Catch-22: Chapters 14-18

Chapters Read:14. Kid Sampson, 15. Piltchard and Wren, 16. Lucina, 17. The Soldier in White, 18. The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice

Page reached:: 171 of 448 (38.17%).

Status Report: A few welcome diversions in this block of chapters, fueling speculation that this thing might have a plot after all. Piltchard and Wren contains an actual action sequence. Lucina, meanwhile, is a break from the chapters devoted solely to the foibles of the military and the men therein.

Yossarian is shaping up to be a pretty great antihero. Craven, carnal, self-absorbed, and downright dangerous at times, he often reflects on and epitomizes the ridiculousness of the war. The central problem, of course, is that every character is looking out for himself alone, and therefore butting heads with all the other vain and self-serving characters strewn throughout the book. By getting us to sympathize with one, Heller demonstrates that, individually, everyone is acting sanely, insofar as their only aim to to advance their own interests. It’s only when you look at the “Big Picture” that you see that the whole is much, much less than the sum of its parts–a bunch of rational actors to collectively make up the enormous clusterfuck of war..

Favorite Passage:”Don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yossarian continued, hurtling on over her objection. “There’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about – a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?”

“Pain?” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife pounced upon the word victoriously. “Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers.”

“And who created the dangers?” Yossarian demanded … “Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell instead to notify us?”

Words Looked Up:

  • Slattern: 1. a slovenly, untidy woman or girl; 2. a slut; harlot.
  • Fructified: to bear fruit; become fruitful.
  • Effulgent: shining forth brilliantly; radiant.
  • Somnolently: 1. sleepy; drowsy; 2. tending to cause sleep.
  • Lachrymose: suggestive of or tending to cause tears; mournful.
  • Sententiously: 1. abounding in pithy aphorisms or maxims; 2. given to excessive moralizing; self-righteous; 3. of the nature of a maxim; pithy.
  • Fillip: 1. to strike with the nail of a finger snapped from the end of the thumb; 2. to tap or strike smartly.

Catch-22: Chapters 11-13

Chapters Read: 11. Captain Black, 12. Bologna, 13. Major ______ De Coverely

Page reached:: 124 of 448 (27.68%).

Status Report: Folks are dropping out of NaNoReMo left and right. I guess since I, the founder of NaNoReMo, dropped out of it myself last year, everyone is allowed one bail. But next year when we read Ulysses: no quitters.

Well too bad for you guys, because things just got great. Captain Black was my favorite chapter so far. Its tale of “Loyalty Oaths Gone Wild” reads like “United States, 2002: A Year In Review.” Actually who am I kidding, ascribing this to 2002? We’re still a nation that freaks out if a presidential candidate opts not to wear a American flag lapel pin. What is such flair, if not a loyalty oath in pewter?

Plus, as John F. pointed out in in the comments of the last post, the chapter Bologna shows the first unmistakable signs of an emerging plot.

By the way, I honestly think it’s not too late to join NaNoReMo 2007. If anything, I think Catch-22 is probably best read in two weeks or less. My greatest difficulty, this year, is pacing myself out, so I don’t just dash the rest of the book off over a weekend. (Too keep myself on schedule, I’ve alternated my reading between this and latest issue of Murdaland.) The circular writing is a bit taxing, spread out over a full month. But I suspect, were you to just bolt the whole novel as quickly as possible, it would probably go down a lot smoother.

If you are still in, and have a blog, mention it in the comments: I’ll migrate the links up to this post. Plus, I’d be curious to see a headcount.

Favorite Passage: I would reprint “Captain Black” here in full, were it not for copyright law.

Still in NaNoReMo:

Catch-22: Chapters 9 & 10

Chapters Read: 9. Major Major Major Major, 10. Wintergreen

Page reached:: 105 of 448 (23.44%).

Status Report: So far I have compared Heller’s writing style to Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, A. A. Milne, and Abbot and Costello. And yet, the whole time, I have had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that there was some other author to whom he could be more justifiably compared. Someone who also wrote sentences that would gently lead you down an alley and then suddenly turn to hit you over the head with a sap.

I couldn’t remember who the other writer was, though, until I read this passage, about Major Major’s farming father:

He specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn't earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce ... He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county.

Ohhhh yeah. I know who this reminds me of. My Grandpa.

As you may recall, I recently posted a letter my Grandfather sent my mother in 1967. (See it here.) Here’s an excerpt:

We are very busy farming. We have three cows, but we are going to sell one because we can't milk him. Eggs are a good price. That's the reason why they are so high. I sure hope we can get a lot of them. We just bought 2 roosters and one old hen. Some of the ground is so poor that you can't raise an umbrella on it, but we have a fine crop of corn. I think it will make about five gallons an ache. Some worms got into our corn last year but we just fished them out and drank it anyway. Our romance started with a gallon of corn and ended with a full crib ...

Every time John gets sick he gets to feeling bad. The doctor gave him some medicine and said if he gets better it might help him and if he didn't get any worse he would stay about the same.

Catch-22 was published in 1962. Is this how everyone talked back in the sixties? Because of all the drugs? Or did people take the drugs to cope with other people talking like this?

As for these chapters, “Major Major Major Major” is like an extended LOST flashback, and Wintergreen is only mentioned five times in his own chapter. Weird.

Favorite Passage:

[Yosarian says:] "I don't want to be in the war any more."

"Would you like to see our country lose?" Major Major asked.

"We won't lose. We've got more men, more money and more material. There are ten million men in uniform who could replace me. Some people are getting killed and a lot more are making money and having fun. Let somebody else get killed."

"But suppose everybody on our side felt that way."

"Then I'd certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way. Wouldn't I?

Words Looked Up:

  • Moil (“Rain splashed from a moiling sky …”): To churn about continuously.

Other Bloggers Commenting On These Chapters:

Catch-22: Chapters 5-8

Chapters Read: 5. Chief White Halfoat, 6. Hungry Joe, 7. McWatt, 8. Lieutenant Scheisskopf

Page reached:: 76 of 448 (16.96%).

Status Report: On the one hand, the “Who’s On First” routine is getting wearisome; on the other, the book is a pretty easy read (“because of” or “despite of” the schtick, I haven’t yet decided), so I’m not sure it matters. Still, I hope this doesn’t become one of those novels I find myself devouring at every available opportunity not because it is compulsively readable but simply because I want it to be over.

Now my biggest concern is the sheer number of people to which we have been introduced. Heller uses more characters than most authors use verbs, and this may prove to be a problem. I have the mental wherewithal to hold about four characters in my head during any given story, and then only if they are all suitably distinct–preferably one man, one woman, one child, and a pet of some sort, all with wildly divergent names. I’m the kind of guy who can lose track of the characters in My Dinner With Andre.

Worse, it’s never obvious, in Catch-22, which characters are “real” (i.e., essential to the alleged plot, which people swear is going to stroll onto the scene at some point) and which are just extended shaggy-dog jokes, never to be seen again. I’ll tell you this much: any character that doesn’t surface at least once every third chapter is going down my memory hole. Even as I typed the chapter titles above I was, like, “Chief White Who?”

Fun book, so far. That said, this dog-chasing-its-tail style of writing is certainly not for everyone. I’m at the point now where I can, with some confidence, make two predictions: after I finish reading Catch-22, I (1.) will have enjoyed it, and (2) will not begrudge anyone who hated it.

Favorite Passage:

Clevinger was one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains, and everyone knew it except those who soon found it out. In short, he was a dope. He often looked to Yossarian like one of those people hanging around modern museums with both eyes together on one side of a face. It was an illusion, of course, generated by Clevinger's predilection for staring fixedly at one side of a question and never seeing the other side at all.

Words Looked Up:

  • Jocosely: Characterized by joking; humorous.
  • Avuncular: 1. Of or having to do with an uncle; regarded as characteristic of an uncle, especially in benevolence or tolerance.

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:

The Bad Review Revue

The Comebacks: “Probably the worst movie that’s sludged across my professional eyeballs.” — Gregory Kirschling , ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

Saw IV: “As edgy as a rubber knife.” — Scott Schueller, CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The Ten Commandment: “Thou shalt not cast Christian Slater as Moses, no matter how much the Hollywood party boy wants to fulfill some form of karmic community service.” — John Monaghan, DETROIT FREE PRESS

Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour: “Beset by bad lighting, limited visual imagination and acting so wooden it might have termites.” — John Anderson, VARIETY

Rush Hour 3: “Rush Hour was acceptable. It was to Rush Hour 2 what McDonald’s is to White Castle. Rush Hour 2 is to Rush Hour 3 what White Castle is to cat food.” — Kyle Smith, NEW YORK POST

Halloween: Post Mortem

We get no trick-or-treaters at our house. Zero. So we went over to the home of some friends, who live on Capitol Hill.

When they invited us, they made it sound like it would be a delightful, relaxing evening. Some food. A little wine. The occasional interruption by visiting children. Little did we know that we were being conscripted to work in their candy-handing-out sweatshop.

The quantity of trick-or-treaters they expected to receive was described to us as “a lot.” I took this to mean, like, 100. Instead, it was more like “a throng” or “a battalion” … possibly even “a multitude.” I don’t know what time they opened their front door (the insanity was already well on its way by the time we arrived at 6:00), but it did not close again until well after 9:00. The stream of kidmanity was ceaseless.

Handing out candy was a three-person operation: two stood on either side of the door, frantically shoving Fun-Sized Snickers bars and Laffy Taffy into the gaping maws of waiting bags; the third served as a kind of bucket brigade, feverishly scooping tooth-rot from the supply barrel and feeding it to the hander-outers, to ensure that their ammunition never ran low. Any hesitation and we would get overwhelmed. At one point a surge of kids drove us back into the house; the doorframe filled with a mass of costume-clad bodies, threatening to explode into the foyer if the pressure behind them continued to swell. We began just hurling handfuls of candy at the crowd, the high-caloric equivalent of firing a shotgun indiscriminately into an approaching zombie horde.

Our friends had purchased 100 pounds of candy; by the end of the evening, every last Tootsie Roll had been distributed.

Some observations from the front lines:

  • The most common non-generic costume (“generic” being define as a mainstay: pirate, ninja, superhero, witch, sexy ______, etc.) was Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. A surprising number Dorothys. But perhaps not as surprising as the four different kids dressed as bananas. Am I so out-of-touch that I’ve missed the resurgence of the banana as a pop culture icon?
  • Also in the “more popular than you’d expect” column: penguins, Boba Fett, Santa Claus.
  • Favorite costume (tie): the two teens dressed as Jemaine and Bret. Bret had disheveled hair and a guitar strapped to his back; Jemaine had muttonchops and was crooning about how he was going to buy us a kebab. When The Queen and I complemented them on their costumes, they looked astonished. “Do you know who we are?” one asked. Sure, the Flight of the Conchords guys, we replied. “You’re the first people all night!” they cried. “We have a fan!”
  • Second favorite costume: kid dressed up like a box of Chinese take-out.
  • A homemade costume is, by default, 30 x more awesome than any store-bought costume. Fact! I would refer doubters to this photo.
  • On the porch, standing next to the door, was a plastic skeleton with a long, curly dark wig and gummy eyeballs in its sockets. Early in the night, one young boy looked at it and exclaimed, “It’s Michael Jackson!” He wasn’t joking; he honestly mistook it for Captain EO. We though that was pretty hilarious / odd. Then, an hour later, another kid had the exact same reaction. And 20 minutes later, another. All were totally sincere; we were completely baffled.

    At the end of the night a few of us stood around it, trying to figure out the resemblance. “Well, it doesn’t have a nose,” my friend observed. “And it’s about the same shade of white.”

  • The only thing more shameful than waking up after a night of heavy drinking to find a stranger in your bed is waking up the night after Halloween to find your jacket pocket literally bulging with empty candy wrappers.