Thursday, January 15, 2009


Last year, I read Joseph Heller's Catch-22. I did not like it at all.

The book is hailed as an assault on, or expose of, bureaucratic
stupidity, but the sympathetic main characters often commit actions
that are just as bad as the ones they suffer from. Yossarion's
arbitrary censoring of letters is the prime example. He harms people
for fun, an action that is treated mainly with humor. Perhaps this is
meant to show how the situation can corrupt people, but in my opinion
it makes such abuse seem attractive.

This is a constant theme. The book constantly complains about the
state of the world, yet it does nothing to show how things can be
improved. In many cases, it glorifies the very kinds of actions that
cause the problems it discusses. There is no heroism or honor in
anybody; all characters simply respond, with short-sighted venality,
to whatever happens to them. The only hint of action comes from Orr,
and his decision to defect from the army and flee to Sweden is hailed
as the shining example of initiative and heroic action in the book.

The book's absurdity goes well beyond honest criticism of abuse.
Agents of the United States government are depicted as arbitrarily
kidnapping and killing American soldiers. This kind of thing happened
in the fascist dictatorships we were fighting, and in our Russian
'allies', but it was not a feature of our military. I agree that it
could happen, and that we must be on guard against the possibility,
but the book does not make this point. It simply generates an
attitude of despair and caustic cynicism. It generates the impression
that we were no better than the people we were fighting, and that the
entire war was useless. This kind of thinking continues to infect our

The treatment of women throughout the book is uniformly bad. They are
not characters; they are simply objects for the amusement of the men.
I saw no hint of irony, and no trace of condemnation for these
actions. Yossarian sexually assaults a nurse, and she responds by
becoming his girlfriend.

I understand that this book has historical importance. I understand
that the structure and use of humor were groundbreaking. But I found
the whole thing tiresome. I have grown up in a culture of snark and
cynicism. Nothing in the book was interesting or original for me.
And I blame the book for helping to generate many of the worst aspects
of our modern culture.

No comments: