Actually, by all means tell. Please. Your readers cannot always work it out.
Okay, so I’m still talking about Catch-22 and it’s annoyances. In particular, that it keeps hopping around in time. Now, sooner or later you get some detail(s) that convey when exactly the current bit is taking place, but they’re vague – details like a certain character is noted to have died in combat at some point, so if they are involved it must be before that. The problem is that these details turn up late in a scene, forcing you to then re-evaluate what has happened in light of the different chronological setting. It’s confusing – there’s no clear signal of when time has jumped, and because of this confusion you have trouble working out what the timeline is anyway. Well, I do. Someone’s probably mapped out the actual timeline somewhere; I should look that up, but I’ll wait till I’ve finished the book to avoid spoilers.
It rather reminds me of the film Pulp Fiction, actually. Not in terms of the subject matter, but the unheralded shifts in time. I was rather unimpressed with the film, partly because I felt that – had it been told in chronological order – it would have lacked a clear beginning, middle, and end. That’s because the story arcs seemed to be internal to the characters, but (and this is the main reason I disliked it) I found none of the characters interesting or sympathetic (with the possible exception of Samuel L. Jackson’s character). I fear with Catch-22 that there will be a similar disappointment at the conclusion owing to limited actual progress in the plot – the purpose of a lot of the scenes seems to be satirising bureaucracy, economics, politics, human relationships, and the like. It’s like the book can’t decide if it wants to be a heavy literary examination of the experiences of a troubled airman, or a light satirical piece on the folly of war.
Speaking of the book, I should say something about what’s actually going on. Probably the most obvious indicator of time is the number of missions Yossarian (the main character – an American bombardier in Italy circa WW2) has flown/needs to fly before his tour of duty is finished. This is one of the perpetual dilemmas he faces – will he ever reach the tally before the Colonel raises it again, or should he find another way to get himself home. He stays close to the tally, but spends most of his time trying (rather ineffectually) to get out of flying any more missions (he’s a very dedicated coward). The point is made that if he just hunkered down and finished his missions, that might solve his problems, and this would be true but for the presence of another soldier (known as “Hungry Joe”) who has reached his tally and is stuck around the base doing nothing but having nightmares until the tally is raised and he goes back on active duty.
It’s amusing, it’s silly, it’s fun, it’s annoying. It’s an odd feeling to be enjoying it now, but worried about what my impressions will be when I’ve finished it. Though it has taught me to appreciate the way that each section in The Time Traveler’s Wife was marked with the date and the ages of the two main characters.