admiration for the book.  In fact, it's one of the best short story cycles I've read because the overarching bond of the stories is so strong, it disguises as a novel.  But since each chapter intentionally acts as a unit, there is not necessarily supposed to be a pushing, driving plot running through them all.  If I don't expect there to be a novel plot-like feeling, then I can't get frustrated for the lack of one.

So I urge you to try it.  Pick five chapters of the book at random and see if they make sense on their own.  Read the stories out of order and see if they reveal more to you in that way.  They interact with each other in a twisting, complicated, and brilliant way.  I haven't found other scholars classifying Catch 22 in this way, but I think it is an important distinction in interpreting and interacting with this book.  And even if no one else agrees with me, this interpretation has helped me appreciate this great classic.


Amy said...

Hey IngridLola - somehow I lost your comment. But I really appreciated what you had to say! I'm glad to hear that you can relate to my interpretation of this book. I enjoy your feedback!

Harivansh Rai Bachchan said...

Probabaly no other novel other than the Jeeves/Berty Wooster series of PG Wodehouse has managed to make people laugh till their seams start bursting.
The humour of this book will have you bursting at the seams.
Its a satire of US Army Air Corps offices stationed in Italy during WW-II. The humour stems from the fact that critical issues concerning life and death are given no importance while trivial issues like clerical errors and idiotic judgements are glorified.
As one reviewer pointed out that there is no structured storyline which might make some readers stop reading beyond inital few pages but believe me, read this book till the end and you will not regret your decision.
A unique book, a masterpiece and rightly placed as one of the top 10 novels of the century.