I first read Catch-22 in high school — I think I was a sophomore — and I developed a thesis that it is exactly like Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories for Wayside School, but for grown-ups. It does that same thing that Sideways Stories for Wayside School does, where it proposes something that is obviously nonsense and relentlessly insists that it is sense for a whole chapter. Then it drops it and starts insisting that some other nonsensical proposition is sense. When I report this thesis to people and they go, “I guess” or else “What is Sideways Stories from whatever you said?” Nobody ever cries out, “Why Jenny! What an insightful connection to have drawn! How right you are!” Nobody ever even goes, “Huh. You’re right,” even though I AM SO RIGHT.
(Why has it not yet happened that people say “Correct as usual, Jenny!” as is my ambition? I am usually correct! The world should acknowledge it. I am not a crackpot.)
Catch-22, the famous book about the idiocy of the national security apparatus, has not held up well to this rereading. I thought it was a brilliant book when I was fifteen, and my friend tim and I kept sending each other excerpts from it, but the bloom now is off the rose. I didn’t even make it all the way through. I got about four-fifths done and then did a flying skim over the rest of the book to see if there was anything that would make me love it like I did when I was younger. There was not.
I keep reading extensive appreciations of this, Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, on the 60th anniversary of its publication, and I cannot find equivalent levels of appreciation for it in my own heart. Even the moments I remembered finding hilarious when I was fifteen seemed kind of obvious and overdone. Heller takes every joke and hammers it into the ground. If I find something funny in the first place, this isn’t so bad; but when it starts out not funny, and then keeps going for a whole chapter, getting less and less funny the more the joke is repeated, it’s maddening.
One more slam, and then I will retire from the slamming fields feeling guilty that I don’t love Great American Literature as I should: Catch-22 feels insincere. The moments of genuninely expressed feeling are so rare that when they do occur, I do not feel sure they aren’t setting up a new joke, so I’m reluctant to invest in them. Nobody likes anybody else, and the characters’ desires are treated with levity and skepticism. Heller’s fourth book, God Knows, which isn’t nearly as beloved, has some of the same problems as Catch-22; but I return to it more often because it feels emotionally grounded in a way that Catch-22 never does.
Here is a passage that still stresses me out:
“I didn’t say you couldn’t punish me, sir.”
“When?” said the colonel.
“Now you’re asking me questions again….Now suppose you answer my question.”
“But how can I answer it?”
“That’s another question you’re asking me.”
“I’m sorry, sir. But I don’t know how to answer it. I never said you couldn’t punish me.”
“Now you’re telling us when you did say it. I’m asking you to tell us when you didn’t say it.”
That passage is an excellent depiction of my life with my driver’s ed teacher. He told me I always answered back and he didn’t want me to do it anymore; I said “Yes, sir,” and he said, “I said stop answering me back!” He would point his finger across my face while I was driving, until I threatened to bite him if he did it again. He made me cry in front of my friend Janet (I hate crying). He used to do this huge, fake startled jolt when I was coming to a stop, just to screw with me. I took driver’s ed when I was fifteen and then didn’t get my license until I was almost eighteen, that’s how much I dreaded driving. Because of him. Because he was exactly like Colonel Whatsit from Catch-22.