Catch-22: Chapters 1-4

Chapters Read: 1. The Texan; 2. Clevinger; 3. Havermeyer; 4. Doc Daneeka

Page reached:: 33 of 448 (7.37%).

Status Report:

There was a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma; there was a pathologist for his pathos, a cystologist for his cysts, and a bald and pedantic cetologist from the zoology department at Harvard who had been shanghaied ruthlessly into the Medical Corps by a faulty anode in an I.B.M machine and spent his sessions with the dying colonel trying to discuss Moby Dick with him.

Ha! Dude, I totally sympathize.

Before I got any further, I’d like to point out that I knew pretty much nothing about Catch-22 two days ago, aside from these three facts:

  • It’s an “American Classic”;
  • It’s about War;
  • It’s “funny”.

“Funny” in scare quotes because, when it comes to classics, you can’t really be sure what they mean by that. The aforementioned Moby Dick is also purported to be a laff riot, but you have to read 230 page doctoral dissertation entitled Cetologoical Jocularity: How Melville Brings On the Epic Lulz to get the alleged jokes. So I wasn’t 100% confident on point three, really.

Now, four chapters in, I’m pleased as punch to announce that, yes, this book is funny in a not-strictly-hypothetical way. Funny in the sense that it actually produces guffaws. Chuckles, even.

Despite being billed as a great American novel, the humor strikes me as distinctly British, of the sort a Monty Python sketch would be built around.

In one of the Pre-NaNoReMo 2007 posts, in fact, someone in the comments likened the writing in Catch-22 to that of Douglas Adams. I see it! Take this passage, for instance:

"They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him.

"No one is trying to kill you," Clevinger cried.

"Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked ...

"Who's they?" [Clevinger] wanted to know. "Who, specifically, do you think is trying to murder you?"

"Every one of them," Yossarian told him.

"Every one of whom?"

"Every one of whom do you think?"

"I haven't any idea."

"Then how do you know they aren't?"

Reminiscent of Douglas Adams, sure. But, to my mind, even more so of a slightly older English author:

"You should say what you mean," the March Hare went on.

"I do," Alice hastily replied; "at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know."

"Not the same thing a bit!" said the Hatter. "You might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!"

"You might just as well say," added the March Hare, 'that "I like what I get' is the same thing as 'I get what I like'!"

"You might just as well say," added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, "that 'I breathe when I sleep' is the same thing as 'I sleep when I breathe'!"

"It is the same thing with you," said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped.

And, more recently, this bloke:

"Hallo!" said Piglet, "what are you doing?"

"Hunting," said Pooh.

"Hunting what?"

"Tracking something," said Winnie-the-Pooh mysteriously.

"Tracking what?" said Piglet, coming closer.

"That's just what I ask myself. I ask myself, What?"

"What do you think you'll answer?"

"I shall have to wait until I catch up with it," said Winnie-the-Pooh.

Two of my all-time favorite authors, as luck would have it. The absurd and the surreal and the non-sequiturian are my preferred forms of humor.

That said, I hope this book has a plot. There’s really no sign of it yet. And the fact that nearly every chapter title to follow is the name of a character doesn’t bode well. If the whole novel is nothing but descriptions of wacky personalities and recollections of past events, the schtick may get tiresome. Quickly.

Still, a promising start.

Favorite Passage:The chaplain stirred again. He looked from side to side a few times, then gazed up at the ceiling, then down at the floor. He drew a deep breath.

“Lieutenant Nately sends his regards,” he said.

Yossarian was sorry to hear they had a mutual friend. It seemed there was a basis to their conversation after all.

Words Looked Up:

  • Damask: A firm lustrous fabric (as of linen, cotton, silk, or rayon) made with flat patterns in a satin weave on a plain-woven ground on jacquard looms.
  • Musette Bag: A small canvas or leather bag with a shoulder strap, as one used by soldiers or travelers.
  • Saturnine: Melancholy or sullen. Having or marked by a tendency to be bitter or sardonic.
  • Gentian: The dried rhizome and roots of a yellow-flowered European gentian, G. lutea, sometimes used as a tonic.

Other blogs discussing these chapters:

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41 comments.

  1. Oh, it does have a plot. And yes, it takes a while to realize it.

    And no, it’s not a “plot”.

  2. Oh my god … “epic lulz” … HA!

  3. My favorite bit (dogeared it):

    The paragraph beginning:

    Actually, there were many officers’ clubs that Yossarian had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one on Pianosa……

    Is it OK to run ahead a few chapters?

    Otherwise I have to start reading a secondary book upon reaching my goal….

  4. It’s funny, you’ll almost finish the book before realising that the plot has been ticking away. Great read, imho :)

  5. Seconding Karan’s comment – you don’t notice the plot until you’re pretty much at the end. But don’t let that deter you, because it’s not a tiresome book in the least.

  6. Oh yes there’s a plot. There’s really no book quite like Catch 22 for making you laugh your ass off then shooting you in the back near the end. Pay close attention to what happens to Dunbar, it’s actually quite chilling.

    Poor Joseph Heller, that bona-fide supraman who I hear was friends with Vonnegut, never again rose to the levels of brilliance he did in Catch-22. Later works include Something Happened (critical opinion was, generally, “Nothing happened”) and eventually a sequel to Catch-22, Closing Time, about Yossarian as an old man, but it just wasn’t the same.

  7. Chapters Read: 1. The Texan; 2. Clevinger; 3. Havermeyer; 4. Doc Daneeka
    Paged reached:: 54 (9.49%).
    Status Report:
    Great book, love the humor of this book so far.
    I attempted to read this when I was younger, and I don’t remember having liked it as much as this. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get past the first chapter then.
    Favorite Passage:
    “Why?”
    “Why what?””’
    “Why did you walk around all day with rubber balls in your hands?”
    “Because rubber balls–” said Orr.
    “–are better than crab apples?”
    Words Looked Up:
    * prolix: extended to great, unnecessary, or tedious length; long and wordy.
    * Damask as well.

  8. I would add P.G. Wodehouse as another practitioner in this vein of humour. A good friend of A.A. Milne, by the way.

    In contrast to Heller’s success with Catch-22, P.G.’s farcical take on the Second World War got him in big trouble. After he was interned in a civilian camp in Germany for several years, he wrote an article and did some broadcasts on Nazi radio, treating the experience in the same light-handed tone he used for his Jeeves books. Didn’t go over well in 1941.

  9. For all it’s faults, the film version has some great moments, including a scene with the dialogue you cited (as delivered by Alan Arkin and a very young Martin Sheen).

  10. Re: Heller’s other books

    I loved Something Happened, but you have to be in the right mind to read it. I read it slowly, over the course of a semester, in my extremely boring molecular bio lecture. I sat in the back (one of about 20 in the 300 of us who bothered to show up) and read. You’ve really got to be feeling ennui in your life to appreciate it.

    It’s also the only 569-page book that I wanted to read again entirely immediately after finishing, and I blame that entirely on the last couple of chapters. The others were interesting, but nothing special. I didn’t appreciate the rest of the book until the end.

    Right now I’m reading God Knows (also by Heller) and I think it is grand. Not as brilliant as Catch-22, of course, but if you’re familiar with the story of David (of Goliath-slaying fame) there’s nothing like hearing it from David himself. It’s really best if you’re familiar with the whole of the Old Testament, so if you weren’t forced/interested enough to pick up those in your spare time you’d definitely miss out on some of the subtler jokes.

    Do not read Closing Time. I tried to read that many years ago and couldn’t. The writing is poor and it isn’t funny.

  11. TS Eliot

  12. After reading a directionless chapter one filled with Mad Hatter dialog, I was thinking “Oh, no, what has Matt gotten us into, this is going to be as painful as Moby Dick!”

    By the end of Chapter four I was chuckling and hooked.

  13. I knew I was hooked with the last line of the first chapter: “In less than ten days, the Texan drove everybody in the ward back to duty – everybody but the CID man, who had caught cold from the fighter captain and come down with pneumonia.”

  14. I can’t stop reading! What % of 463 is 115?

  15. What, no mention of the congenitally idiotic T. S. Eliot exchange? I hope that the fiasco of the synchronization of the watches doesn’t receive such short shrift.

    Two things I noticed this time around (reading for the 4th time? 5th?):

    1. Yossarian is just as guilty as everyone else in his self-centered-ness and general willingness to create as many difficulties for others as necessary in order to ease his own situation. It puts the wanna-be rebels who I see wearing “Yossarian”-labeled military shirts in a revealing light.

    2. The “Havermeyer” chapter ends up being more about Orr than Havermeyer. Isn’t it suspicious that there’s no chapter titled “Orr”? Hmmm!

  16. A quick note to those keeping the dictionary so close to hand while reading: “gentian violet” is a chemical compound that has nothing in common with the “gentian” flower other than its color. You may want to look it up again.

  17. I read this the summer before my senior year of high school when I was in Spain. I had only taken with me books I needed to read for English class that year thinking I would be forced to read them in my desperation for something in English. It worked fairly well. I ended up reading this two or three times rather than ever force my way through The Scarlet Letter (still haven’t read it to this day). I had some fears that reading Catch-22 again would be disappointing – I think that’s why I’ve never picked it up, before now.

    I love the dialog in this book. I agree that it seems quite British. Heller’s descriptions are surprisingly amusing as well.

    I’m glad to not be the only one who had to look up some words.

  18. I’m loving the descriptions of people’s eyes. We have diffident, mildewed, bulging, with mournful pouches under and iron grey tufts over.
    I agree I’m going to have to intersperse other reading to make this book last through the month.

    p.84, %20

  19. Word looked up reading comments: interned. I had been under the – it turns out, mistaken – impression that one is interred in a camp (or other place). It turns out that “interned” is the correct word unless you’re talking about being buried (or interred).

    Glad I looked it up before correcting.

  20. Oh, hell yeah it’s got a plot. It’s just that it’s got as many or more flashbacks and exgeses as forward-in-real-time scenes. There’s going to be a reveal later in the book to explain Yossarian’s odd behavior at the outset, and if you have the tiniest fleck of a human heart, it’ll break it. Read till the end if you want to regain your life.

  21. i am one of those who keeps reading past the assigned chapters. i’d say i’m about halfway done after starting earlier this week.

    the shtick does get old (made-up example: ‘Yossarian was the most self-absorbed soldier in camp except for when he wasn’t.’). thankfully a plot emerges.

    beyond laughs and guffaws i have found myself laughing continually through the especially crazy passages (i think the synchronizing of the clocks was one of them).

    i have decided not to take the book too seriously as a critique beyond war and modern institutions are crazy and when combined warp reality. so i’m not considering Yossarian guilty of anything and trying to resist with Milo and Cathcart. otherwise, reading about Cathcart will make me homicidal.

    never read Catch-22 before. great pick. glad i voted for it ;-)

  22. i think the plot – or lack of it – is a part of the story. To a large degree, it helps the sustain the ambiance and you empathise with the feeling of being trapped in the hoplessness and pointlessness of war.

  23. interestingly, re: the British comments above, Catch-22 sold better at first in Britain than in America.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Heller

    (i’ve got a little more than my comment above in a post at my own weblog.)

  24. We read Catch-22 in Freshman Lit a thousand years ago, and I contended fruitlessly with the professor about your Point 2: It’s about War.

    She insisted that Catch-22 is not about War at all, but rather uses War as a metaphor for the Human Condition.

    I disagreed strongly, as only a freshman literature student could. The War is not a metaphor. The dying is not a metaphor. The chickenshit, maybe that is a metaphor. But not the War.

    A decade ago, the discount retailer Target promoted a Christmas-season snowman mascot named Snowden. I was horrified.

  25. Hey, weird coincidence. I just finished reading this (after a couple of failed starts) a couple of weeks ago.

    “That said, I hope this book has a plot. There’s really no sign of it yet.”

    I worried about the same thing. Stick with it. I don’t know if I’d call it a “plot” exactly, but stuff starts to come together in the last half, and I ended up racing through it and being very satisfied at the end.

  26. No one else had to look up infundibuliform? Did you infer that the Texan’s jowls were funnel-shaped?

    While I’m on that page…
    “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?”

    Ha!

  27. I love this book, first read it about 10 years ago and re-read it every 2 or 3 years. A quick tip – once you’ve finished the book, let it sink in for a few weeks and then watch the film.

    I don’t think it’s possible to understand what’s happening in the film without having read the book. It’s like Pulp Fiction but without so much continuity between jumps.

    Anyway, I hadn’t really thought of the similarity between Heller, Milne and Lewis. I need to go back and flick through my old copies of Alice in Wonderland now!

  28. Like others have said, there is definitely a plot, but it takes a bit of thinking to keep it straight. This is a book that’s better on the second or third reading, though it was enjoyable the first time.

    it’s funny, but also fills you with rage.

  29. I remember being mocked for my choice of reading material, Douglas Adams, by my not very imaginative high school English teacher. Ironically, we were at that time reading Catch 22 in class (I just had Hitchhiker’s along with me, I wasn’t reading it in class or anything). I did try to convince her of the similarity in style, but she didn’t get it.

  30. I’ve only read to the end of chapter 5. I agree the schtick is getting old. And usually I love British comedy.

    If Yossarian is the main character I’m having a really hard time caring about what happens to him at this point. I’m hoping, as all of you have commented, that I’ll enjoy it the more I read.

  31. Saying “Catch-22″ is about War is like saying “Slaughterhouse 5″ is about War– it features a pair of characters passing through episodes of wartime, and Catch 22 has a military-in-wartime setting, but, well, is M*A*S*H about War or is it a medical comedy? (And god help us if we decide to argue which war it was really about.)

    The other thing to note is that it has many strong bits of what you’d call “manners novel,” which produces amusing and/or frustrating characters like Milo Minderbender. Jane Austen is sometimes credited with inventing the Manners novel, even though Shakespeare contributed to the genre, and for some brilliantly good modern examples, I recommend anything by Connie Willis, especially “Doomsday Book” (time-travel tragic manners novel) and the same-universe non-sequel, “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” (time-travel comedy of manners).

    Finally, people call C22 “funny,” but it is, for the most part better called satire, which is at times funny but generally unsettling. Some people, as you may know, don’t recognize satire that isn’t funny, and therefore think all satire is funny.

  32. Well, I’m not totally sold on this book, pg. 59 (13%) through and the hidden plot is starting to annoy me. I think I’m going to start over tonight and try to really focus as this is not one of those books I can read in between downs or on commercial breaks apparently. I do love the craziness of it, but in high school, I would have been hard pressed to stick with this.

    I shall overcome though!

    Great Passage:
    “Who is Spain?”
    “Why is Hitler?”
    “When is right?”
    “Where was that stooped and mealey-colored old man I used to call Poppa when the merr-go-round broke down?”
    “How was trump at Munich?”
    “Ho-ho beriberi.”
    and “Balls!”

  33. God I love this book. I would eat it if I could.

  34. I am following your schedule so have only read the first four chapters. I am not enjoying this book so far but I will stick with NaNoReMo because you and your commenters are all so darn entertaining. How bad can it be?

    I hope it gets better.

  35. I loved “something happened” and remember huge portions of it being in parantheses. i started to re-read “catch-22″ this time so i could keep up with matt but i couldn’t get into it. the dialogue that is most often cited above sounds like catskills shtick to me. the only image that sticks with me from the film is the plane chopping whozit off at the waist and then his two legs just swaying there on the raft for what feels like two minutes.

  36. Sez Jon F: “Yossarian is just as guilty as everyone else in his self-centered-ness and general willingness to create as many difficulties for others as necessary in order to ease his own situation.”

    Well, sure. But isn’t that what Heller’s showing us? Hardly anybody we’ve seen so far cooperates. The feuding generals. Yossarian’s approach to censoring the enlisted’s letters. The bit about Orr and the crab apples — sensible conversation requires that the interlocutors cooperate, and this conversation is funny because Orr is a master at not cooperating in that way. The only one going along with the group’s nominal objectives and doing his duty is Havermeyer the Good Bombardier, and he’s crazy.

    I haven’t read past the first four chapters, but I have trouble imagining Heller thinking of these people as simply “guilty of self-centered-ness”. Isn’t the point that the war situation has destroyed the social order?

    erin: I had to look up “infundibuliform”. I should have known it, though — there’s a chronosynclastic infundibulum in some Vonnegut book I tried to read a few months ago.

  37. Uh-oh, I think I’m the crotchety old lady of the bunch. “You darn kids — posting about stuff that happens later in the book, and in the movie” (shaking cane).

    Similar to Matt, I only knew Catch-22 was about war, and that it was “dark humor”. I am loving it so far — so glad this one got picked for NaNoReMo — and because of that, would like to ask that folks who’ve read it before to be careful with the spoilers? I know it’s kind of a ridiculous request, since the book’s been out for 50 years, but… would be much appreciated.

  38. I recently read the blog, Army of Dude; which is a real story about a real guy in a real war. You might call it Catch-22.v2.0

  39. “Saying “Catch-22″ is about War is like saying “Slaughterhouse 5″ is about War…”

    Well, actually, Slaughterhouse-Five IS “about War.” I mean, sure, it’s also about fate and free will and the fact that humans are inherently illogical, but Vonnegut seems to keep coming back to the fact that war, definitively, sucks. The full title of the novel is, after all:

    Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death by Kurt Vonnegut, a fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war, witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “The Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale. This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from. Peace.

  40. I read an article/interview with Heller years back, early 90′s. The book was partly about his experiences with war, and partly about bureaucracy, and the insanity, not of war, but of large organizations like the Army. It is not an anti-war book, though. Heller felt that WWII was necessary.

  41. Slacker.