Joseph Heller, “Catch-22” (1961) – Thirty-five is an unusual age to read this particular classic. In fact, I was given my copy of “Catch-22” roughly half my life ago by a dear friend. I was the right age then, but circumstance intervened: the prose reminded me of the speech of my high school girlfriend, and I put it down. Having now read it, I don’t quite see what teenage me was thinking in that, the memories don’t quite add up- adolescence is another planet. I assumed for years I’d never pick the book up again, and carried it with me through multiple moves mostly because my friend wrote a sweet note to me in it.
Why did I read it at age thirty-five? Well, out of general interest in American literature, is part of the answer. But I pulled the trigger now because I just re-read “A Confederacy of Dunces,” and reacquainted myself with the tortured story of that book’s publication. John Kennedy Toole, author of “Confederacy,” had a long correspondence with Robert Gottlieb, editor at Simon & Schuster and one of the most influential literary editors of his day. In it, Gottlieb repeatedly praised Toole and “Confederacy” but insisted on sweeping changes in the work, and in the end, passed on it. Gottlieb rose to prominence initially on the strength of discovering Joseph Heller and ushering “Catch-22” into print. So I was curious: what was in “Catch-22” that appealed to Gottlieb, that “A Confederacy of Dunces” (supposedly) lacked?
I wouldn’t call “Catch-22” story-driven or character-driven in the usual sense, maybe a little more the latter- I guess I’d call it “scenario-driven.” The scenario is this: in the waning days of World War Two, US Army Air Force bombardier John Yossarian doesn’t want to fly any more missions, because people shoot at him and try to kill him. No one else on his base, set on a tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean, seems to understand this simple concept, except for possibly Yossarian’s friend, the chaplain. Plenty of Yossarian’s fellows look to avoid combat, but primarily because they’ve got other irons on the fire: playing the black market, getting laid, being a nefarious colonel looking to use their men to advance their careers. Realizing that getting in an airplane and flying out to drop bombs on people while other people shoot at you is crazy, as Yossarian does, leads to the original of several versions of the titular “Catch-22:” if you realize what you’re doing is objectively crazy, than you are sane enough to undertake it.
The narrative of the book proceeds non-linearly. We get chapters, mostly named after one or another character, that relate one or another anecdote of life on the base, of missions, or of leave spent in Rome or elsewhere in Italy. They illustrate a whole world of military screwballs, dickering with each other comedically in action that sometimes recalls the Three Stooges and dialogue that is sometimes a little “who’s on first?” Not that either is damning- that kind of humor can be funny, and while I didn’t laugh aloud much I can see why it appeals, especially when it was written. I don’t call the work character-driven because the characters, including Yossarian, are reasonably well-characterized but seemingly thin by design. This makes sense, given the here today, gone tomorrow nature of extended combat tours and the surreal world of the war (what Pynchon called “the zone”) around them. A narrative eventually reveals itself through the non-linear confusion, as we see the missions Yossarian went on, alluded to in previous chapters, that soured him on war, and as the nefarious colonels ratchet up their demands on their men, bringing Yossarian and many of the others to a breaking point. But I’d say the plot isn’t really the point, either.
What, then, is the point? An especially important question to me, as one of the main points Robert Gottlieb made against “A Confederacy of Dunces” was what he saw as the book’s pointlessness. Well, not to be reductive, but it seems to me the main point of “Catch-22” would be “war = bad.” A valid point, and one often eluded in mythology of World War Two, “the good war.” There’s also a fair amount of “bureaucracy = bad,” producing humor about the irrationality of machine society, which reached unheard of potency during the war and looked set to dominate the peace. Also reasonably valid, if overdone in subsequent decades. These points helped make it a favorite of the Baby Boom generation, and the man-vs-sick-society thing still resonates, especially but not exclusively with younger readers. It’s a classic for a reason.
What opened up the book some for me and helped with the “Confederacy” comparison was this simple question: What does Yossarian want? We all know he wants to not fly missions any more. He wants to live. Sometimes, he expresses concern for whether others live, primarily his buddies but also sometimes civilians he’s sent to bomb, but Heller is admirably circumspect in making Yossarian feckless, no paper Christ. What I didn’t know going in was how much Yossarian wants to get laid. Yossarian is both horny (he gets laid a lot with sex workers and nurses, and basically sexually assaults one of the latter with a buddy in a scene played for laughs) and romantic (forever falling in love with one or another of his scores). Other than officers, sex workers are the most prominent occupation of character in the world of the book, and one (mostly referred to as “Nately’s whore”) goes some way towards advancing the action of the plot.
This might be a bit of a reach, but Yossarian’s rejection of the military — an exclusively male institution, inhabited by men who seem to love being around other men, even as many of them also seek out women compulsively — strikes me as another instantiation of a theme in postwar fiction pointed out by academic and critic Michael Trask: a man “coming out as straight,” in opposition to institutional settings that would make him unnatural and queer. Yossarian just wants to be left alone to indulge the appetites every man has- sex with women, and indolence. In this way, Yossarian sets the pattern for the comedic Everyman for generations to come, from the characters in MASH to Homer Simpson. We know Heller influenced these later generations of comic writers- Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” wrote an amusing comic about meeting Heller, one of his favorite writers. “Catch-22” reminded me of nothing so much as the fourth season of “Arrested Development,” one of my favorite tv shows, and I’d be very surprised if the writers weren’t familiar with “Catch-22.”
From a distance, this doesn’t look all that different from “A Confederacy of Dunces,” which has had its own impact on comedy writing. Ignatius Reilly, the main character, also wants to be left alone, to rot in his room, eating, bothering his mother, writing down his untimely thoughts, and masturbating. Both “Confederacy” and “Catch-22” end with the promise of escape for the main character, flight to a promised land with sexual overtones. But there are important differences. Ignatius may be a slob, but he is no everyman. His sexuality — repressed, violent, fantastic, fundamentally solipsistic — is the furthest thing from the straightforward and frequently-gratified sexuality of a Yossarian. What Ignatius wants — either in his lazier modes or in the manias he goes into for much of the action of “Confederacy” — is not the sort of thing that would be considered normal or noble (those near-homophones!) by most American readers at midcentury.
Robert Gottlieb was (is, he’s still alive) a classic literary gatekeeper. You don’t get to be editor of the New Yorker unless you’re a safe pair of hands. Put it all together and you get a dispiriting picture of why “Catch-22” would appeal to him in ways “A Confederacy of Dunces” would not. You can slap a big moral — “war and bureaucracy = bad” — on “Catch-22” in a way you can’t with “Confederacy.” The non-linear aspect of “Catch-22” makes it more confusing and obscure and hence “literary” than “Confederacy,” which is basically linear in plot. Despite wallowing in death and futility, “Catch-22,” in its apotheosizing feckless everyman Yossarian, celebrates the agreed upon postwar values, at least of the literary set: peace, plenty, and heterosexual intercourse. That, and the moral he could put on it, was the “point” “Catch-22” had for someone like Gottlieb, I think.
“A Confederacy of Dunces” did not have that point and did not reaffirm those values. And those values, relatively recently, were pretty strongly challenged by a serious artistic avant-garde, many of whom chose the wrong side in the war that serves as a setting for “Catch-22.” Along with “Confederacy,” while reading “Catch-22” I kept thinking of the works of Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the French fascist who for my money wrote the best literary depictions of the Second World War. His outlook was at least as bleak as Heller’s and, while not exacting denying himself worldly pleasures, Celine no more thought they justified the world and human existence than he believed in democracy or equality. We know Celine influenced Joseph Heller’s friend and fellow writer Kurt Vonnegut- I wonder if Heller read him? It’s worth noting that both Celine and Vonnegut present a ground-level take on the war (Celine as a refugee, Vonnegut as an infantryman), as opposed to Heller’s air war. The war was dangerous enough for American bomber crews, but you get a whole other look at the world and its quandaries from the perspective of people really in the meat grinder, like a Soviet infantryman, to allude to another ideological side of the war that postwar American literary culture strenuously sought to exclude.
John Kennedy Toole wasn’t a communist or a fascist, but “A Confederacy of Dunces” breathes just a little bit of that mephitic air of the tomb world of non-humanist ideology (reactionary Catholicism as practiced by Ignatius, the real old school stuff not this online “tradcath” horseshit, fits right in there). It emitted enough, I think, to scare someone like Gottlieb. Cynical and dark though “Catch-22” is, it would not ring the same alarm bells. None of this is to say that “Catch-22” is a less genuine book, or that it doesn’t deserve praise. It’s pretty good, though I think “A Confederacy of Dunces” is funnier and better. I guess I’m just interested in how the sausage of canon gets made, and I think the comparison of “Catch-22” with “A Confederacy of Dunces” illuminates the process. ****