Monday, June 16, 2014

More on Catch-22

The important observation to make about the narrative of Catch-22 is the centrality and tremendous gravity of trauma. A few ugly, awful, dehumanizing, bloody experiences dominate the narrative. They aren't always talked about directly, and in fact the novel spends a lot of time rather elaborately and obviously NOT talking about them, but it becomes obvious that these incidents are the dark stars around which those stories that do get explicitly told revolve.

Living ourselves in a slowly-emerging post-war era, we are more than a little familiar with stories of wartime trauma, how that kind of trauma can be excruciatingly hard to deal with, how often it results in dysfunction, abuse and suicide long after the incidents themselves have seemingly been put behind those that experienced them.

Catch-22 telling a story that both desperately wants to be told and desperately wants not to be recalled. Scenes like (especially) Snowden bleeding to death in the plane over Avignon and Kid Sampson being accidentally obliterated are for most of the book obliquely referred to touchstones, dark stars around which the explicit stories revolve.

In a way, Catch-22 is a wholly different response to Hemingway's "iceberg theory" and its inherent suspicion of words. Hemingway's suspicion of BIG words is, of course, almost definitional of his writing style and of his era. Many recall the famous passage in A Farewell to Arms to this effect:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor,courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
But it wasn't just big words that Hemingway and his protagonists distrusted. Hemingway cultivated a style that emphasized what it omitted:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. (Source)
That iceberg dignity is what Hemingway strove for. The central fact of Hemingway's life and times was the experience of World War I. That experience is also central for many of his protagonists. But many of his great war-related stories barely mention the war, and his protagonists seem to make it their business to drive thoughts of it out of their minds with mundane ritual. 

It is easy to see Hemingway and his protagonists as suffering from what we'd call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). Hemingway's "Iceberg theory" can be seen as simply a rationalization of avoidance, the refusal to remember or be reminded of traumatic experiences, a classic PTSD symptom. But it is also a more philosophical expression of a mistrust of words, of explicitness, to express the truth about the seven-eighths beneath the surface. To attempt to bring those truths and traumatic experiences to the surface was, inevitably, to make them into lies.

As PTSD therapists often relate, words and narrative help veterans structure, normalize, and contextualize horrific experiences and allow them to move on with normal post-war lives.  But for Hemingway PTSD might be said to represent a more appropriate, though highly impractical, response to horror. 

Trying to talk directly about such experiences, while perhaps a practical necessity for those who have to remember them, is domesticating what can never be truly domesticated. 

Hemingway's goals as a writer weren't to return to normalcy, it was to try to somehow speak truthfully of these experiences. Talking through these things meant going from avoidance to lying. That's the danger of words & stories: they can give a false sense of control and normality and acceptability to that which is not controlled, normal or acceptable.

But through implicitness, Hemingway thought he might be able to make the reader understand something true about the War. Heller, I'd argue, makes the same observation about the fundamental hostility between explicitness and the truth behind trauma, but responds to it with a radically different technique. Instead of the spare, economical prose from which the explicit has been merely excised, Heller chooses to give us vignette after vignette, in an order which is non-chronological and indirect but which allows us to gradually come nearer the truth until, finally, it is given to us.

Though he was quick to remark its apparent lack of form, Norman Mailer clearly recognized the technique behind Catch-22's structure. As Mailer read, he could perceive the narrative "building upon itself" and that the book eventually "becomes substantial." The result is that "Heller is carrying his reader on a more consistent voyage through Hell than any American writer before him . . ."(from "Some Children of the Goddess")

There is, of course, an oppressive air of manliness to Heller's and Hemingway's (and Mailer's) war stories, but war is NOT the only source of the "iceberg" kind of trauma. And war is not the only experience or institution which lends itself to this sort of agglomerative story-telling. Another is the family.

In fact, this sort of storytelling is common wherever we gravely doubt the ability of telling to convey an experience or situation, or where we doubt the reader/listener's ability to perceive or properly appreciate the experience behind the words. When children try to tease out family secrets or stories they are not yet old enough to hear, they are often merely told lies, or to shut up. But sometimes we are told true stories. Stories that give us a bit of what they "deserve to know." Stories that obliquely approach what they definitely aren't to know while, ultimately, avoiding them . . . and over time they may hear a lot of these. The sanitized story of why Uncle Paul was in prison. The story of how your grandmother went senile quite early. The story of how Uncle Paul was able to fix things when you were in a jam. The story of your aunts on the reservation in Oklahoma. The story of your bad brother. And so on . . . and over time a much broader picture emerges of a family with certain challengers and certain ways of responding, all of which you were to be shielded from as a child.

These family stories sometimes have some ultimate deep dark secret, some particular bit of forbidden knowledge, but more usually they are just stories of how hard, unjust life can be and how compromised it makes us. Truths most of us would like children to find out only in due time, after having heard and considered and absorbed and, yes, laughed at a host of tangential stories.

Heller mimics this sort of agglomerative storytelling. A storytelling that does not have a chronological order, but which does have important points of reference, only gradually and eventually revealed, which gives structure to the whole.
The narrative style is NOT merely arbitrary. And it is not just authorial whimsy (as, I fear, much of Middlesex is mere whimsy). Heller is taking a story-telling technique straight from the tellers of war stories, as he told one writer regarding the genesis of Catch-22:
"conversations with two friends . . . influenced me. Each of them had been wounded in the war, one of them very seriously. . . .The first one told some very funny stories about his war experiences, but the second one was unable to understand how any humor could be associated with the horror of war. They didn't know each other and I tried to explain the first one's point of vie to the second. He recognized that there had been lots of graveyard humor, but he could not reconcile it with what he had seen of war. It was after that discussion that the opening of Catch-22 and many incidents in it came to me."
(From Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller, by Tracy Dougherty, p 175)

Clearly Heller saw more to the war stories of the first man than "graveyard humor." He appreciates the gravity with which the second man considers his experience, but he saw humorous anecdotes as a legitimate way of approaching, slowly and indirectly, the experience of war. The motive in such storytelling is not so much to protect the reader from the truth, but to protect the truth for the reader.

This approach is not only commonplace in oral storytelling. Many, many mysteries, for instance, are built on the story of a young person's building a deeper, secret, usually familial story, one seemingly random anecdote or fact at a time. In the end the last piece of the puzzle, the centerpiece, reveals the significance of all.

There is a center to Catch-22, or perhaps "are centers" around which the oblique narratives are organized. The trauma of Snowden's slow death and Yossarian's helplessness before it is an obvious one. But the effect isn't one of "all is revealed." It's a lot more subtle, and far more true to life.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Yesterday I tried to begin Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex for the second or third time. Today I was flipping through my LibraryThing account and decided to have a go at reviewing Catch-22, one of my favorite novels; a novel which I've read a half-dozen times and taught at the college level three times.

This coincidence has got me thinking a lot about my preferences and prejudices as a reader. I hadn't given Middlesex a try in a long time, so I forgot what it was that made me give it up and sell my copy, in spite of its obvious appeals to someone like me: written by a fellow somewhat-alienated urban-ethnic; focused on a city (Detroit) that I'd love to know more about; unafraid to delve into issues to which our forebears were oblivious and/or out-and-out hostile (alternative sexuality).

Unfortunately Middlesex also prominently bears the mark of cutesy, self-indulgent, pointless post-modern authorial whimsy: that overwrought/underthought quality we see in so many novels today. And Middlesex has more than a whiff of the generic "varieties of ethnic experience" novel of which Oprah and her fellow club members seem to be so fond. Most of these books strike me as pandering: some cynically, some innocently. None of this is fair to Eugenides or Middlesex, of course, but it does accurately reflect the climate of suspicion as I opened the book.

Given that context, it didn't take much to return Middlesex to the shelf: one of Eugenides' very first cutesy gambits, the character named "Chapter 11." After about a half dozen repetitions of this name, I was done.

So if my tolerance level for cutesy jokes & tricks is so low, how come I love Catch-22 so much? How could I love a novel literally structured around a cutesy trick: a random, non-chronological narrative sequence; or one filled with cutesy jokes--Major Major Major Major; Chief White Halfcoat, the Indian beneath whose home oil is sure to be discovered; the intricate, blinkered schemes of Milo Minderbinder, etc. etc.

As for these more minor, incidental characters and episodes in Catch-22, I'd say they're better than the run-of-the-mill contemporary novel because they're actually funny rather than being simply ostentatious or goofy (though Heller does rather push the envelope). But the really important difficulty for me ought to be the seemingly willful oddity of its narrative structure.

Well, the fact is that the narrative structure did pose a problem for me. I started Catch-22 a half-dozen times before I got further than twenty pages in, and I only managed that with the strong encouragement of a friend (thank you Erik Dussere, that was a real gift!). Once I got "over the hump," once I came to accept the non-linear nature of the book as the price of admission, things flowed along nicely: I laughed out loud, I appreciated the horror, distortion and absurdity of life on Pianosa, I felt a strong of kinship with Yossarian's kind-hearted misanthropy.

All that made me like the novel. But it didn't make me love it. What made me love it was the logic behind the seemingly arbitrary structure. A logic that many readers, even some highly perceptive readers, seem to overlook. Evelyn Waugh thought Catch-22 to be "totally without structure." Norman Mailer wrote that Catch-22 was like "yard goods, one could cut it anywhere. One could take a hundred pages from the middle of Catch-22 and not even the author could be certain they were gone." (As we'll see later, Mailer had more to say about what the structure of Catch-22 was and did than this passage seems to imply.)

Superficial discussions of the narrative structure of Catch-22 always seem to emphasize the absence of structure--that the significance is in the absence of linear chronology. We read that it mimics the chaos of war, or "the worst excesses of modern bureaucracy." But what became apparent to me as I got fairly deep into the novel was that there was nothing arbitrary or cutesy or merely absent about the structure of Catch-22. It was in fact intricately planned and carefully structured to achieve a certain effect and to mimic, I think, a certain kind of informal storytelling that we probably don't really think of as storytelling. In fact, it is a kind of storytelling that rises out of a deep reluctance to and a radical skepticism of putting experience into words.

(to be continued)

(The above owes quite a bit to Robert Merrill's "Structure and Meaning of Catch-22," which is available in several places and forms online.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Irish Pub: Authenticity 

Have waded about 100 pages into Bill Barich's Pint of Plain and, well, I can't help but be a bit disappointed by it. Barich is from a school of writing that seems to think that tiresome disingenuineness is the key to the reader's heart. First rule: Always pretend to partake of the cliches and oversimplifications that no doubt define the worldview of your audience. Second rule: gently, oh so gently, allow yourself to be disabused of these erroneous ideations through hard experience. And we end up . . . pretty much where the intelligent reader started out as far as interpretation goes.

There are a lot of valuable facts, figures and anecdotes passed along along the way though, so I'm not complaining too much. But all of this would have been much better for everyone had Barich simply been honest from the start.

Barich's book is about the search for the "authentic" Irish pub, based on the pub in the Quiet Man. Now that's more or less like looking for the bar from the first Star Wars movie. If that's your standard of authenticity, you'd better start your quest by finding a better standard. But Barich doesn't. The false ideal is easier to live with that trying to explain what it is that makes for a fine, real-life pub.

Now, I think the Quiet Man is an OK movie. My father, from an big Irish-American family with lots of Irish connections, hates it. But good or bad, it's sentimental fluff and it makes no bones about it.

Barich does, in fact, find some nice pubs along the way, but they never seem to quite measure up to the fiction (of course) and so don't require any too-extensive explanation.

And everything, apparently, has to live up to the false ideal or authenticity test. Here he is watching music in a pub in Temple Bar:
The group . . . didn't engage in patter. They just leaped in and and ran through each tune two or three times, although in the old days they might have done six, eight or ten repetitions. The guitar sounded wrong . . . and the group's air of weary professionalism, along with the mikes and the stacks of CDs for sale robbed the performance of any spontaneity, but the music still had a curious effect upon me.

The "authentic" performance Barich lusts after here is a traditional Irish session. But sessions aren't performances. They're jam sessions more or less, with musicians joining in on tunes they know, learning ones they don't, comparing notes of different variations of melodies, engaging in shop talk and occasionally participating in a really rousing set that falls together more or less spontaneously. Sessions, by definition, aren't done for audiences. They aren't performances--they are ways for musicians to try out, show off and hone their traditional music chops. The more a musical event tilts toward an audience, the more folks who show up to listen and the more the pub promotes it as a session, inevitably the less it partakes of these more musician-oriented qualities.

Stumbling into a good session is nice--I've seen good ones in the states and in Ireland. It is a special kind of musical experience. But so was seeing Seamus Egan at the Philadelphia Irish Music Festival. The traditional Irish session IS NOT by any means the only or the most genuine Irish musical experience against which all else must be measured. To take it as such is, well, deeply ignorant.

I am sure someone once told Barich that a real session was the "real thing." Just as someone told him there was a great deal of difference between Irish Guinness (the real thing) and all other Guinness (the pale imitation). But that is not how these things work. Foreign Guinness is in some cases a different drink altogether than your pint of plain. No one drinking Foreign Extra Stout is going to mistake it for a 200 calorie, dark yet light, creamy pint. They aren't the same thing and each is its authentic self. If you refuse to experience the merits of something because you can't quite decide whether it is truly "authentic," well, your are crippling yourself.

Barich quotes at some length from a marketing study which describes "authenticity" as "an attribute not inherent in an object, and is better understood as an assessment made [by a particular person] in a particular context." Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, in other words.

Barich, understandably rejects this idea more or less out of hand, but it deserves a moments thought. The Authenticity the marketeers are talking about is the authenticity that consumers claim to experience or not experience. There is no set standard for what makes something "authentic." It could be who makes it, it could be its history or provenance, it could be how and whether it has been used, the manufacturing techniques employed, the ingredients or some combination of any number of standards. There are often competing standards of authenticity for a single product or experience.

There is a cult of authenticity in the West. Authenticity is more or less a fetish. Observe Barich, for example. He launches on a quest for the "authentic" Irish pub, and is almost fooled by several seemingly, but not actually authentic pubs--pubs that have been contrived to appeal to his sense of the authentic, pubs that seem "authentic" but which actually are just the compromise reached with a past generation's contemporary reality which we now see as old enough to be authentically traditional. But Barich clearly enjoys some these pubs, but once he finds out their "inauthentic" roots, he must reject them and seek further.

But Birchall's is authentically itself, as is McSorley & Sons, a pub with a whole load of specially brought-in bric-a-brac to entice just such sentimentalists as Barich. He fell for it and so what? He liked the place. I'm curious as to what drew him aside from the decor. But as Barich keeps finding out more about what is "authentically traditional," the goalposts keep moving, and the reader quickly begins to lose interest in what's "authentic."

What would be interesting is a good long look at what's good in a pub. I'm hoping that Barich soon wearies of the authentic himself and let's himself thoughtfully enjoy a few fine but inauthentic pubs, of which there are still a few in Ireland.