Friday, February 26, 2010

It's a Catch-22

Dear Joseph Heller,

I was a victim of circumstance, you see, and I never wanted to be a victim of circumstance. It was a catch, a Catch-22. I had decided to read each of the novels on the Modern Library's two "Best 100's" lists. (The Board's and The Reader's Lists) Actually, it is Annie Dillard's fault. In her book, An American Childhood, she talks about how difficult it was, as a child, to decide which book she should choose from the shelves of books at the Homewood Library. She finally found a way to choose good books. Dillard says,
"On its binding was printed a figure, a man dancing or running; I had noticed this figure before. Like so many children before and after me, I learned to seek out this logo, the Modern Library colophon."

So, I read your novel, Catch-22, which holds place number 7 on the board's list and 12 on the reader's list. I didn't read Ulysses, the most highly rated double-listed book (Board-1, Reader's-11). It is very long. Plus Annie Dillard said that it's awful, although my son-in-law loves it, so I may, yet, give it a go. Anyhow, I was stuck, for weeks, slogging through the amputated prose of Catch-22.

I kept asking myself, "Who would actually like this book?" Don't get me wrong, I was raised with runs and reruns of MASH within hearing, but this was too, too. . . long. It was a bit like hearing the Who's on First sketch repeated 500 times consecutively.

Now Yossarian and Doc Daneeka of your novel are the revealers of the Catch-22 concept.
Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. "Is Orr crazy?"
"He sure is," Doc Daneeka said.
"Can you ground him?"
"I sure can.
But first he has to ask me to. That's part of the rule."
"Then why doesn't he ask you to?"
"Because he's crazy," Doc Daneeka said. "He has to be crazy
to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to."
"That's all he has to do to be grounded?"
"That's all. Let him ask me."
"And then you can ground him?"
Yossarian asked.
"No. Then I can't ground him."
"You mean there's a catch?"
"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's 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.
I am not the first to quote this portion of the Catch-22 text. After I had read that, I could have said, "No need to slough through more." I use the word slough, because I must say, it is a pig-pen of a book. Is that what gave it the enormous popularity during the early years? That, plus quite an advertising splash in the New York Times. Those were the days. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were lighting censorial fires.

The 60's were a time ripe for disrespect, obscenity, and absurdity. It was a time for hatching such things as Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969). It was the best of times and the worst of times. The worst of things were released and tolerated in the name of the best of things.

Perhaps that is what this was about, with the old lady playing the part of Alan Ginsberg.

I guess this letter has become quite disrespectful to you. I'll take a break and see if I can finish in a more respectful tone later.

. . . to be continued

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