Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Most Overrated Novel of the Twentieth Century


You may remember a rap hit of 2005, “My Humps,” (see also here) by a group calling themselves Blackeyed Peas. One thing that distinguished this thing from all the other obvious candidates for the the office of Worst Song Ever was that it managed to be both artistically and morally bad. It was offensive in about every way it could be. I have been thinking about “My Humps,” because I have been reading a book that achieves something of this negative sort of greatness, but in the realm of literature rather than music.

This is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. A student in my course on philosophical ideas in literature wanted to write his term paper on it, though I had not read it myself. I figured, what the heck, I really ought to read it – students keep bringing it up as an example of a work that offers a challenging critique of war and the military ethos. So I’ll read it. I am still staggering from the shock of its amazing badness.

Here are some of the things that I think are bad about it:

1. It is a one-trick pony. This is by intention a humorous book, a work of social satire. But it consists of basically the same joke over and over again: military people are evil and stupid. They are also stupid and evil. (Did I mention that they are evil? Also stupid?) I found this pretty clever and amusing for about the first twenty pages. But by that time I still had about 450 pages more to go, and the rest of it wasn’t any fun at all.

2. It's a bad argument. Satire always has an intellectual point. The point here seems to be that war is a bad thing. The book makes that point by depicting the people who make war as stupid and evil. It does so by presenting all the characters who are regarded as sane by the standards of the military world as doing things that are actually insane, while the one character who is actually sane is regarded by everyone else as being crazy. But why should we expect military people to be insane, stupid, and evil? The book gives no reason. Now, you might think: “So what? Literature can’t give you reasons, unless it preaches at you. Short of that, it can only present conclusions.” This isn’t true.

For instance, a fiction writer could make Heller’s sort of point by showing characters, who in themselves are no worse than other people, interacting with a social environment that brings out the worst in them, with the result that decent people are trapped in Hellish situation in which they are doing indecent things, while only people who are inherently evil rise to the top and flourish. This is what Ayn Rand does in her first novel, We the Living (1936). There she shows us a group of young people interacting with the Communist system, an environment based on the idea that the individual exists for the sake of the state. Some of the sympathetic characters idealistically believe in the system, while others just as idealistically hate it. All are damaged by it, because what such a system means, must mean, in practice, is that some individuals must be sacrificed, and for no higher or nobler end than to serve the interests of other individuals. The only characters who do well in this environment are the ones who are glad to step in and collect the benefits of the sacrifices of others. In the process, the empty rhetoric that enables the idealistic supporters of the system to conceal from themselves the real nature of the environment they have created breaks down. It would be hard to go into more detail about how this narrative makes this point without looking at the details of Rand’s text, but suffice it to say that it is genuinely enlightening, and that it enlightens by argument-like means. But it is not easy to do. It requires the philosophical acumen as well as literary imagination. It requires that one be able to think in conceptual terms as well as narrative terms. It also requires that you show characters as undergoing a development as a result of their dynamic interaction with their environment. But these are capacities that Joseph Heller either didn’t have or couldn’t be bothered to use in writing Catch-22.

3. The tone is wrong. The events he describes in this book are great moral evils. The tone of voice in which he describes them is one of arch irony and smug sneering. Such a tone is simply inappropriate to the subject matter. The wrinkled lip is not the gesture of moral indignation. It leaves the reader with the impression that the author, who is so ready to find other people evil and stupid, is actually some sort of moral moron himself. At one point in the book, one of the unsympathetic characters tells the narrator about a fun prank he and his fraternity brothers used to pull in college. They would lure high school girls into the frat house, and then they would gang rape them all night long. Then they would steal the pennies out of their pockets. Finally they would blackmail them by threatening to tell their parents that they had consensual sex with them, and let them go. Does Heller realize how evil this sort of behavior is? I doubt it. If he did, he wouldn’t expect us to chuckle about it. This is why I found reading this book such an emotionally punishing experience. Over and over, it presents me with a picture of pure evil, but in such a way that I am prevented from having the appropriate emotional reaction. It felt like I was trapped inside the mind of someone whose mind I don’t want to be in at all.

4. There is less than meets the eye. Some works of literature present themselves to you as pure entertainment and, once you are pulled into them, expand your mind with interesting and challenging ideas. There is more in them than initially meets the eye. Catch-22 proceeds in the opposite direction. It presents itself as dealing with great issues – and has nothing interesting to say about them. Take the title for instance. Bomber pilots have a a good reason to not want to fly any more missions – after all, the people you are trying to kill are shooting at you! And you don’t have to fly any more missions if it so happens that the pressures of combat have destroyed your sanity. However, if you ask to be excused from flying more missions on the grounds that you are insane, this exception does not apply to you, because not wanting to fly more missions is evidence of sanity. That’s the “catch.” Pretty clever, huh? Really tells you something about the twisted workings of the military mind, doesn’t it? Well, no, it doesn’t. All it means is that the judgement of whether you are sane is not left up to you. Isn’t that obvious in the first place? After all, these people are forcing you to do something that no one wants to do. If they let you decide whether you are fit to do it, you just won’t do it. So the decision of whether you are sane or not has to be up to your superior officers. But Heller doesn’t pursue this matter even the this pitifully low level of abstraction. He leaves it at the pretty clever, huh? level, leaving careless readers with an impression that there is something clever and deep here, whereas in fact there isn’t. I don't deny that people can learn things by thinking about what the author is saying, but that is true of any book, however bad it is. Any insights you get this way are ones that you came up with. They are not in the book.

5. It is ignoble. I'm sure there are any number of reasons to dislike war. It is a moral horror. In my own view, the main reason is that it inevitably kills, injures, and destroys the property of innocent people. Surely the most ignoble, morally lowest reason to hate war is that you hate military people. But that is the reason that this book offers, as its main argument.

Anyway, this book is so bad that the only real question it raises is, how did it ever get to have the reputation it has? Why is in on every "greatest novels of the twentieth century" list?* What the Hell? I guess the answer is probably pretty simple. It came out just before the Vietnam War (1961), when a lot of people would soon start thinking that war is very bad thing, and that the military consists mostly of vicious idiots. In other words, Heller got a free ride because he was telling a lot of people something they already believed. But this of course does not speak in his favor, nor does it reflect well on the many readers who admired the book for that particular reason (especially the learned fools who compile "greatest novels" lists).
______________________
* By the way, this might be the only book (other than To Kill a Mockingbird -- a genuinely good novel) that regularly shows up on both critic-generated lists and reader-generated lists. Overrating this book is a disease that seems to infect humans of all classes, races, and creeds.

36 comments:

Nick Stump said...

I couldn't agree with you more. I read the book when I was 13 or so. I was home sick from school and on sick days my mother would bring me a book from the Drugstore book rack. Catch 22 was the catch of that day and I read it, feigning another day of sickness. I was untouched by the book, mildly titillated by the whore, (in my defense it was in the early 60's and I was 13).

Later, I tried to read the thing as and an adult and found it impossible to get through. A stagnent, one note fiction staggering around, fooling poor teachers while I keep thinking someone will expose this piece of trash for what it is--and now you have. Bravo!

Lester Hunt said...

Nick, That's a charming story about how you first read the book. Thanks!

Ruchira said...

Stumbled here from Leiter Reports. Leaving a comment because I recently made a similar observation on my blog although I don't agree that Heller wrote the book because he hated military people more than he hated war.

Lester Hunt said...

Ruchira,

Thanks for the link -- that is such an interesting topic! First reading versus second reading. I am tempted to ramble on about it right now, but I will stifle myself. Maybe I'll post on it later.

Craig D said...

You know, we had a copy of this book at our rural cabin back in the 1970s. As a teenager with acute hay fever, I could think of nothing worse than to be stuck with my family in the middle of giant, pollen-producing lot of land for weekends at a time.

Even my urgent need to waste time and occupy my mind with something, anything could not get me past the first chaper of CATCH 22.

Lester Hunt said...

Craig, You know, this could be a whole genre of anecdotes in itself: reading anecdotes, stories about worst, or best, reading experiences. I enjoyed your post on "Comic Book Memories" as well.

I.D.R.C. said...

Haven't read the book, saw the movie and liked it.

Of your arguments the only point that persuades me is the first point. That sounds like a good reason to dislike a book. The others don't, especially 4. Seems like you didn't get it. I dunno if it's great literature, but it's great concept. I've read some smug, sneering passages from the book and found them entertaining.

Nate said...

Haven't read the book. Rented the movie with the wife and after the first ten minutes said, "Is this really all there is to the movie?" Skipped ahead an hour and saw that it really was. Figured it had just been dumbed way down for Hollywood. Always meant to pick up the book, but...

Thanks for the tip. You've saved me some money and time.

Thomas said...

It was no accident that "Catch 22" proved Mike Nichols' first artistic and commercial flop as a film. Something was not there in the material. The book's huge acclaim spooked Heller from completing a follow up, and when he finally wrote "Something Happened", it also didn't deliver. The book "Catch 22" was nonetheless a celebrated product of its time, but its time has long since passed.

Anonymous said...

I have a confession- I never finished reading "Catch-2" even though I was a charter member of two Vietnam Veterans Against the War chapters at two different universities. I was in the armed forces in Vietnam and agreed with Heller's premise of the absurdity of war and military posturing, but still could not finish the book. Every body talked about the book, teachers, students and the fringe element radicals who hung out on campus in the late '60's. I discussed the issue presented in it with authority, yet I still did not finish the book. For a few years I felt a vague sense of shame, as if my reading skills or sensitivity to the characters in the book was faulty. Later on in my life, after falling asleep while watching the movie made from this tome on tv, I realized that I wasn't defective, the book was. It is boring, a "one-trick pony" fer sure!

Ruchira said...

Came back to say that I have got quite a few hits at my "A Second Glance" post about re-reading old favorites to which I left a link in my previous comment. (Is this what is termed "blog whoring?")

Professor Hunter, if you decide to tackle the same issue on your blog, I would be interested to see how your own favorites stood up to scrutiny on a second visit.

Lester Hunt said...

Ruchira, I'll definitely leave a comment on your blog if I do write on that topic. The problem is, I'm having trouble coming up with books to which I had different reactions at different stages of life. The things I liked at seventeen are all things I still like. (I think it's called arrested development!)

The Good Doctor said...

From your Point #3: "Over and over, it presents me with a picture of pure evil, but in such a way that I am prevented from having the appropriate emotional reaction."

That sounds like one way to experience warfare: surely "an emotionally punishing experience." If Heller got you to that place, maybe his novel succeeded.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree. M*A*S*H in book form. By the end I appreciated the wisdom of the character who did boring/tedious things to make his life seem longer.

Chris said...

I read it while I was in the Army It was funny because it was mostly true, but not ha-ha funny, because the truth of it kind of sucked that oxygen out of the fire.

It's not a bad book, it's just a very thin slice of rebellion to a very over-exaggerated sense of patriotism after WW2. Keep that in context and it swims along pleasantly.

lw said...

Opinions differ. Your distaste for the tone may stem from optimism about a number of things. The Czech classic "The Good Soldier Svejk" takes a similar tone in regard to similar evils, and has been popular for a long time. Heller's book is popular there as well. Also, a novel is not an argument; Tolstoy is good despite his intentions rather than because of them, for instance.

How about books that are dreary and
ambitious failures? DFW's Infinite Jest, or anything by Sartre, maybe.

Blackeyed peas were surprised by My Humps' popularity; it wasn't initially released as a single. It became popular in clubs and then got radio play. Not disagreeing that it's trite and dumb, just saying that it was bottom-up popular.

Jake said...

I wandered in here from Marginal Revolution and read many of the posts, but, unlike the first poster, I can't disagree more with this one, which prompted a fairly long reply of my own at my blog, The Story's Story.

Anonymous said...

It has been 5 years since I read the book. I enjoyed it very much. I consider it a top 10 type of book, although I have never bothered to actually formulate such a list.

I have the strong feeling that you just didn't get the root premise of the book. My understanding of the root premise is that being a soldier and fighting in a war is illogical and insane, and that it affects you in strange and complex ways. For Yosarian the lack of sleep, the drugs, the unbearable stress of someone trying to kill him, the overwhelming grief of losing his friends, and all of the other pressures and stressers caused a multitude of bad effects. It undermined his ability to recount the past in a linear manner, it made him paranoid (and probably a little delusional), and it undermined his moral center. By telling the story from within that disturbed framework, and by populating the story with a whole cast of similarly disturbed characters, Heller helps us understand the real toll of war on the common soldiers.

I don't think Heller or Yosarian believed that the officers sat around and used the "Catch-22" rule to determine who was fit to fly. It was a brilliant simplification to help the emotionally disturbed, but still sane, Yosarian understand his predicament. By giving it a name and making it memorable the officer (I think it was the character of the doctor) gave Yosarian some little bit of power over the demon that was tormenting him. Naming the situation and emotionally identifying with the horror of Yosarian's bind helped the soldier deal with his little hell.

There are many scenes where characters talk about and/or do things that are morally reprehensible. Part of Heller's main point is that war itself undermined their sense of morality, and that the immorality spilled over into non-war activities.

My interpretation of the story about gang-raping the high school girls was much different from yours. I'm not willing to take it at face value that any gang-raping actually occurred. I think that the context of the gang-rape story being told was one in which the soldiers were one-upping each other. And I also believe that they were trying to justify their current state of moral decay by convincing themselves that their current state was not abnormal. The "steal their pennies" detail was one the primary clues that told me that this was a braggadocio story and not a true-event confessional. The lack of response told me that some of the characters thought he was lying and others were actually morally corrupt enough to not care.

I have read several similar stories that also attempted to tell the story from the perspective of an imperfect or outright broken narrator. Gravity's Rainbow (which I couldn't finish) and Slaughterhouse Five (which is finished and enjoyed) are both war epics told in non-linear fashion that attempt to demonstrate the perils of war for the common soldier. Neither have the insight or readability of Catch-22.

The movie couldn't convey the gravitas or the grim humor of the book. It's a prime example of a good book making a mediocre movie. I've never talked to anyone who didn't enjoy the book who did understand that they were looking through the eyes of a profoundly broken narrator; much like Catcher in the Rye.

Sorry for the super-long comment. I guess I feel more strongly about this book than I had realized.

The Emperor said...

I loved the book, so I feel compelled to respond to a couple of points.

You say:


"it consists of basically the same joke over and over again: military people are evil and stupid."

I didn't see it that way at all. Sure, the book was about military people, and most of them were stupid and some were evil. But I took the point to be not that "military people are evil and stupid," but rather that many people are evil and stupid and that if you put these people into the military they will continue to act that way, with potentially horrible consequences. So it's not an insult directed at military people, but a commentary on the inevitable consequences of placing ordinary people at war.

You also say:

"Satire always has an intellectual point. The point here seems to be that war is a bad thing."

Again, that's not how I saw it. I thought his point was that from the individual low-ranking soldier's point of view, war is going to seem pretty awful. That doesn't mean that all wars are bad from a broader perspective. It just means that having to kill and possibly be killed is an awful experience.

John said...

I loved the book and agree with above posters who question your interpretation of the book's point and humor. If all you took away was a specific anti-military bias, you should spend some more time considering the specific instances of humor. If anything, the book uses many absurdities common to all bureaucratic systems in a manner at once light and grave. Laughing at absurdity does not necessarily indicate a lighthearted view of a given absurdity's consequences. The novel would be more disturbing, less accurate and more frustrating if war's horrors produced clinical detachment of a sort in the protagonist, instead of mental hilarity.

MW said...

When I first read Catch-22 it did seem like a one-trick pony in a lot of ways, but as I dug deeper into the novel I found that there is a lot more that meets the eye.

The most important aspect of the book is its omissions. Heller was a Jew who fought in WWII, yet neither Germans nor the Holocaust are even mentioned in the book.

The book is a great critique of war not because the characters and insane and evil – it is great because the characters are not insane in the light of unspeakable insanity that surrounds them. They joke about gang rape because it is funny in light of the unspeakable horror around them. Similarly, the sanity/insanity confusion reflects the attempts to classify any part of war as either.

I typically enjoy trying to analyze literature without a need for consideration for the author or time period; I assume that all of the great books can stand up without that framework. Catch-22 cannot be looked at in this way. It is a great book because of who wrote it and his history.

Bill Gardner said...

My father was a world war 2 veteran. He was a paratrooper, then a member of the OSS. He experienced some things that he wouldn't discuss. I asked him once what he thought of Catch-22. He said it wasn't funny, but it was realistic. I stared at him. He said, "No, that was what the Army was actually like."

Lester Hunt said...

I see Tyler Cowan linked to this post, so I got a lot of new comments all of a sudden. And all thoughtful and interesting, too! Thanks people!

Just one response, at least for now.

LW: Darn! I was afraid someone would mention The Good Soldier Schweik! I'd never read it, and I knew that it too takes an ironic tone about great evils. Since I read your comment, I've read the first half dozen chapters.

Verdict so far: For one thing, that book is a lot, lot funnier that C-22. Before I thought of noticing it, I'd laughed out loud twice in the first couple of pages. For another, the scope is larger. The story begins before the war, and works up to it. This enables the author to situate the war narrative in a larger narrative, which helps to define his satirical target. It's clear that the satire is not just about the military: it's about the power-structure that perpetuates destructive policies and profits from them. In addition, I think there is a difference between the to tone of these two books. There is nothing arch or sneering about Hasek's book. Like Johathan Swift, he manages to laugh at evil and at the same time reveal the passion and the solid moral principles on which his passion is based. What bothered me about C-22 wasn't its irony, but the fact that it is a certain sort of irony: it seems to me to be the "Gee, people other than you and me sure are dumb" kind.

Lester Hunt said...

A couple of commenters suggest that Heller is making a certain sort of point by means of the crazy or irrational behavior, as that war makes people crazy, or makes (normally) irrational behavior rational (in the sense of profitable). This thought occurred to me while reading the book, but only because it is an obvious idea (that is, its obviously true). It's not effectively embodied in the text itself. The reason is that Heller tosses into the story cases of mad behavior that doesn't have this sort of source. For instance, the only officer who is a sane and decent person is Major Major Major, the one who looks like Henry Fonda. And he is also the only one who is universally hated by the men under him. They literally beat him bloody when they get a chance. Some of the men hate him because they think he really is Henry Fonda and that his claim to be someone else is a lie. The impression you get from this is that human beings are basically insane idiots in the first place. This of course muddies any point Heller is making about how war makes people act as if they were insane idiots. It is a night in which all cows are gray.

As far as I can see, the one idea that really is in the text is not an interesting thesis about war, nor even one as obvious as the one referred to above, but a glib hipsterish nihilism.

Allan said...

C-22 is certainly not the greatest novel of the century, but The Most Overrated? I found the book at its most basic level an interesting commentary on the absurd illogic of not only war but modern life. I don't throw the word interesting here lightly, vestiges of these characters have stayed with me through the years. I predict that this novel will die a quiet death as I do think it is nothing greater that a well-written (better than most Vonnegut) "period piece". Oh, and IMO to find the most overrated novels and author it's not necessary to look any further than Ayn Rand!

Lester Hunt said...

Allan,

As to Ayn Rand, I'd say that's certainly not true if you mean, as I did, overrated by critics and readers alike. (And surely that's a reasonable definition of "most overrated," isn't it?) By any sane standard, she's underrated by the critics, by whom she is almost universally despised. I would explain this by a corollary to my C-22 principle: Just as authors get a free ride for telling people things they already believe, they are punished for telling them things they already disagree with.

huxley said...

Thanks for this review, Lester. Several months ago I purchased a nice hardback version of Catch-22 to reread and I was shocked by how unreadable it is for much the same reasons you describe.

Today I've read enough history to know what the soldiers went through in WWII and why. Heller does indeed treat those men ignobly, and it's a wonder to me that the book was so lauded in 1961--only a decade and a half past the war.

Christen said...

I would explain this by a corollary to my C-22 principle: Just as authors get a free ride for telling people things they already believe, they are punished for telling them things they already disagree with.

Which is left-leaning professional critics and The Academy consider The Jungle a sublime work of art and not gut-churning propaganda with laughably flat characters and a Message you can see coming miles away.

Wait.

No, they don't.

Ayn Rand would get a little more love from critics if she wrote sentences that weren't made of lead and created characters that were round and believable, as opposed to cartoonish capitalist superheroes. For that matter, plenty of conservative/libertarian philosophers are regarded seriously in philosophy departments, where Rand's "philosophy" is not referred to without quotation marks.

I'll buy Catch-22 as a one-note joke that didn't tickle you (I never got through it either), but the reasons you imagine people like it don't really hold up.

Lester Hunt said...

Christen,

"... the reasons you imagine people like it don't really hold up." That would seem to mean that people don't give an author extra points for saying things they agree with, or take points away for saying things they already think are wrong. That doesn't seem very plausible to me. As Ortega says somewhere, for most of us, the pleasure of reading is the pleasure of agreeing.

Timothy Sexton said...

Lord of the Rings.
Atlas Shrugged.
The Son Also Rises.
Catcher in the Rye.
All of which are far, far, far more overrated than Catch-22. Anyone who has trouble getting through Catch-22 probably has an equally difficult time understanding an episode of Friends. The structure of the novel is one of repetition and fragmentation, kind of like the idea of constantly fighting over the same ideas and territories over and over. The Germans were bad, now they're good. It's all a fool's paradise. Life in the 20th century was a Catch-22. It still is. Oklahoma is considering taking the step of lessening gun violence on college campuses by allowing students to carry concealed weapons. Nothing that happens in Catch-22 is more absurd that what is taking place in the world every day.

Lester Hunt said...

Timothy Sexton,

Wow. I find that I disagree with everything you just said, from beginning to end: from C-22 being far better than LoTR to arming oneself in self defense being absurd. Perfection of any kind is so rare, I can't resist applauding it whenever it does show up!

Anonymous said...

I don't think you really grasped the book- it wasn't so much about how all military folk are evil but how war reduces the individual/ the human to a cog in the bureaucratic machine, and how this reduction is absurd. With that said, I do think that Catch 22 is slightly overrated.

The critics are right on with Ayn Rand, though.

Anonymous said...

Lester Hunt makes a valid criticism of Catch-22. However, I think there was one aspect of the novel he could've probed more deeply (which would have made his critique even more valid). I'm talking about Heller's irony/black humor, which Hunt deems inappropriate.

The line seperating tragedy from irony is actually quite thin. You need only to look at "Hamlet," "King Lear," or "Macbeth" to notice this. It is rather absurd to see a powerful person fall because of his indecision, lack of judgment or ambition--or for any number of other reasons that have to do with human weaknesses that manifest themselves in questionable decisions.

That, I believe, is what Heller failed to show in his novel. We get the sense (Heller's sense, actually) that military people are evil and stupid. But we never understand what makes them that way, or at least behave wickedly and stupidly. We never come to understand why the one who doesn't want to fly more missions is seen as sane, much less why anyone would make a counterintuitive decision to send such a person on a mission to kill more people.

In other words, Heller might be able to create a freak show and poke people in the ribs to see that yes, indeed, it is a freak show. But we obviously doesn't understand something Richard Russo said so well: that novelists hold people accountable for their actions. In Les Miserables, it's easy to side with Jean Valjean, who stole a loaf of bread when he was young and had been running ever since, even though Victor Hugo doesn't let the reader forget that as dire as Valjean's circumstances were, he still made the decisions to steal and run. Best of all, we understand what was going on in Valjean's head, just as we can see what motivates the equally valid if much less sympathetic Inspector Jalabert, who pursues Valjean.

Someone mentioned Vonnegut. Even he did a better job of showing the motivations of Billy Pilgrim than Heller did of illuminating any of his characters.

Anonymous said...

Catch-22 is anti-establishment, not anti-war. He could have written the plot around any situation that leaves you between a rock and a hard place because of an oppressive, self-serving system that employs circular logic to sustain itself. What we learn from Orr is that the only way to avoid either the rock or the hard place is to take the third choice - up and out.

If you take another look, you might find other characters 'make the same joke', only about different establishments. For example, Minderbinder's character makes fun of capitalism.

It's the bureaucracy of war he finds absurd, not necessarily war itself.

Anonymous said...

All of should be aware that Catch-22 is required reading at the U.S. Air Force Academy. It has acquired a sort of biblical reverence.

Be afraid...be very afraid...

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