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Catch-22 Review

Catch-22

Published: 1961
Pages: ~478
Completed: Yes
Enjoyed: Sort-of

Seriousness: Black comedy/
Genre: War/Satire
Difficulty: Hard to get started
Rating: R16 – some definite nastiness (this is war after all); not fun if you have a vivid imagination

Recommend: If you feel up to it

Up next … in need of something a little lighter, I’m going with Charlotte’s Web.

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Posted by on May 7, 2011 in Catch 22, Review

 

Caught up

So, I’ve managed to finish Catch-22, and I feel I understand now why it is so haphazard in the beginning. Throughout the whole book it gets progressively more coherent, and noticeably darker in tone, culminating in the details of the incident that breaks Yossarian’s nerve. This darkening of tone is quite awkward in places, as it can shift very quickly. One moment you may be laughing at something patently ridiculous, the next you’re thinking “Why am I laughing at this? What sort of horrible, twisted individual am I?” as the seriousness of the situation hits home.

Overall, though, it actually makes it interesting and satisfying, as there is a sense of the book mirroring Yossarian’s mind edging ever closer to the subject, then darting away (to a different time/place) because it’s not ready to deal with it. Once everything is out in the open, the final chapter has a calm and determined Yossarian who knows what he is going to do and is ready to take direct action to deal with his dilemma (to fly, or not to fly). It has a relaxing, encouraging feeling, despite the seriousness of the situation.

Another blogger, rainymondaymorning, makes similar remarks about Atonement in terms of it being annoying to start with, but better once you get into it. I commented there, and I reiterate here, that I dislike the idea of any form of entertainment that requires a substantial investment before it gets “good”. Yes, it’s very true to life – in the real world, a lot of the best things require a lot of work before you see any benefit from them. With most products/services, you don’t gain any income until you have completed the product/performed the service. For that reason, entertainment should be interesting fairly quickly. We’ve spent the day at work, we don’t want to have to work at our leisure activities*.

But having said all that, I can’t really fault Catch-22, nor any other book/movie/etc. that has a similarly high up-front cost. Not all books are purely for entertainment, and it’s the “literature” that advances the medium; testing new ideas, stretching boundaries, conveying humanity in all its complexities. We need the heavy stuff, just as much as we need the light stuff, because there’s far more to life than any one of us can ever experience in a whole lifetime.

I’d better point out, though – before anyone starts measuring me up for a tweed jacket and horn-rimmed spectacles – that when I get home after a long day and sit down to watch a DVD, it’s more likely to be something like How to Train Your Dragon than, say, Winter’s Bone.

* As a side note, I suspect this is part of the reason some people – myself included – struggle with exercise unless there is an externally-imposed motivation (like meeting other people at the gym).

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2011 in Catch 22

 

Show; don’t tell

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.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2011 in Catch 22