Thursday, 27 May 2010

Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)

--The blurb--
"At the heart of Joseph Heller's bestselling novel, first published in 1961, is a satirical indictment of military madness and stupidity, and the desire of the ordinary man to survive it. It is the tale of the dangerously sane Captain Yossarian, who spends his time in Italy plotting to survive."

--The review--
Within the parameters of your average classic novel, you could argue that this book doesn't even feature: it is untraditional in its approach, inflammatory, confusing and bewildering, making it a real baptism of fire for anyone reading it, whether this is their first foray into classic literature or otherwise. Even though it is (perhaps indisputably by now) firmly situated in the modern classics hall of fame, this is definitely not a book for everyone. You could even call it a "Marmite book" - you either love it or you hate it from the very first taste.

The fact that there is virtually no middle ground of opinion relating to Heller's 1961 opus means that it is maybe unsurprising to feel that it owes plenty to Proust. Initially overwhelming, it meanders unashamedly, and rather than following any conventional narrative strand, the majority of the space is spent describing people and atmospheres rather than situations and events. When more orthodox episodes do feature in a way that relates to plot, then, they are rendered all the more striking by the type of writing that surrounds them. Heller holds the dubious distinction of being harrowing and hilarious in equal measure, and by this I mean the good kind of hilarious - not the kind that raises a mild chuckle, or sets off a small connection in your brain that says "Ah, I see what you did there", but the genuine and original kind of hilarity that can make you burst out laughing in front of whoever you are with at the time. Equally, in the harrowing stakes, Heller doesn't do things by halves, with the horror he describes popping off the page and making your jaw drop. This is certainly not just your average WWII novel. Eloquent and vivid, the author is capable of creating images that stay with the reader forever.

The novel is saturated in wry sarcasm and black humour, satirising the situation of being at war, and yet simultaneously, you get the feeling that Heller isn't joking about the ways in which young men frequently play dice with their lives. The ending is as absurd as you would expect, but seeming somehow so fitting. Repetition is a strong feature of Catch-22, and it's easy to see why some readers may become frustrated with the novel's style and with its highly farcical nature. However, if you pursue it, and like it, you just might find that it's one of the best books that you've ever read.

Other works by Joseph Heller
Something Happened (1974)
Good As Gold (1979)
God Knows (1984)
Picture This (1988)
Closing Time (1994)
Portrait of an Artist, As An Old Man (2000; published posthumously)

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