Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Catch-22



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.)