Saturday, 23 January 2010


I just finished reading Joseph Heller's Catch-22 for the first time. I started reading it weeks (months) ago and I think it is the first significant novel I've read almost entirely in intermittent ten or twenty minute subway ride spurts. I think this disjointed reading didn't detract too much from my experience, and in fact might have fit quite well with the jarring, non-chronological, and tangled events of the book (The last book I tried to read on the subway was Proust's Swann's Way, an effort which I abandoned 70 or so pages in, although even if I'd been on vacation in a secluded cabin without the distractions of cramped subway cars and worrying about missing my stop the erudite prose still probably would have gone right over my head).

One delightful thing about reading this book was that although I had been aware of it, as well as the phrase it created, for most of my life, I actually had no idea what it was about, akin to the rare pleasure of seeing a movie without having first seen a trailer that spoiled most of the major plot points. And when I say I didn't know what it was about, I mean, like, had no idea. Didn't know it was about war (although I figured that out quickly), didn't know it was an absurd comedy of sorts (once I realized this fact, it greatly increased how much I enjoyed/understood what was going on).

Since finishing it about an hour ago, I've read a few (one) articles about it online. I read that Heller has said that he actually didn't think he was writing a book about war, he was writing a book about bureaucracy and the absurd logic therein. That seems right.

Whenever I finish a book or a movie that really stirs me up and strikes me as significant, as this one did, I feel an impulse to talk about it or write about or do something inspired by it. And here we are. As usual, I don't have any clever thoughts or observations about it. Certainly nothing that hasn't been said better by people who have read more and actually know what they're talking about.


Here are a few passages that I especially liked (Note: my literary power of analysis does not exceed citing a few quotations. I am like a fourteen year-old boy who shows his admiration for Napoleon Dynamite or Old School by repeating the funny lines with his friends):


He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the rim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all.
p. 440 in my copy

Someone had to do something sometime. Every victim was a culprit, every culprit a victim, and somebody had to stand up sometime to try to break the lousy chain of inherited habit that was imperiling them all.
p. 405

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he would have to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed. “It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
p. 46

Hmm. Last thought. Joseph Heller wrote that book when he was 38 or something. I'm 25 or something. Nobody has done anything significant by this time, right? I'm okay to just keep plugging away and sooner or later I'll do something worthwhile? Right? Maybe by 13 years from now? Wait, you say that if I want to do something monumental I never will because I will be trying too hard, but if I don't want to do something monumental I never will because I won't be trying hard enough? That's sort of like, eh, what's that thing called...Murphy's Law? Yeah, that's it. Murphy's Law.



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