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The Joke’s the Thing

David McKechnie

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, was published in 1961 in New York by Simon & Schuster.

Days before The Finkler Question won the 2010 Man Booker prize, Howard Jacobson wrote an impassioned defence of the comic novel in The Guardian. There is, he argued, a fear of comedy in the contemporary novel, a result of what he called “a false division between laughter and thought, between comedy and seriousness, between the exhilaration that the great novels offer when they are at their funniest, and whatever else it is we now think we want from literature”. The complaint is a longstanding one – that comedy as a form is not taken seriously or analysed, comic even being widely considered to be the opposite of serious. By all means throw a custard pie – but don’t go telling me about eggs and milk.

The reports after Jacobson won the prize only enhanced his argument: it was, wrote The Guardian’s Mark Brown, “the first unashamedly comic novel to win the Man Booker prize in its 42-year history”. The galling statistic and Jacobson’s criticism suggest not only that comic writing may have long been undervalued, but also how difficult writers have found it to deal with serious themes in a comic way. Up until Catch-22’s publication in 1961, World War II was not considered rich soil for absurdity, or satire either – America’s great war novels were mimetic, their narrative techniques intended to create as strong an illusion as possible of events on the battlefield. But by the twenty-fifth anniversary of the novel’s publication, some ten million sales spoke for Joseph Heller’s great achievement in uniting the comic and the serious, for blowing a raspberry at war and its Cold War aftermath. It was, reckoned Harper Lee, “the only war novel I’ve ever read that makes any sense”.

Catch-22 does not provoke a wide range of responses – it is universally considered, above all, to be wildly, stupidly funny – but its popularity is not attributable to a single source. Its registers of light and dark, humour and horror, combine in a way that is rare and implausible. It is thematically broad and complex, with subjects ranging from bureaucratic systems and paranoia to the human body destroying itself. The critic Frederick Karl, a friend of Heller’s, describes its appeal “to the student, who beneath his complacency and hipster frigidity is very confused and afraid … to the sophisticated professional … who must work at something he cannot fully trust … to the businessman, who does not really believe that his empire primarily serves the public good”. Catch-22’s characters are supremely shallow and two-dimensional, yet some of the most memorable in American literature. Labyrinthine in structure, the novel is held together by the powerful glue of Heller’s relentless jokes – his games of logic, incongruities, farce, word plays and contradictions.

From Aristophanes to Shakespeare and beyond, humour has long been considered a palliative in terrible circumstances, a vital means of expression, as well as a form well suited to criticism of events and structures. Yet from Heller onwards, the conflicts of the twentieth century inspired more comic literature than previous wars, due to the same factors associated with the cultural concepts of modernism and postmodernism: extraordinary changes in technology; the individual’s struggle to retain a sense of identity; the advent of television and its shattering of certain long-held illusions, as with the Vietnam War. Twentieth century warfare threw up a new kind of mystery not dealt with by Norman Mailer’s or James Jones’s postwar novels: how do you account for such sudden, widespread slaughter? The incineration of thousands of people in minutes was preposterous, ridiculous and unfathomable, and beyond straight representation in language. Humour was one means of overcoming this problem: the ridiculous in the comic met the ridiculous in war.

As a bombardier with the US 488th Bomb Squadron, Heller had many close encounters with the ironies identified in Paul Fussell’s classic The Great War and Modern Memory. The war arena turned out to be a rich source of black humour and paradox – a place where you might very well get killed in the process of fighting to make the world a safer place. Fussell cites the case of Private Alfred M Hale, a “monumentally incompetent middle-aged batman” in the Royal Flying Corps, to support his argument that war’s ironic incidents are those most often remembered. Pte Hale obsessed in his memoir about occasions when he was assigned the task of heating water for the officers’ ablutions; at the same time he was strictly forbidden to gather fuel for heating water. This is the kind of maddening contradiction that Heller uses and extends so brilliantly, adding to the intrinsic ironies of the war situation itself. As Fussell writes: “Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends.” In the Great War, for instance, eight million people ended up dead because initially just two individuals – Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort – had been shot. What’s not to laugh at?

After months of advanced flight training, Heller flew from Hunter Field in Georgia, on April 27th, 1944, bound for the war in Europe. The route to his base in Corsica included stops in Brazil, Ascension Island, Liberia, Marrakech, Dakar and Algiers. Along the way the crew were asked to keep an eye out for the wreckage of two aircraft that had flown the same route a few days earlier. This was not very reassuring, but was a taster for what was to follow.

Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Heller, Just One Catch, published in 2011, provides rich detail on this period in particular. In Marrakech, Heller was astonished to see Frenchmen sipping expensive cocktails in luxury hotels, behaving as if their homeland had not been overrun by the Germans. In Corsica, he shared his tent with the empty bed of a dead man, Pinkard, who had been killed in a bombing mission in the Po Valley near Ferrara. The men routinely shot at mice and rats in their tents with their Colt 45s, unleashing a terrible sound. They pitched the tents in strategic locations on the base, where they felt they were least likely to be blown to smithereens in the event of an air raid. These men Heller shared his life with were from such a wide variety of backgrounds and had such different quirks and personalities – Francis Yohannan, who kept a golden cocker spaniel; Joe Chrenko, who pretended he was a Life photographer on R&R trips to Rome; shy, pimpled chaplain James H. Cooper, who lived alone in a tent in the woods, “puffing at night on a tiny corncob pipe” – that he thought they were like characters from a novel.

Fussell recalled how soldiers were wracked with dysentery, making a mockery of wartime human interaction: “You can imagine how hard it is to believe in the high and noble purpose of the war when you can’t control your own bowels, and you come up to the … commander to make a snappy report on something and all of a sudden your bowels move, noisily, right there, and perhaps his do as well, only he’s a major or a lieutenant colonel. This is the atmosphere. Everything is a mess all the time.”

At first Heller, a smart, bookish Jewish kid from Coney Island in Brooklyn, was as enthusiastic and naive as any of his brothers-in-arms. “I wanted to see what was happening … What I’d seen in the movies,” he said later. “I wanted to see parachutes. I wanted to see planes going down in flame … It was stupid.” It was, he felt, a “war of necessity” and he was happy to play his part. But that soon changed. When Heller arrived on Corsica, the mission limit was fifty for medium-range bombers such as the American B-25. Soon it climbed to seventy – not so much a moving of the goalposts as a reordering of the gravestones. To achieve maximum accuracy, the bombers had to undertake runs well within range of the devastatingly precise German 88mm cannons, which fired 20-lb shells that exploded at up to 40,000 feet, spraying the air with metal shards of flak.

The growing ordeal became something more tangibly terrifying on August 15th, 1944, when flak pierced Heller’s plane over Avignon, badly injuring the gunner. Heller tried to patch his comrade’s leg as the plane veered out of control. Although the crew survived, Heller’s attitude to the war had changed forever, a point he articulated in one of the memorable exchanges of Catch-22.

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”

By January 1945 Heller had returned to Coney Island, putting the war behind him as he sought to build a new life and begin a career in writing. His practice sketching stories with a borrowed typewriter on the Corsican base was put to good use: his first successes came with the publication of stories in the prestigious titles Story and Esquire. But while the work showed promise the stories betrayed inexperience and were derivative. “The short stories I wrote at that time tended to be plotted extravagantly and often to be resolved miraculously by some kind of ironic divine intervention on the side of the virtuous and oppressed,” he wrote in his 1998 autobiography Now and Then. Others, meanwhile, seemed to be leaping ahead. In 1948, The Naked and the Dead was published and Norman Mailer featured on the cover of Saturday Review, putting Heller’s own achievements into stark perspective. “We were about the same age – twenty-six or twenty-seven [in fact Mailer was twenty-five] – and it put me in my place.” The situation was virtually repeated in 1951, when James Jones dazzled the literary world with From Here to Eternity.

Nonetheless, when he began making notes for Catch-22 in 1953 (eight years before it was finally published), Heller understood that the era of realist novels was over. He allowed cultural influences that better captured the spirit of the postwar era to wash over him, none more so than the Jewish comedy circuit, which became a significant part of mainstream entertainment through television variety shows such as The Jack Benny Show. This brand of comedy, Daugherty observes, was “nothing more than the old Borscht Belt vaudeville schtick”. Antiauthoritarian Yiddish humour seeped further into American consciousness through a gifted stable of Jewish comic writers. Heller read Kafka’s The Trial, marvelling at the parallels between this depiction of man’s conflict with bureaucracy and his own military experiences. The struggle of the little man against the bureaucratic war machine in Jaroslav Hašek’s unfinished absurd novel The Good Soldier Schweik, published in Czechoslovakia in 1930, stood out to Heller as another possible model.

As the 1950s progressed and the national mood grew darker, Heller was able to observe it at arm’s length from the shiny offices around Madison Avenue where he worked hard and lived fast as an advertising copywriter and manager at major agencies. The political climate was poisonous, drenched in paranoia about the spread of communism, as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt came to a head at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. This was ripe material for Heller too. “The case against Clevinger was open and shut,” we are told in Catch-22. “The only thing missing was something to charge him with.”

Almost subconsciously, Heller was constructing a novel that would span not two, but three eras: a work of the wartime 1940s in its subject matter; a work of the 1950s in terms of its political targets; but also a work of the 1960s in spirit and style. The army, he told The Paris Review in 1975, stood “symbolically for the whole government structure”. In a 1998 interview he acknowledged it as “really a post-war novel and most of the attitudes and confusions that appear in it occurred to me as a result of conditions after the war, rather than my own experience in the war”. The great postwar novels stayed with him, but they would be parodied rather than copied: in Heller’s hands, Mailer’s “types” – men like Hearn and Croft – became comic stereotypes.

Catch-22 – originally called “Catch-18” – also began memorably: “It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” Heller told The Paris Review: “… as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind – even most of the particulars … the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn’t use. All of this took place within an hour and a half. It got me so excited that I did what the cliche says you’re supposed to do: I jumped out of bed and paced the floor.” It was an era when being funny was also cool – especially in politics. As Daniel Wickberg details in The Senses of Humour, by the 1950s the political establishment in America – those very people who are targeted, at times, by Heller’s comic assault – had hijacked the rhetoric of humour for their own ends in public discourse. Communist and fascist dictators – Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini – were considered dour and unfunny; consequently, American leaders went to great lengths to ensure everyone knew what great characters they were. Wickberg writes: “Humor was a valuable asset in politics precisely because it guarded against an undue attachment to rigid moral principle, now defined as ‘ideology’.” Even dour Richard Nixon made a credibility-seeking appearance on the TV show Laugh-In.

In this respect, Heller’s powers when writing Catch-22 were greater than he imagined: “I thought I was being humorous, but I didn’t know I would make people laugh. In my apartment one day I heard this friend of mine in another room laughing out loud, and that was when I realized I could be comic. I began using that ability consciously – not to turn Catch-22 into a comic work, but for contrast, for ironic effect.” At home, he piled up index cards, trying to keep a grasp on the expanding plot and its characters. Finally in August 1957, his agent, Candida Donadio, sent a 75-page manuscript of “Catch-18” to Robert Gottleib, a bright new editorial executive at Simon & Schuster. Six months later she sent another version, this one 259 pages. Gottleib loved the book and Donadio was thrilled. As Daugherty describes it in his superb account of these events, Donadio had a strange phrase she used when talks went well with an editor: “I thought my navel would unscrew and my ass would fall off.” Executives at the publishing house had reservations about the book’s repetitiveness, but Gottleib batted strongly for it. He was a hands-on editor, and together, painstakingly, he helped Heller trim 150 pages from a manuscript that had grown and grown. Just before printing, it was decided a new title was needed so that it would not be confused with another novel about to be released, Mila 18 by Leon Uris. They chose Catch-22 – and soon the whole world would know the phrase. Like Heller’s catch itself it had a memorable symmetry; “an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of parts that was graceful and shocking”.

In the intervening years there have been enough critical approaches to the novel to fill the bomb bay of a B-25. For Leon F Seltzer the book is a moral satire whose absurdities expose “alarming inhumanities which pollute our political, social and economic systems”. Jeffrey Walsh sees it as a neo-Swiftian satire upon system-building, while Peter Aichinger suggests that the novel’s surrealist scenes “reflect the depression that succeeds the artificial stimulus of combat”. And so on and so forth. The validity of these approaches is not in question, as Heller’s novel is these things and many more. Inarguably, without these deeper layers of meaning, the light and the dark, it would not have stood the test of time. Milo Minderbender, for instance, is one of the novel’s most richly drawn and enduring characters because Heller makes him central to its most outrageous parody: a businessman full of “moral principles” and “rigid scruples” who bombs his own base for a profit then finds himself congratulated for his acumen. Heller reminds us that in every war, or in times of military expansion – the US defence budget grew from $12.8 billion to $46.1 billion between 1947 and 1952 – somebody always gets rich, a point chillingly relevant once again during the scandal of the US administration’s links to military contractors after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But how do you account for Catch-22’s sheer funniness? Can we really suggest that in a novel renowned for its comic brilliance, Heller’s jokes merely serve some supposedly higher purpose? Catch-22 is indeed satirical, but above all it is absurd – a celebration of laughter in the ancient tradition, a farce of communication, a sugar-coated pill to cope with the joke of war and the joke of life. Humour is the novel’s overwhelming structural and thematic driving force, helping to bring order to chaos, but it is also thoroughly independent, as laughter becomes an end it itself. In Taking Humour Seriously, a fascinating study of comic traditions, Jerry Palmer outlines the process involved in what he calls “the logic of the absurd”. Palmer divides the process of joke-making into two stages: the first involving the creation of a sudden discrepancy or incongruity; the second a logical response by the listener or reader that what they have been presented with is highly implausible, yet at the same time – crucially – a little bit plausible after all. The contradiction in this second stage, writes Palmer, is what makes a situation funny.

For Palmer, “jokes” are not the same thing as “comedy”: comedy as a narrative form “can have a truth value, whereas jokes are devoid of it”. A distinction is made between comedy and farce: “comedy is not just mirth creation, it also has serious, important themes; farce is a form where everything is subordinated to laughter production”. For all of the seriousness of Catch-22, the farce, the joke retains a distinct privilege, as Heller returns time and again to the well of the plausible/implausible dichotomy described by Palmer:

The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him ...
McWatt was the craziest combat man of them all probably, because he was perfectly sane and still did not mind the war ...
He knew everything about literature except how to enjoy it.

Doc Daneeka’s demise perfectly captures the spirit of the novel: his continued existence cannot override the report that insists he was killed in McWatt’s plane, and so officially he is dead. The letter sent by Colonel Cathcart which finally convinces Mrs Daneeka that her husband has perished is a hilarious monument to the indifference of officialdom: “Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.” Heller’s attack on bureaucratic lunacy is undeniable, but it does not dominate. This is a case where, as Morton Gurewitch puts it, “the satire is devoured … by omnivorous nonsense”.

Even at Catch-22’s darkest hour, it cheers us up. The climactic scene in which Snowden’s “secret” is revealed to Yossarian is a tragedy-in-the-making which Heller chooses to obliterate by means of a comic grenade:

Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. A chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out. Yossarian screamed a second time … Here was God’s plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared – liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch. Yossarian hated stewed tomatoes and turned away dizzily and began to vomit, clutching his burning throat.

The momentum of this sequence, for all its horror, reveals the irresistible nature of the joke in Catch-22. It is hard to be transfixed by a car crash when a clown is performing across the street.

Not that everyone was amused. At the time of publication Nina Bourne, a young advertising manager at Simon & Schuster, was charged with trying to attract favourable comments from distinguished readers to help promote the book. Evelyn Waugh wrote back:

Dear Miss Bourne
Thank you for sending me Catch-22. I am sorry that the book fascinates you so much. It has many passages quite unsuitable to a lady’s reading ...
You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches – often repetitious – totally without structure.
Much of the dialogue is funny.
You may quote me as saying: “This exposure of corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies.

Others were more complimentary – in a telegram Art Buchwald described it as a “masterpiece” – but early reviews were mixed. The New York Times Book Review called it “an emotional hodge-podge” in a review that would still provoke Heller decades later. Early sales were impressive, however, aided by a muscular promotional campaign. The first printing sold out in ten days, but it was not until the paperback edition hit the shelves that the book’s reputation and reach went into orbit. “Not since Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies has a novel been taken up by such a fervid and heterogenous claque of admirers,” trumpeted Newsweek in October 1962. The book’s subversive qualities chimed loudly with the times. As the Vietnam crisis deepened and civil unrest swept the nation, stickers appeared on college campuses: “YOSSARIAN LIVES”. By the end of the decade, with millions sold, Catch-22 had gone through thirty printings.

Its enduring popularity is no great mystery. As Yossarian comprehends the almost magisterial quality of his inescapable predicament – “That’s some catch, that Catch-22” – Doc Daneeka has words not of comfort, but of truth: “It’s the best there is.”
23/9/2013

David McKechnie is an Irish Times journalist.

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