If anyone asks what my all-time favorite book is, I don't take the easy way out, the standard dodge offered by songwriters and parents everywhere--"I love them all! How could I possibly choose?" No, I answer quickly and confidently: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. An undeniable classic; a top-ten member of the Modern Library's 100 greatest American novels of the 20th century; a book that more-or-less invented "black comedy," Catch-22 is simply a perfect reading experience.
And yet. Despite my unreserved enthusiasm for Heller's masterpiece, despite the fact that I have read it twice and will likely read it again, I still find myself hard-pressed to remember much more than, say, about ten percent of what happens in the novel. So what better way to inaugurate this blog devoted to the phenomenon of bibliamnesia: the utter inability of readers to remember much of what they've read? Without further ado: Everything I remember about Catch-22.
I first read Catch-22 when I was in my late 'teens--maybe 17 or 18. And, frankly, I was underwhelmed. What was the big deal? I worked my way through it diligently--I had not yet mastered the art of laying aside a disappointing novel--but when I finished, my review (had I been asked for it) would have been an anachronistic, "Meh." For some reason, though, I was compelled to pick up the book again about five years later--I guess I'd heard some people going on about its inherent wonderfulness, and I wondered if maybe I had missed something. I had. I remember sitting on the steps outside the Angelika, an arthouse movie theater in Greenwich Village, waiting for a date (we were going to see "Pulp Fiction"), and pulling out Catch-22: I also remember giggling hysterically at whatever chapter I happened to be reading. Suddenly, I got it.
Catch-22 tells the story of Yossarian (first name? I don't remember), a bombardier stationed on a Mediterranean (?) island. (Since the book was published in 1960, many people mistakenly think Catch-22 is about Vietnam--which, in a sense, I guess it is--but the novel is set during WWII, in which Heller served as, I believe, a bombardier.) Yossarian desperately wants to get out of the war, and he especially wants to stop flying bombing missions. He wants to be certified as unfit to fly. The problem--the catch ("Catch-22," to be exact)--is that in order to be declared unfit, he would have to display signs of mental instability; but the fact that he (quite rationally) does not want to go on any more bombing missions is a testament to his mental fitness.
So much for the basic premise. What makes the book a masterpiece is its seamless blending of hysterical comedy with horrific images of war. This "revelation" occurred to me as I read a passage that spanned maybe a page or two. It begins with an image of a soldier on a beach (again, I may be wrong about some details). He is engaging in a game with the pilots, wherein the pilots fly as low as they can while the man on the beach tries to reach up and touch the planes' underbellies as they zip by overhead. It's a game they've all played many times before. This time, though, something goes wrong, and, after the planes pass by, all that is left behind on the beach are a pair of legs no longer supporting an upper body. OK, that's an image that stays with you.
"Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?" Throughout the novel, Yossarian is tormented by "Snowden's secret." We don't find out what that secret is until the very end, and, in case anyone out there hasn't read the book, I won't spill it here. Again, though, the scene is one that combines wartime horror with a sequence of events that can best be described as slapstick.
Other things? Milo Minderbinder, a scheming supply sergeant. Major Major, the scion of the Major family, whose middle name is also "Major," and whom the military decides--out of sheer mean-spiritedness--to promote to the rank of Major: Thus, "Major Major Major Major." The hospitalized soldier who "sees everything twice": "I see everything twice!" he screams. "How many fingers am I holding up," a doctor asks, holding up one finger; "Two!" the soldier screams. "Now how many fingers am I holding up?" (holding up two fingers); "Two!" Yossarian, overhearing this, decides "seeing everything twice" might suffice to get him out of flying duty and begins to emulate his hospital roommate--until the latter dies suddenly. Yossarian immediately starts yelling, "I see everything once!"
Opening line: "It was love at first sight" (Yossarian's first impression of a chaplain who has come to visit him in the hospital).
"What do the fish remind you of?"
"And what do the other fish remind you of?"
"It is better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees!"
"No, you have that backwards: 'It is better to live on one's feet than die on one's knees.'"
"It's a helluva catch, that Catch-22."
It is indeed.
Love Means Never Having to Remember
Like many people, I love books. And like many people who love books, I am almost never able to remember much of anything about the books I read. This blog features my own impressionistic non-synopses of books I've read at various points in time. If you would like to fill in additional details, please do so in the comment section. And if you'd like to contribute your OWN "Everything I Remember About. . . ," shoot it to me in an e-mail. I'd love to hear from you.