Analysis of Joseph Heller’s Novels

At first glance, Joseph Heller’s (May 1, 1923 – December 12, 1999) novels seem quite dissimilar. Heller’s manipulation of time and point of view in Catch-22 is dizzying; it is a hilariously macabre, almost surreal novel. Something Happened, on the other hand, is a far more muted book composed of the slow-moving, pessimistic broodings of an American business executive. Good as Gold is part remembrance of family life in the impoverished sections of Coney Island and part savage satire of contemporary American political life. Throughout Heller’s work, however, all his characters are obsessed with death and passionately searching for some means to deny, or at least stay, their mortality. Heller’s characters, like those of Saul Bellow, cry out to assert their individuality, their sense of self, which seems threatened from all sides. Yossarian, for example, in Catch- 22, finds the world in conspiracy to blow him out of the sky. The worlds of Catch-22, Something Happened, and Good as Gold are not so much chaotic as absurdly and illogically routinized. In such an absurd world of callous cruelty, unalloyed ambition, and blithe disregard for human life, Heller maintains, the individual has the right to seek his own survival by any means possible.

Although Catch-22’s most obvious features are its antiwar theme and its wild, often madhouse humor, the novel itself is exceedingly complex in both meaning and form. In brief, the plot concerns a squadron of American airmen stationed on the fictional Mediterranean island of Pianosa during World War II. More specifically, it concerns the futile attempts of Captain John Yossarian, a Syrian American bombardier, to be removed from flying status. Every time he approaches the number of missions necessary to complete a tour of duty, his ambitious commanding officers increase it. Yossarian tries a number of ploys to avoid combat. He malingers, feigns illness, and even poisons the squadron’s food with laundry soap to abort one mission. Later, after the gunner Snowden dies in his arms during one particularly lethal mission, Yossarian refuses to fly again, goes naked, and takes to walking backward on the base, all in an attempt to have himself declared insane.

Yossarian is motivated by only one thing—the determination to stay alive. He sees his life threatened not only by the Germans who try to shoot him out of the sky but also by his superior officers, who seem just as intent to kill him off. “The enemy,” he concludes at one point, “is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on.” When Yossarian attempts to convince the camp’s medical officer that his fear of death has driven him over the brink and thus made him unfit to fly, he first learns of the “catch” that will force him to keep flying: “There was only one 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.” As Doc Daneeka tells Yossarian, “Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.” Most of the large cast of characters surrounding Yossarian are, by any “reasonable” standard, quite mad. They include Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions his troops are required to fly not for the sake of the war effort but for his own personal glory; Major Major Major, who forgesWashington Irving’s name to official documents and who is pathologically terrified of command; and Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer, a black marketeer who bombs his own base under contract with the Germans. These supporting characters most often fall into one of four categories. The ranking officers—Cathcart, Dreedle, Korn, Black, Cargill, and Scheisskopf—appear more concerned with promotion, neat bombing patterns, and their own petty jealousies than with the war itself or the welfare of their men. A second group, including Doc Daneeka, Minderbinder, and Wintergreen, are also concerned with pursuing the main chance. They are predatory but also extremely comic and very much self-aware. Another group, including Nately, Chief Halfoat, McWatt, Hungry Joe, and Chaplain Tappman, are (like Yossarian himself) outsiders, good men caught within a malevolent system. The dead—Mudd, Snowden, Kraft, and “the soldier in white”—constitute a final group, one that is always present, at least in the background.

It is the military system—which promulgates such absurdly tautological rules as “Catch-22”—that is Yossarian’s real enemy. He and the other “good” men of the squadron live in a world that is irrational and inexplicable. As the company’s warrant officer explains, “There just doesn’t seem to be any logic to their system of rewards and punishments. . . . They have the right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.”

As the novel progresses, the victims, increasingly aware of the menace posed by this system, carry their gestures of rebellion to the point of open defiance. Yossarian is the most blatant in this regard: He moans loudly during the briefing for the Avignon mission; he insists that there is a dead man in his tent; he goes naked during the Avignon mission itself and then again during the medal ceremony afterward; he halts the Bologna raid by putting soap in the squadron’s food and by moving the bomb-line on the squadron’s map; and he requests that he be grounded and eventually refuses to fly. Finally, he deserts, hoping to reach sanctuary in neutral Sweden.

In the world of Catch-22, then, the reader is forced to question the very nature of sanity. Sanity is commonly defined as the ability to live within society and to act appropriately according to its rules. If those rules—such as Catch-22—are patently false, however, then adhering to them is in truth an act of insanity, for the end result may be death or the loss of freedom. The world of Catch-22 is, to Yossarian, a spurious culture, as anthropologists would call it, one that does not meet the basic needs of its members—above all, the need to survive. Authority, duty, and patriotism are all called into question, and Heller demonstrates that when those in authority lack intelligence or respect for life, as is the case with Yossarian’s commanding officers, obeying authority can only be self-defeating. Heller thus argues that in an absurd universe, the individual has the right to seek his own survival; he argues that life itself is infinitely more precious than any cause, however just. When Yossarian decides that he has done his part to defeat the Nazis (and after all, he has flown many more missions than most other airmen), his principal duty is to save himself. Yossarian’s desertion, then, is a life-affirming act.

As critic Robert Brustein noted, Catch-22 “speaks solidly to those who are disaffected, discontented, and disaffiliated, and yet who want to react to life positively. With its occasional affirmations couched in terms of pain and cynical laughter, it makes nihilism seem natural, ordinary, even appealing.” Thus the surface farce of Catch-22, when peeled away, reveals a purpose that is literally deadly serious.

If the basic plot of Catch-22 is fairly simple, its narrative technique and structure most certainly are not. The novel appears to be a chronological jumble, flashing forward and backward from the central event—the death of Snowden—which marks Yossarian’s final realization of the mortal threat posed by Catch-22. Time in the novel exists not as clock time but rather as psychological time, and within Yossarian’s stream-of-consciousness narrative, events in the present intermingle with cumulative repetitions and gradual clarifications of past actions. For example, in chapter 4, the bare facts of Snowden’s death are revealed, that he was killed over Avignon when Dobbs, his copilot, went berserk and grabbed the plane’s controls at a crucial moment. Yossarian returns to this incident throughout the novel, but it is not until the penultimate chapter that he reconstructs the story in full. In this fashion, Heller seeks to capture the real ways in which people apprehend the world, incompletely and in fragments.

Catch-22 is intricately structured despite its seeming shapelessness. Until chapter 19, almost everything is told in retrospect while Yossarian is in the hospital; chapter 19 itself begins the movement forward in time leading to Yossarian’s desertion. The gradual unfolding of the details of Snowden’s death provides another organizing device. Such structural devices as parallelism, doubling, and—most important—repetition, force the reader to share Yossarian’s perpetual sense of déjà vu, the illusion of having previously experienced something actually being encountered for the first time. The ultimate effect of such devices is to reinforce the novel’s main themes: Yossarian is trapped in a static world, a world in which nothing seems to change and in which events seem to keep repeating themselves. He does not move through his experiences but rather seems condemned to a treadmill existence. The only way to resist this world is to escape it, to desert.

Something Happened
Heller himself once revealed that he considered Bob Slocum, the protagonist-narrator of his second novel, Something Happened, to be “the antithesis of Yossarian—twenty years later.” Indeed, the scene shifts dramatically from the dusty, littered airfields of Pianosa to the green, well-kept lawns of suburban Connecticut. In Something Happened, Heller details—some say monotonously details—the inner life of an outwardly successful man and, in doing so, seeks to expose the bankruptcy of contemporary middle-class American culture.

Slocum works as a middle-level marketing research manager in a large company. He is middle-aged, married, and the father of three children. Although he is by all appearances successful, Slocum’s extended monologue of memories, self-analysis, and carpings at the world reveal that he is anything but happy: “I keep my own counsel and drift speechlessly with my crowd. I float. I float like algae in a colony of green scum, while my wife and I grow old.” He sees his life as a series of humiliating failures of nerve, of unfulfilled expectations and missed opportunities. Slocum harks back repeatedly and with regret to his adolescent yearnings for an office girl—later a suicide—with whom he had worked shortly after finishing high school. He now wishes in vain that he could desire someone or something as desperately as he once desired her.

Slocum despises his present job and mistrusts his associates yet politics shamelessly for promotion; he feels bound to his family yet commits numerous adulteries. He is hopelessly at odds with himself and his life. For example, he loves his family in a temporizing kind of way, but he also fears that he has made them all unhappy. His wife, bored and restless, feels isolated in the suburbs and turns to alcohol. His sixteen-year-old daughter is sullen and promiscuous. One son is hopelessly braindamaged and an insufferable burden to Slocum; the other, Slocum seems truly to want to love, but he cannot help browbeating him. The novel reaches its bleak climax when this latter son is hit by a car and lies bleeding in the street. Slocum cradles the boy in his arms and, at the moment when he feels he can express his love, inadvertently smothers him.

There is no real resolution in Something Happened. At novel’s end, Slocum has not changed or learned anything of importance. Unlike Yossarian, who is threatened from without, Slocum is his own worst enemy. His sense of alienation, of loss, of failure, is unrelieved.

Critical opinion of Something Happened has been mixed. Those who admire the novel most often praise its exact and mercilessly honest replication of the banality and vacuousness of everyday life among the American middle classes, and they argue that Heller, as in Catch-22, nicely fuses form and meaning. Others find the novel irritatingly tedious and pessimistic and consider the character of Slocum seriously flawed, unlikable, and unheroic by any standard. Many reviewers could not resist quipping that a more appropriate title for Heller’s novel would be Nothing Happens.

Good as Gold
Heller’s third novel, Good as Gold, savagely satirizes the aspirations of the Jewish intellectual community in America. The comic dimension of Catch-22, so absent from Something Happened, returns. Bruce Gold is a forty-eight-year-old Brooklyn-born English professor who desperately wants to make—or at least have— money. Like Bob Slocum, Gold has problems with his family, which, he knows, considers him a failure because he is not rich. Much of the novel takes place within the Gold family itself, which Gold finds oppressive, if at times amusingly so.

Gold is in most ways a fool—albeit a cynical one—a hypocrite, and a congenital social climber. He is a 1970’s version of Budd Schulberg’s Sammy Glick. One evidence of this is his engagement to a wealthyWASP socialite with political connections. Gold himself harbors political ambitions. He hungers to replace his alter-ego and archnemesis Henry Kissinger as secretary of state, and hopes that his fiancé’s tycoonfather will help him in his quest for political power. Heller savages both Gold and Kissinger, and for precisely the same reason: They represent to him those in the Jewish community who want to escape their heritage while at the same time exploiting it (to further his financial, academic, and political fortunes, Gold wants to write a “big” book about the Jewish experience in America, about which he knows next to nothing).

Gold understands his own hypocrisy but promptly dismisses it. Yet, when Gold is eventually offered Kissinger’s former cabinet position, he experiences a change of heart. Prompted by the death of his older brother, Gold refuses the post and returns to New York and his family. Like Yossarian, Gold is able to restore his own integrity by deserting.

Heller’s work has been compared to that of artists as varied as Eugène Ionesco and the Marx Brothers; Good as Gold lies closer to the latter than to the former. Until his decision to renounce his political ambitions, Gold is very much the comic intellectual, pathetically incapable of coping with the difficulties in which he finds himself. The humor of Good as Gold is painted with the broadest brush of Heller’s career, but its target is his familiar one: the means by which institutions in the modern world coerce the individual and the way in which individuals—such as Slocum and, until his turnabout, Gold—become co-conspirators in their own demise.

God Knows
God Knows is Heller’s rewriting of a major element of the Old Testament, the story of David. As in all of his fiction, Heller focuses here on the human insistence on repeating earlier mistakes and on the ironies of life. His David is a prototypical wise guy, looking back over his life from his deathbed; his language veers from that of the King James version of the Bible to twentieth century slang as he presents his side of various stories, from his encounter with Goliath to his problems with King Saul to his troubles with his children and his various wives.

David’s first wife, Saul’s daughter Michal, was a shrew to whom he refers as the first Jewish American Princess. He misses Abigail, his second wife, the only one who loved him completely; she has been dead for many years. Bathsheba, the great passion of his life, has turned into an overweight nag, bored with sex and interested only in trying to persuade David to name their son, Solomon, as his successor. Solomon, in David’s eyes, is an idiot, a humorless man with no original thoughts who writes down everything his father says and later pretends that they are his ideas. The old king’s only solace is the young virgin Abishag the Shunnamite, who waits on him and worships him.

David complains about his present state, remembers his days of glory, and rationalizes his deeds, avoiding responsibility for any evil that has befallen others but claiming credit for benefits. His knowledge is modern. He maintains, for example, that Michelangelo’s famous statue of him is a nice piece of work but it is not “him.” His language is laden with quotations from William Shakespeare, Robert Browning, T. S. Eliot, and many others, and he seems to have direct knowledge of most of ancient and modern history.

God Knows is Heller’s most engaging fiction since Catch-22. Suspense is maintained by David’s reluctance to name Solomon as his successor, as he must do, and by the question of whether he will ever hear the voice of God, which he desperately wants. Heller’s David is not an admirable man, but he is a fascinating one and an interesting commentator not only on his own life but on human frailty and ambition as well. He is cynical, his faith in God and humanity having left him years before, but even as he complains about the pains of old age, his memory keeps reminding him of the enjoyments of the life he has led.

Picture This
Picture This is neither conventional fiction nor history but a kind of extended meditation on human weakness. Its inspiration is the famous painting Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, by the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. Heller presents many historical facts, chiefly about the Greece of the time of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, as well as the Netherlands of the time of Rembrandt, and he draws frequent parallels between events of those periods and those of the modern age. In discussing the Athenian wars, for example, he makes clear his conviction that the motivations, the mistakes, and the stupidities are parallel to those made by the United States in the years since World War II.

Picture This contains much authentic information, most of which is intended to demonstrate human greed and weakness. Heller seems to be fascinated by the financial aspects of Rembrandt’s life, in which great success was frittered away and in which a life of luxury ended with enormous debts; he also writes at length about Rembrandt’s marriage and his mistresses. In writing about Greece in the Golden Age, he focuses on the failings of government. The great leader Pericles, in his view, led Athens into self-destructive wars. Pericles was personally noble, but he did his city no good. The tyrant Creon was even worse. Much of what Plato wrote about he could not have observed.

Unlike either Catch-22 or God Knows, Picture This fails to provide a leavening of irreverent humor to lighten Heller’s dark view of human existence. The only fictional elements in the book are imaginary dialogues between some of the historical figures and the fantasy that Aristotle exists in the painting of him and can observe Rembrandt and his labors; these imaginary flights are only occasionally humorous. Otherwise, the irony in Picture This is unrelenting and bitter.

Closing Time
Though Closing Time is more humorous, Heller’s irony remains bitter, as a World War II generation contemplating the later years of their lives takes the whole world down with them, courtesy of an incompetent U.S. president who, at the novel’s conclusion, launches a nuclear strike under the mistaken impression that he is playing a video game. Prior to that apocalyptic finale, readers are reintroduced to Yossarian, who, in the thirty years since the events of Catch-22, has been working as an ethics adviser for Milo Minderbinder’s multinational corporation. He has been married, had four children, and divorced. As he faces retirement and realizes he is not long for the world, he worries about the future of his children, begins an affair with a younger nurse, and resolves “to live forever, or to die trying.”

In terms of genre, Closing Time is a difficult book to characterize. As a sequel to Catch-22, it takes familiar characters such as Yossarian, Chaplain Tappman, and Milo Minderbinder through an absurdist parody of business, medicine, government, and the military. The addition of twoWorldWar II veteran characters (Sammy Singer and Lew Rabinowitz) with only ancillary connections to the main plot brings a nostalgic realism to the novel, more in keeping with Heller’s subsequent memoir, Now and Then, than with the Yossarian sections of the novel. Closing Time also is Heller’s most self-consciously postmodern novel, as real-life figures, such as author Kurt Vonnegut, are intertwined with fictional ones; references are made not only to the events of Catch-22 but also to the novel itself and the entry of the term “catch-22” into the popular lexicon. At its best, this generic combination allows Heller to range widely in his criticism of contemporary society (as in a priceless explanation Yossarian is given of the Freedom of Information Act). However, too often these various formats seem at odds with each other, leading to a novel that moves both slowly and in too many directions.

Major works

Long fiction Catch-22, 1961; Something Happened, 1974; Good as Gold, 1979; God Knows, 1984; Picture This, 1988; Closing Time, 1994; Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, 2000.
Short fiction: Catch as Catch Can: The Collected Stories and Other Writings, 2003 (Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker, editors).
Plays: We Bombed in New Haven, pr. 1967; Catch-22: A Dramatization, pr. 1971; Clevinger’s Trial, pb. 1973.
Screenplays: Sex and the Single Girl, 1964 (with David R. Schwartz); Casino Royale, 1967 (with others); Dirty Dingus Magee, 1970 (with others).
Nonfiction: No Laughing Matter, 1986 (with Speed Vogel); Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here, 1998; A Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man, 2000.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.


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