Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Lev Butts Reviews Catch-22 & Closing Time by Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller's life came with literal bookends.
Heller's first novel, Catch-22, tells the story of Captain John Yossarian, a World War II bombadier who, after failing to save the life of a mortally wounded rear-gunner, discovers he no longer wants to fly missions anymore because "they" are trying to kill him. Unfortunately, though everyone admits Yossarian is as crazy as his tentmate Orr (who crashes his airplane during each mission), he cannot be grounded because there's a catch
and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. 
Over the course of the novel, we learn that "they" are not necessarily the Germans nor even the U.S. military commanders, but anyone with power over anyone else because
Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing.
Given the choice of joining with the "theys" or facing a court-martial for desertion, Yossarian decides instead to run away from the whole shebang, and takes off for Sweden.

youthful rebellion
It isn't until 33 years later, when Heller published his final novel and sequel to Catch-22Closing Time, that the full ramifications of the catch come home. This novel finds Yossarian an old man who has been coerced into working for M&M Enterprises (the shadowy catering syndicate from the first novel) by being asked to and offered lots of money. We learn his escape plan failed almost as soon as it began when he was arrested in Italy and forced to be sent back home a hero.

He has spent the majority of his adult life employed as M&M's conscience. He tells them why their decisions stink, so they can ignore him and do what they want anyway. In short, Yossarian learns that Catch-22 applies to everyone, even those in power, and the worst way to live is to be accepted by the other bastards who run things.

oldful submission
Closing Time received almost universal negative reviews, primarily due to people's disappointment that Yossarian wound up a sell-out and corporate schill. However, this is exactly the beauty of the sequel. I loved Catch-22 because of the biting way it critiqued bereaucracy. As a teenager, it gave my rebellious phase a kind of legitimacy, in much the same way as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye did for many others. Closing Time, though, shows us that Yossarian was no more successful in his rebellion than any of us were. He still had to grow up, find a job, have a family, get divorced, and fail at everything he ever tried artistically, just like the rest of us.

It is a more honest continuation of Yossarian's story. Logically we know that Huck Finn will eventually grow up, and he may possibly one day own slaves, and no matter how nicely he treats them, he'll still be a slaveowner. Holden Caulfield is going to grow up, and he will get a job and live the very middle class lifestyle he spends a weekend in New York rebelling against. However, we don't have to think of that because we are left only with Huck lighting out for the Territories, and Holden watching his sister on that carousel.

For thirty years, Heller allowed us a similar vision of Yossarian, saying "No" and running off to Sweden. Heller let us idolize Yossarian, and then, as a final joke, he showed us the catch in action: Yossarian was just a schlub like the rest of us. For many, it upset them. For me, it was liberating. After all, if Yossarian couldn't maintain his youthful rebellion, I have no reason to bemoan my own selling out. I can look at my own middle-class life and be proud. I always wanted to be like Yossarian, and turns out, I am!