“Being powerful,” said Margaret Thatcher, “is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” Of the many reasons why I so dislike Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, the fact that it continually brings to mind the late Mrs Thatcher is one of the most, as it were, powerful. Before me is the 1994 paperback edition of the offending book in question. Below the title and above the name of the author is the following claim: ‘One of the Great Novels of the Century‘. Leaving aside the odd capitalisation policy, can you think of a half-decent novel from the previous century that is willing to speak so highly of itself?
Long before I began this bloated tale of an American bombing squadron in Italy during the Second World War, I’d heard about the inability of many readers to get beyond its first 60 pages. It is indeed a difficult opening. Using prose that has all the elegance of a hot dog, Heller introduces about a dozen flimsy and pointless characters, as well as the recurrent, inescapable and eponymous hinderance to happiness or survival. For those who make it through this untidy beginning the reward is mere tedium. Take the following exchange:
His heart cracked and he fell in love. He wondered if she would marry him.
‘Tu sei pazzo,‘ she told him with a pleasant laugh.
‘Why am I crazy?’ he asked.
‘Perché non posso sposare.‘
‘Why can’t you get married?’
‘Because I am not a virgin,’ she answered.
‘What has that got to do with it?’
‘Who will marry me? No one wants a girl who is not a virgin.’
‘I will. I’ll marry you.’
‘Ma non posso sposarti.‘
‘Why can’t you marry me?’
‘Perchè sei pazzo.‘
‘Why am I crazy?’
‘Perchè vuoi sposarmi.‘
Yossarian wrinkled his forehead with quizzical amusement. ‘You won’t marry me because I’m crazy, and you say I’m crazy because I want to marry you? Is that right?’
In nearly every chapter of this 519-page book two or more characters engage in a similarly fruitless dialogue in which that even-numbered snag raises its unfunny head. (The example above is fractionally more interesting for the lines in Italian.) Fans of the book might call me a spoiler. I disagree: I may just have saved a lot of people a great deal of agony. If you comprehend the snippet I’ve cited you comprehend the entire story. Now, if you find it amusing, by all means begin reading about Yossarian’s attempts to get out of flying bombing missions (you’ll never guess why he fails in this endeavour). However, if like me you asked ‘Is this what all the fuss is about?’ then pick up another, less deluded 20th century novel.