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Caught Up in “Catch-22”

Reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) on the heels of reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), as I did recently, is like taking a ride in that contraption that was featured in the film, An Officer and a Gentleman. You know the one: a diabolical training exercise that was meant to simulate for Navy Flight School candidates what it’s like to experience a sea-going plane crash. The machine slams you hard into a deep pool of cold, murky water, twists and spins you around so that you are punchy, shaken, disoriented, with no idea which way is up or down. Many aspiring pilots washed out after confronting this bit of controlled mayhem.

Yeah, so reading Catch-22 is kind of like that.

catch22

It’s a topsy turvy universe that Heller has concocted for our elucidation and entertainment. And it’s soooo different from the world of To Kill a Mockingbird (which was published just the previous year).  In fact, Catch-22 is the anti-Mockingbird.

Mockingbird is all about learning how to be a responsible adult: how to see things from others’ points of view, how to care about the less fortunate, how to stand up for what’s right. Even though the novel darkens near the end with the tragedy of Tom Robinson’s false conviction and death, it is nevertheless an optimistic book. One feels that the good guys–like the grandly heroic Atticus Finch and his children–will eventually prevail.

Catch-22 posits quite the opposite: a nightmare world where there are no heroes, where everyone’s motives are suspect, where stupidity and incompetence and ugliness and squalor and death reign supreme. Where the best are ineffectual losers and the worst are firmly in charge.

The story follows one Captain John Yossarian as he struggles to maintain his life and sanity as a B-25 bombardier in a U.S. Army Air Forces unit based on the Italian island of Pianossa. (Heller, himself, was a bombardier who flew 60 combat missions in Europe during World War II.)

For my money, Catch-22 remains the best modern war novel ever written (sorry Ernest Hemingway, sorry James Jones, sorry Michael Herr, sorry Tim O’Brien, sorry all you other guys). Can’t think of a novel that so perfectly captures the real state of modern warfare.

It’s amazing to think that Heller wrote most of the book–not in the turbulent, counter-cultural upheavals of the late Sixties, nor the cynical, post-Watergate Seventies–but in the Fifties (he began the book in 1953 and finally published it in 1961).

While the rest of America was in a period of materialistic somnambulism, Heller was writing this explosive diatribe against . . . conformity, mindless patriotism, bureaucratic bumbling, state-sanctioned hypocrisy and the whole depressing tenor of modern life. While Catch-22 is, of course, a war novel . . . it is really about something even bigger and more threatening: the rise of the amoral, soulless, mind-numbing bureaucratic machine that forms much of modern society.

Here’s Heller on Major Major’s right-wing, alfalfa-farmer father:

He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. . . . His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. . . .

So while Mockingbird was teaching us lessons about becoming moral, upright young people, Catch-22 was schooling us about being skeptical and questioning authority and suspecting people’s motives and seeing life through a corrective lens of irony.

These two oil-and-water books–so different in almost every conceivable way–form the alpha and omega of the Baby Boomer literary experience. And with Mockingbird and Catch-22 as the bookends for the Baby Boom generation, it’s a wonder that all of us Baby Boomers didn’t turn out to be raging schizos (or did we?).

catch_22 bomber

The really interesting thing about Catch-22 is how it manages this wonderful balancing act: on the one hand it is absolutely funny, darkly funny, infuriatingly funny, funny in a way many of us had never experienced before . . . and sets this humor . . . against a backdrop of stupidity, incompetence, heartlessness, terror, and death. Always death.

The book manages to tickle our funny bones while it touches our heartstrings. And that ain’t easy, boys and girls. It’s not too hard to do one or the other, but to combine satire with heartfelt emotion, to create characters who we can laugh at and yet cry for. That’s art of the highest order.

So what is Heller up to here?

Essentially he’s telling us that even a “good war” like World War II is no walk in the park. That even if the cause is just, even if intentions are noble–every war is in essence a kind of a gruesome lab experiment: put human beings in a frightening, horrible, confusing, brutalizing environment and see what happens to them.

And the results of the experiment are invariably the same: the moments we all like to celebrate and remember and make movies about–moments of valor and glory–are inextricably mixed in with many, many more moments of boredom and malice and incompetence and cruelty.

When I was in grad school at Rutgers in the Seventies I was lucky enough to have as a teacher one of our finest writers about modern warfare, Paul Fussell (who won the National Book Award for his ground-breaking, 1975 The Great War and Modern Memory). Fussell was a professor of literature, but also happened to be a WWII combat vet who was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for action in France.

Fussell had plenty to say about our tendency to mindlessly glorify and sugar-coat the grim reality of modern warfare. This is from the preface to his book about WWII, Wartime:

The damage the war visited upon bodies and buildings, planes and tanks and ships, is obvious. Less obvious is the damage it did to intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity, and irony, not to mention privacy and wit. For the past fifty years the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recongnition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty. I have tried to balance the scales.

I suspect this is what Heller is up to as well in Catch-22–just trying to balance the scales.

So for all the reassuring media images of super-competent military leadership, steely-eyed, determined warriors calmly and superbly guiding their men with unflinching resolve and for the noblest of intentions, he gives us the opposite view.

Colonel Cathcart, for instance, the group commander who keeps raising the number of combat missions the men must fly before they can go home–from 35 to 4o to 45 to . . . 80. And why? When there are many replacement crews available and ready to relieve the exhausted and brutalized airmen?

So he can look good to his superiors (his only ace card, he realizes, is not the quality of his command but the sheer number of missions he can make his men fly) and, perhaps most importantly for him, to win a coveted cover story in The Saturday Evening Post.

Or the mind-bogglingly incompetent and aptly named Lieutenant Scheisskopff whose funny/scary obsession with military parades and utter unsuitability as a leader of men inevitably (in this bureaucratic nightmare world Heller has concoted) leads to his promotion to general by the end of the book.

joseph heller

There are so many great moments and so much great writing that I can only give you a few snippets.

Here’s Heller describing the concept of “Catch-22” in all its mind-numbing absurdity:

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 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. 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.

And, of course, the novel’s centerpiece is the terrifying raid over Avignon. Throughout the novel the narrator comes back to the mission again and again, like a bad tooth that he can’t help prodding with his tongue. Until, toward the end of Catch-22, we finally find out what happened to Snowden, a member of Yossarian’s crew on that ill-fated mission.

The scene is one of the most intense and horrifying in all of literature: a shaken Yossarian goes to the back of the heavily-damaged plane to tend to Snowden, who has a gaping, football-sized wound in his thigh. Yossarian conscientiously manages to staunch the bleeding and dress the wound and is feeling somewhat relieved about Snowden’s prospects for survival when . . .

But Snowden kept shaking his head and pointed at last, with just the barest movement of his chin, down toward his armpit. Yossarian bent forward to peer and saw a strangely colored stain seeping through the coveralls just above the armhole of Snowden’s flak suit. Yossarian felt his heart stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe. Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. . . .

“I’m cold,” Snowden whimpered. “I’m cold.”

“There, there,” Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard. “There, there.”

catch-22 cover

Funny thing is the very first time I read the book was in a totally loopy manner that might have appealed to Heller’s twisted sense of humor.

I was probably 13 or 14 when I noticed the book on my older brother’s desk (a beat-up 95-cent Dell paperback as I recall). The title intrigued me a bit–I had never heard the term “Catch-22”–and wondered what the heck it might mean.

So I took a look. Then another. Then another. I admit it was the sex that first captured my post-pubescent attention. I raced through the book searching out the titillating “dirty parts”–mostly the scenes in the Roman brothels where Yossarian and Nately and the rest of the airmen go for R&R.

I would sneak peaks at the book when my brother left our shared bedroom or when he was out of the house altogether. I was, it goes without saying, way too young to be reading the novel, and certainly way too young to truly grasp its dark humor or grim lessons.

I find it so humorous to recall that long-ago first “reading” (if that’s what you would call it): hunting for stray mentions of naked young prostitutes or barely mentioned sex acts. In retrospect, Catch-22 may be the least erotic novel ever written, but back then pickings were very slim in the erotica department for an adolescent boy. We had to make do with what little scraps of titillation we could find.

But while I was searching for mentions of young girls and naked flesh, Catch-22 was inadvertently teaching me lessons . . . lessons about warfare, about human nature, about irony, about life. Lessons that have stayed with me ever since.

Yossarian Lives

So if you are not a Baby Boomer and want to figure out why the older generation can seem so squirrely and schizoid at times, I suggest you run out and read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Heller’s Catch-22 back to back. That experience may tell you all you need to know about us, where we came from, what we value, and why The Books that Mattered, matter.

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Five Things to Love about “Slaughterhouse-Five”

This may not come as a shock to many of you but Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is one terrific novel. Witty, thought-provoking, wise, profoundly moving.

Funny thing is, when I first read the book in my college years, I wasn’t at all sold on its brilliance or importance. I liked it OK. But it struck me back then as a bit too slight, too glib, too “easy” to be considered a great book.

In fact, I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to read Slaughterhouse again if not for my Books That Mattered blog.

[I must point out that I was definitely in the minority in my feelings about the novel. “Slaughterhouse-Five” is firmly ensconced on both the Modern Library’s 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century list (#18) as well as Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels list.

When I quizzed Baby Boomers about the “books that mattered” to them, it was one of the most often-mentioned titles. So I guess I was a bit of an oddball in not loving the book back in the day.]

Slaughterhouse-Five Original

I suppose I read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel at exactly the wrong time for me to really appreciate it: my senior year of college (1974) when I was starting to get a little pretentious and precious in my literary leanings. I was really into modernism and Eliot and Pound and Joyce.  I had started to view literature as a kind of elaborate game of Clue–the more obscure and arcane the allusions, the better. In comparison, Vonnegut’s novel just seemed too transparent and accessible.

So let’s just say that Slaughterhouse-Five and I were not a perfect match back then.

Having just read the book again for the first time in 40 years, I’m a little mortified that I was so cavalier about the novel. What a little twerp I must have been. That great Dylan line flashes in my head: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

It strikes me now that maybe I’ve learned a bit in the intervening years and one of the biggest lessons is that great literature doesn’t have to be difficult or knotty or complicated. It just needs to be.

Kurt Vonnegut

So how does Slaughterhouse-Five look all these years later?

Pretty awesome.

On re-reading it, there are five aspects of the novel that I especially love:

ASPECT #1: Vonnegut’s Humanism

I find myself particularly impressed with humanity of the book. I’d somehow formed the impression over the years that Vonnegut was a cynical, deeply pessimistic writer.

[“Slaughterhouse-Five” is the only Vonnegut novel I’ve read so far. Note to self: read more Vonnegut.]

But reading Slaughterhouse now, my impression is quite the opposite. Vonnegut seems incredibly humane and generous and open-hearted.

Early in the novel the narrator recounts the biblical story of Lot. As we all remember, God destroyed the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, sparing only Lot and his wife. But Lot’s wife couldn’t resist taking a look back at the ruined cities (God had forbidden her to do so) and was instantly turned into a pillar of salt. Here’s his take on that story:

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

Cynical? I think not.

Aspect #2: Vonnegut’s Playfulness

I also love Vonnegut’s ability to maintain a sense of humor even in the face of incredible darkness and tragedy. He is very funny, but never at the expense of his characters or his story. It is humor forged in the fires of hell.

Here, he recounts how he had been struggling for many years to write about the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden (an event that Vonnegut experienced first-hand as a young POW):

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say,” ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”

Aspect #3: Vonnegut’s Narrative Experimentation

I don’t know about  you, but I am soooo tired of the whole “meta” thing: novelists whose novels are all about writing the novel you are reading; poems about how hard it is to write a poem; movie-makers whose movies are all about, yes, you guessed it . . . the movie they are making, etc. OK, we get the joke: everything we’re reading has been made up by the author. Can we please move on?

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the few meta-narratives that actually work for me (Ian McEwan’s Atonement is another). Because the book is not only about the absurdities and horrors of war, but also about the absurdity of trying to write a novel about war.

Here’s the first paragraph of the novel, where the narrator clues us in on what he’s up to:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

Unlike so many writers who employ meta-narratives in their works, in Slaughterhouse-Five, the technique works brilliantly. This is because in Vonnegut’s hands the blurring of the line between “fiction” and “reality”–between what is “made up” and what “really” happened–is not just a goof or a parlor trick.

There is real purpose here: Vonnegut is saying that the “truth” of Dresden is too big and awful and complicated to be communicated solely by fiction . . . or solely by non-fiction. In fact, trying to convey the truth of something like his wartime experiences overwhelms any traditional literary approach.

So when Vonnegut admits that he is both the author of the novel as well as a character (whom we occasionally glimpse on the sidelines of the action), it strikes the reader, not as trickery or game-playing. It feels like the work of someone who is desperately trying to come to grips with a reality that is so profound that none of the old rules apply.

Thus, the authorial intrusions, the jumping back and forth in time, the way the novel keeps circling back to the central story of Billy Pilgrim’s experiences in Germany: the reader feels there is no other possible way to tell this particular story. Which is as it should be.

slaughterhouse-five

Aspect#4: The Tralfamadorians

No matter what you may have heard, let me just say it here: Slaughterhouse-Five is not a work of science fiction.

That may be part of the reason that I was a little unappreciative of the novel back in the day: not having read any Vonnegut before, I was expecting a little more of a mainstream SF novel.

Unlike true science fiction, I don’t think for a second we are supposed to take the Tralfamadorians (the aliens who abduct Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, and put him in a zoo on their planet) seriously or as realistic depictions of an alien life form. They are clearly a literary device meant to act as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on and pointing out the absurdity of being human:

. . . they were two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. . . . The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three.

Looking at it now, I’d put the novel more in the “imaginative satire” camp than SF (more like Swift’s Gulliver Travels than, say, Dune or Childhood’s End).

Nevertheless, the Tralfamadorians are a marvelous invention. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them is their conception of time. Here is Billy Pilgrim in a letter trying to describe how Tralfamadorians view things:

“. . . when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are . . . It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

I suppose the real question is: how seriously are we supposed to take the Tralfamadorians and their world-view? On the one hand, their approach is appealingly Zen-like and serene: accepting whatever happens because it has always happened and always will happen.

And yet, being human, can we ever learn to just accept things (such as Dresden)? Can we ever really hope to adopt the Tralfamadorian viewpoint:

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.'”

 Aspect #5: Vonnegut’s Depiction of War

Has there ever been a scene that more economically and chillingly depicts the tragedy of war than the moment in Slaughterhouse-Five when Billy and his fellow POWs emerge from their bomb shelter after one of the most savage and destructive acts in all of human history: the firebombing of the beautiful city of Dresden.

There was a firestorm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

So it goes.

135,000 people–mostly civilians, thousands upon thousands of women and children–were incinerated in one of the most pointless acts of warfare in human history. The civilian death toll was nearly that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

No one contests the fact that Dresden had virtually no value as a military target. It was sheer, wanton destruction. Twenty-three-year-old Kurt Vonnegut was there to witness it all. And was destined to one day come back to it in his imagination and relive it all again for our benefit.

so it goes

Slaughterhouse-Five is one writer’s noble attempt to make sense of the senseless.

It is a book that should be read by anyone who is seduced by the “glory” of war, or the idea of a “good war,” or the notion that civilian deaths can be written off as “collateral damage,” or any of the other fictions we tell ourselves to make war seem less barbaric than it always is.

It was a must-read back in 1969 when it was first published and remains even more of a must-read today.

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