I Love Catch-22 because I Disliked It So Much by John Domenichini
For me, the real catch in Catch-22 was that the irritation I started to feel while reading the book was actually setting me up to love the book. But why would I continue to read a book that was irritating me? And why would I keep reading it after the irritation turned into frustration and finally into all-out dislike?
I was on the brink of throwing that book into my fireplace, and I didn’t even have a fireplace. Then the book took a turn. And not for the worse. Darn you, Joseph Heller. Suddenly, a book was capable of turning the world upside down. Before that, books could open doors to other worlds, sure. They could thrill and excite me, true.
Catch-22 was different. For me, it wasn’t about the characters or the plot or the setting. The book was sarcastic and silly, which was funny at first. It started getting old, though. Then it got downright decrepit. Still, a turn of phrase here, a witty line there, kept me reading. After a while, I felt like a pigeon banging my beak against the button of lost-causes, hoping for a crumb. But there was no substance. It was time to give up. To this day, I can’t explain why I didn’t give up. I remember telling a friend at the time that I couldn’t understand why I was still reading it. Obviously, the book wasn’t going to miraculously become meaningful.
But then it did. And in a big, bad way. It Caught-22 me off guard. Wow. Books could be magical. I thought that before, but that was magic-trick type of magical. This was miracle type of magical. It was inexplicable. Wasn’t it?
If the effect the book had on me could be explained by way of literary devices, I didn’t want to know about it. Not at first, at least. It’s like, magic is real; oh no, actually, it’s just smoke and mirrors.
I’ve never felt that kind of emotion since from reading a book. It doesn’t seem possible for me again because now I know it can be done. That element of surprise is lost. Maybe another book could have had that effect on me if I had read it before Catch-22, but I didn’t.
As time has passed, I’ve come to want to understand how Catch-22 did what did to me. Yes, even if it means pulling back the curtain and revealing the techniques that Heller employed. My need to know has increased over time and that need isn’t going away, so I have thought about the book.
I don’t say I clearly understand how Heller accomplished what he did with Catch-22, but maybe I have an inkling and I’m still in awe of what the book made me feel. I’m not quite ready to reread it, though. That might take away more of the magic than I’m ready to let go of just yet. That’s my fear anyway.
It’s my opinion that it is very difficult to describe the intense emotions involved in certain situations. I believe that the Twilight books were popular because Stephenie Meyer created a paranormal world of amped-up intensity that could match the amped-up emotions that pre-teen and teen girls (the target audience) feel the first time they are in love.
Okay, fine, but what about Catch-22? Descriptions of war can be horrific, no doubt, but not as horrific as what it feels like to live through it. As a literary device, you can attempt to notch up the intensity of World War II by telling the story with monsters (non-human monsters): vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc. In fact, it’s been done, but not with tremendous success.
Until I read Catch-22, I wouldn’t have guessed that Heller’s approach could have amped up the intensity the way it did. He couched the realistic horror of war deep in a world of silliness and sarcasm. I didn’t see it coming, but suddenly, Heller introduced a violent scene that shocked me to the bone. Just before that scene, the absurdity of the book had become so exasperating for me that my expectations for the rest of the book could not have been lower. Then, Heller delivered a knockout punch. If the book had started out describing the intense horror of war, it would not have had the same effect on me. Not even close.
I’ve seen violent images of war; I’ve seen real footage of war; I’ve seen movies, such as Saving Private Ryan, that put me right in the middle of the violence of war, but none of that affected me as profoundly as when I read Catch-22.
The silliness of the book was over the top. I think it needed to be for the violence that eventually took place in the story to have the effect on me that it eventually did. The violent scene I’m talking about is revealed as a flashback way past the halfway point of the book. Yossarian, the protagonist, experiences something horrific.
After that, the entire book made sense to me. But it made sense in an emotional way, only. It wasn’t that the violent flashback logically explained all the silly and sarcastic behavior described earlier in the book. It didn’t. But for me, it couldn’t have felt more accurate. For an instant, I felt the horror of war, heart and soul. I feared it. I fear it still. That insight is mine forever. It can’t be erased. And to think that a book did that.
John Domenichini is a Technical Writer from San Jose, California. He has a background in journalism and education.
Wow. I had pretty much the same experience reading it many years ago. It’s not for everyone, but for those of us who appreciate Heller’s genius, it’s everything. Thank you for the reminder. I think I’ll pull it off the shelf one more time…
The great New Yorker humorist and theatre critic Robert Benchley once wrote, in a review of yet another interminable and leaden Eugene O’Neill play, “No one without a sense of humor should ever write tragedy.”
Heller’s magic lies in exactly the melange of horror and ridiculousness that you describe. War *is* both horrific and ridiculous. It’s the same thing that Vonnegut does in “Slaughterhouse Five” … actually, it’s pretty much what Vonnegut does in most of his (better) books, since not just war but life itself can be pretty horrific and ridiculous. There’s a deep melancholy hiding (though not hiding very well) behind the japery; it’s the same mix of kidding and poignancy that, for example, Richard Brautigan managed at his best (e.g., his final book, “So the Wind Won’t Blow It Away”) and that Kundera calls “the unbearable lightness of being.”
Someone once asked Heller why he’d never written another book as good as “Catch-22,” and he replied, “Who has?”
Wow. I think I will need to pick up this book. I can kind of get what you mean, but I know I don’t know exactly.
My son (18) read Catch-22 last year – by choice! – as prep for the AP Literature exam. He repeatedly told me that I MUST read this novel and The Invisible Man. Your post inspired me to finally pick it up. It’s taken about 2 1/2 months, but I did it. For me, it was the Snowden chapter near the end that suckerpunched me. Wow.
The rest of the absurdity is still there, but that chapter made me “get it”. I would go days between picking up the book, and sometimes I could only read a few pages at a time. But wow.
Thanks for reminding me that it’s OK not to like a book. Maybe not like it at certain points. Maybe not like it at all. Thanks for reminding me to stick with it when it gets tough.
One more time. Wow.