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Book review: by Tom Vaughan

Wed, 05/30/2007 - 02:57

If this was adapted as a sitcom after its first printing in 1961, it would have become Hogan’s Heroes. Does all mainstream satire eventually become a joke about itself? Discuss.

A nice text effort skewing the title across the side of some metal-plated machine (presumably a bomber).

WWII bomber pilots try not to get blown to pieces over Italy, then try to keep their sanity on the ground between missions. Madcap hi-jinx, largely taking the form of violence, insanity and death, ensue.

The good
The book may be a) nearly fifty years old, and b) grim as hell, really, but it’s still funny. Not only that, but the humour is yoked to the purpose, as Vonnegut’s usually is, and creates an atmosphere of insanity and chaos while feeling very grounded and human. The humour also serves, in a very unusual way, to compose the core theme of the book by retelling again and again and again variations of the One Big Joke, for which see title. The sheer number of flavours and facets Heller can get from this idea is quite astonishing. So what is it? Well, in case you still don’t know, Catch-22 is a (supposed) regulation explained by the doctor on the base: he is permitted to ground pilots for reason of insanity. The pilot must come to the doctor with this request. However, any pilot rational enough to attempt to avoid the insanity of combat is patently sane. Therefore, not eligible for grounding. Or, to put it more simply, as does an old Italian madam near the end of the book: “Catch-22 means they have the right to do anything to us that we can’t stop them from doing.”

This circular, self-defeating logic permeates every scene in the book, in a truly masterful fashion. I’ve heard it took Heller 5 years to write, and when you witness the craft at work here it’s believable; it’s the kind of book the word processor was invented for, written at a time when the second world war was still fresh, raw and bleeding in many people’s minds. The structure is truly a marvel—despite feeling loose and unhinged (and playing merry hell with chronography), Heller builds a truly intricate world, at least half of which exists solely inside the dinged-up skulls of the men (and they’re all men) for which every chapter is named.

Much of the satire of war is generated, not through any heavy-handed plot billboards, but through the thoughts and deeds of the characters themselves, and, aside from central-ish character Yossarian, none of them seem to realise they’re acting out of the ordinary. My favourite example has to be Milo Minderbinder, that zany war profiteer guy we’ve seen in a dozen war films from Sergeant Bilko to Buffalo Soldiers. Heller takes this archetype, and makes him human. Milo is, at first, one of Yossarian’s few allies, and the men love him because he brings in classy European food and drink for the mess halls by running a syndicate in which they all have a share. He crosses borders to bring home a profit, and if he occasionally borrows military resources to do so, well, it’s all in the interests of the syndicate, in which everybody has a share. Then Heller follows his behaviour to its logical conclusion, something which, of course, few free-market evangelists have the balls or inclination to do. Milo starts selling to both sides, then he starts working for both sides, then he starts selling the services of both sides TO both sides. He finally goes a bit far by purchasing a German mission to bomb his own base, for which he uses his own bomber squadron. Stiff reprimands are in order, questions to be asked, etcetera. On the other hand, Milo DID somehow make a large profit from this venture, large enough to remunerate the government for the death and destruction his profiteering has caused. Well, in theory. Because, after all, as Milo puts it:

“In a democracy, the government is the people,” Milo explained. “We’re people, aren’t we? So we might just as well keep the money and eliminate the middleman. Frankly, I’d like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry. If we pay the government everything we owe it, we’ll only be encouraging governmental control and discouraging other individuals from bombing their own men and planes. We’ll be taking away their incentive.”

This is a man who would have understood CIA planes with bellies full of blow and rockets passing each other mid-air between North and South America. Heck, I guarantee he could do a better job with Halliburton than Dick Cheney ever did—at least Milo makes a profit. And, obviously, when you get down to it, everyone has a share.

Look, I could write reams of this nonsense and come no closer to explaining why this is such an achievement. It’s regularly coarse, visceral and raw, yet always light-headed, if not hearted, in its manic devotion to seeing the ridiculous in every situation and motivation. The closer a scene teeters on the abyss, the more Heller finds to play with, and once you’ve adopted the Catch-22 mindset so will you—one begins to see things coming, not from the deja vu of a Hollywood blockbuster, but from the awful yawning inevitability of the social faux pas you’re halfway through committing, or the Darwin Award accident on YouTube.

The bad
Like a lot of contemporary satire, this is not going to be for everyone. Obviously those who think soldiery is a fine and upstanding business may not agree with the constantly reinforced futility of every aspect of war—and let’s not forget that this was a war which actually involved TWO armies fighting each other for a definite positive purpose, so what Heller would’ve made of Vietnam, and almost everything since, one can only imagine. (On the other hand, the only friend of mine ex-armed services quite enjoyed this... although he didn’t quite finish it. I think he felt as though he’d gotten The Joke.)

The one truly dated bit of the book is the attitudes toward women. They are, in essence, half a century old. This is a story about men who lived fifty years ago, though, and it makes sense for their dated attitudes and points of view to be taken into account.

In a slightly self-fellatory intro to the whatever-th anniversary print run, Heller takes time to gloat over a few negative reviews of the book on its release, including one where a reviewer says that it ultimately drowns in its own mocking laughter. I can see where the reviewer was coming from, I must admit. Although there is pathos and humanity to be found, Heller rarely lets either come before The Joke. There is a scene in hospital, for instance, where Yossarian wangles himself a nice cushy bed beside a dying man by mimicking the guy’s condition (which consists of occasionally screaming “I see TWO OF EVERYTHING!!”—cue much amusing “how many fingers?” gags from the doctors, etc.). The docs are intrigued but mystified, and by the time the poor chap’s relatives have arrived it’s too late—although they don’t know that yet. So the doctors swap Yossarian for the now-dead chap. (If you can guess what’s coming, you’re definitely in the right place for this book!) The relatives are brought in, and they can’t tell the difference between Yossarian and their son, and continue talking to him as normal, trying to be brave with varying success. This scene has a lot it wants to say about the isolation and democracy of death and what war does to people, and I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but Heller undoubtedly plays it in this order:

1. The Joke (for which see title)
2. satire
3. emotional impact

Sometimes this approach has the effect of slipping a little knife into your heart when you least expect it, but usually it means you bounce along on craziness after craziness like a car on a corrugated road, feeling little. Which is sort of what the men do. Boy this is clever.
What I learnt

Don’t join the army.
Don’t join the navy.
Don’t join the air force.

The only thing harder than being funny all the way through a book is being funny all the way through a book ON TOPIC. Ooh, time for one last quote, Marjory? Really? That soon? Bugger it, here’s one anyway—Yossarian is with the doctor:

“Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that in your promiscuous pursuit of women you are merely trying to assuage your subconscious fears of sexual impotence?”
“Yes, sir, it has.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“To assuage my subconscious fears of sexual impotence.”

Post je objavljen 30.08.2008. u 21:45 sati.