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Catch-22: The first 100 pages

September 17, 2011

What the hell is this?

So I finally got around to reading this book which has been on my to-read list for about as long as I’ve had one, and after 107 pages (or the first 8 chapters, depending on what print you’re reading), I don’t know what I’m reading.

So far I’ve been introduced to, at my estimate, about a thousand characters, heard two thousand conversations between them, and still have no idea about any of them.

As anyone who’s been reading this blog for very long is probably well aware, I enjoy long, rambling sentences that tend to dance around the point without really going anywhere as much as the next guy, but I hardly think a barrage of non-stop passages like this is likely to keep anyone’s attention for very long, let alone be the foundations of a timeless bestseller.

And even I tend to feel that conversations between characters should usually be there to illustrate some kind of point, or point out some kind of characteristic of the people involved. If that’s the case, all I can really tell about anyone in this story so far is that they all seem to have suffered serious head injuries.

“There’s a leak here,” Orr said. “I’m trying to fix it.”

“Please stop it,” said Yossarian. “You’re making me nervous.”

“When I was a kid,” Orr replied, “I used to walk around all day with crab apples in my cheeks. One in each cheek.”

Yossarian put aside the musette bag from which he had begun removing his toilet articles and braced himself suspiciously. A minute passed. “Why?” he found himself forced to ask finally.

Orr tittered triumphantly. “Because they’re better than horse chestnuts,” he answered.

[…]

“When I couldn’t get crab apples,” Orr continued, “I used horse chestnuts. Horse chestnuts are about the same size as crab apples and actually have a better shape, although the shape doesn’t matter a bit.”

“Why did you walk around with crab apples in your cheeks?” Yossarian asked again. “That’s what I asked.”

“Because they’ve got a better shape than horse chestnuts,” Orr answered. “I just told you that.”

“Why,” swore Yossarian at him approvingly, “you evil-eyed, mechanically-aptituded, disaffiliated son of a bitch, did you walk around with anything in your cheeks?”

“I didn’t,” Orr said, “walk around with anything in my cheeks. I walked around with crab apples in my cheeks. When I couldn’t get crab apples I walked around with horse chestnuts. In my cheeks.”

Orr giggled. Yossarian made up his mind to keep his mouth shut and did. Orr waited. Yossarian waited longer.

“One in each cheek,” Orr said.

“Why?”

Orr pounced. “Why what?”

Yossarian shook his head, smiling, and refused to say.

“It’s a funny thing about this valve,” Orr mused aloud.

“What is?” Yossarian asked.

“Because I wanted -”

Yossarian knew. “Jesus Christ! Why did you want -”

“- apple cheeks.”

“- apple cheeks?” Yossarian demanded.

“I wanted apple cheeks,” Or repeated. “Even when I was a kid I wanted apple cheeks someday, and I decided to work at it until I got them, and by God, I did work at it until I got them, and that’s how I did it, with crab apples in my cheeks all day long.” He giggled again. “One in each cheek.”

“Why did you want apple cheeks?”

“I didn’t want apple cheeks,” Orr said. “I wanted big cheeks. I didn’t care about the color so much, but I wanted them big. I worked at it just like one of those crazy guys you read about who go around squeezing rubber balls all day long just to strengthen their hands. In fact, I was one of those crazy guys. I used to walk around all day with rubber balls in my hands, too.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you walk around all day with rubber balls in your hands?”

“Because rubber balls -” said Orr.

“- are better than crab apples?”

(pp34-35)

… and so on. And with nothing resolved, this conversation then segues into some story about a whore beating him over the head with a shoe for twenty minutes. Which segues into something about U.S.O. shows, which then segues into something else, and before you know it, you’ve finished the chapter and are no wiser as to what happened or where this story is going than you were when you started it.

I liked Alice in Wonderland, and alot of the conversations and rambling descriptions here seem like they might fit right in there. But in Alice, there was some form of narrative happening, and the oddities were just part of that. In Catch-22, the nonsensical non sequiturs seem to be pretty much all there is.

The overflow of characters who tend to get heaped on one another and the constant switching of location and time from paragraph to paragraph also help to make it difficult to make any sense out of what you’re reading, or even feel like you’re doing anything worthwhile with your time.

It was a night of surprises for Appleby, who was as large as Yossarian and as strong and who swung at Yossarian as hard as he could with a punch that flooded Chief White Halfoat with such joyous excitement that he turned and busted Colonel Moodus in the nose with a punch that filled General Dreedle with such mellow gratification that he had Colonel Cathcart throw the chaplain out of the officer’s club and ordered Chief White Halfoat moved into Doc Daneeka’s tent, where he could be under a doctor’s care twenty-four hours a day and be kept in good enough physical condition to bust Colonel Moodus in the nose again whenever General Dreedle wanted him to. Sometimes General Dreedle made special trips down from Wing Headquarters with Colonel Moodus and his nurse just to have Chief White Halfoat bust his son-in-law in the nose.

(p 75)

Wait, wasn’t this passage supposed to be about Appleby? Appleby isn’t mentioned again for the rest of the chapter.

As far as I can tell, there is something of a vague plot (or at least, core idea) in the sense that the main character, Yossarian, wants to get out of the fighting. It’s the end section of the war, he knows it’ll be over soon, and doesn’t want to needlessly die before it does. He wants out. The name of the book comes from the provision the doctor has to follow to decide if soldiers are insane, and therefore unfit for combat and can be sent home.

There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s 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 had 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.

(pp 62-63)

Presumably, the style is supposed to illustrate how crazy the people and the whole system is, and there is plenty of the self-defeating and hypocritical logic to be found in the Catch and, by extension, the army and the war itself. It’s just that it seems to be written by a guy who considers himself far funnier than he actually is, and is in serious need of an editor.

However, there are a few diamonds in the rough. A few passages are quite nicely written, and despite the lack of connection between them and anything else which is going on around them, make it easier to proceed a few more pages before getting stuck on some repetitive nonsense for a while longer. For example, why one soldier enjoys boring activities:

“Do you know how long a year takes when it’s going away?” Dunbar repeated to Clevinger. “This long.” He snapped his fingers. “A second ago you were stepping into college with your lungs full of fresh air. Today you’re an old man.”

“Old?” asked Clevinger with surprise. “What are you talking about?”

“Old.”

“I’m not old.”

“You’re inches away from death every time you go on a mission. How much older can you be at your age? A half minute before that you were stepping into high school, and an unhooked brassiere was as close as you ever hoped to get to Paradise. Only a fifth of a second before that you were a small kid with a ten-week summer vacation that lasted a hundred thousand years and still ended too soon. Zip! They go rocketing by so fast. How the hell else are you going to slow time down?” Dunbar was almost angry when he finished.

“Well, maybe it’s true,” Clevinger conceded unwillingly in a subdued tone. “Maybe a long life does have to be filled with many unpleasant conditions if it’s to seem long. But in that event, who wants one?”

“I do,” Dunbar told him.

“Why?” Clevinger asked.

“What else is there?”

(pp 53-54)

Or how the soldiers feel about military parades, in contrast with the Lieutenant’s feverish passion for them:

Each of the parading squadrons was graded as it marched past the reviewing stand, where a bloated colonel with a big fat mustache sat with the other officers. The best squadron in each wing won a yellow pennant on a pole that was utterly worthless. The best squadron on the base won a red pennant on a longer pole that was worth even less, since the pole was heavier and was that much more of a nuisance to lug around all week until some other squadron won it the following Sunday. To Yossarian, the idea of pennants as prizes was absurd. No money went with them, no class privileges. Like Olympic medals and tennis trophies, all they signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else.
(p 95)

Also, one of the officers is named “Scheisskopf”.

A quick look on the internet confirms that the majority of reviewers start out with the phrase, “It took me several attempts to read this book. The first 1-2 times I tried, I gave up a few chapters in.” However, once I get past the halfway point, things apparently pick up. The name’s big enough for me to bear it out, so let’s see how this bunch of people I barely know about manage to fare through to the end.

Clevinger knew everything about the war except why Yossarian had to die while Corporal Snark was allowed to live, or why Corporal Snark had to die while Yossarian was allowed to live. It was a vile and muddy war, and Yossarian could have lived without it – lived forever perhaps. Only a fraction of his countrymen would give up their lives to win it, and it was not his ambition to be among them. To die or not to die, that was the question, and Clevinger grew limp trying to answer it. History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend upon it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war.
(p 90)

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2011 11:01 pm

    I’ve tried to read Catch-22 about three times, and never made it past the first few chapters. Good luck getting to the end! 🙂

  2. catlady permalink
    September 18, 2011 12:36 am

    you ‘ ve lost me – I”ll stop looking for a copy in second hand bookshops – ? re read novel about my wife ?

  3. padraigcolman permalink
    September 18, 2011 12:40 pm

    I feel very sad for you!

  4. September 19, 2011 11:48 am

    After the initial mayhem, it does seem to be finding its way around the 200-page mark, hopefully it’ll keep coming together! Have you read it, PC?

  5. padraigcolman permalink
    September 19, 2011 1:15 pm

    Have i read it?!!!! I wish I had a pound for every time. I’d be a rich man.

    I read it again recently for my post

    http://pcolman.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/the-milo-minderbinder-school-of-foreign-polict/.
    It seemed more brilliant (and more relevant) than ever.

    For my generation it was one of those life-changing experiences to read it.

    We were bereft that Heller did not seem capable of writing anything else after it. We waited 13 years. As soon as I heard that a new novel was in the shops I rushed off in my lunch hour to buy it in hardback.

    Many were disappointed with Something Happened because it was so different from Catch-22. It was even more brilliant. It captured the deadening anomie of living in post war capitalist society just as Catch-22 captured the insane bureaucracy of war.

    Heller helped me to appreciate what my father’s generation endured to give me a comfortable life.

    And it still makes me laugh.

  6. September 20, 2011 5:04 pm

    Wow. OK, well I’m moving through it so once I’m finished I’ll come back and give that entry a good read over. Now there’s a kind of story developing it’s becoming much easier to read (though I’m not sure about the timeline…).

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