Monday, July 4, 2016

Powerfully Depressing Humor

My in-laws are the best thing ever to happen to my reading list in terms of sophistication.  I was at their house for Shabbos and once again, had no reading material of my own (possibly forgot to bring, possibly had none, do not remember), and so I selected a book from their shelves full of mostly classics (and some science fiction, thrillers of little interest to me).  (This is the fiction bookshelf, somewhere else in the house they have boxes of non-fiction that never got unpacked after the recent construction).  Dov said Catch-22 was Grandpa's favorite book and that he had found it hysterical, plus I always meant to read it, so it seemed a good choice. I started it then, and probably would not have bothered finishing it, but Dov took it home because he wanted to read it himself. Then I had nothing to read over Shavuos because I neglected to go to the library, and so I read most of it then.  So that's the when and the why. Now the what.

Catch-22 is a classic (of course) and thus I knew it would probably be 1) somewhat serious thematically and 2) well-written (see the title to my post about Slaughterhouse-5).  I also expected it to be quite witty, as Dov and Grandpa apparently find it to be. And no surprise, it was all of these.  Definitely very clever in the wordplay and in the carefully constructed absurdities of situation and character.  About the very serious themes of war and the "system".  And certainly, searingly powerful in its depictions of wartime on and off the battlefield, the muddy grit of army life and the petty machinations of the brass.  This was a book that stays with you.  As Yossarian loses friend after friend and the venal colonels, generals, and other officers fight it out among themselves, we keep on hoping, keep on getting frustrated, and keep on reading.  As wrenching as it is, the palpable absurdity of it all remains amusing.

But, but but but... though I could see the humor in it all, I couldn't see past it.  In the end of they day, I found the book incredibly sad, very depressing, and not really true.  Not only do all (or almost all) of Yossarian's friends end up dead, none of the good guys are punished. Yossarian himself (and Orr) escape the carnage, but does it really help that one man stands up to the bland cruelty of Catch-22? While the perpetrators of the system perpetuate still, with no check on their ambitions.  And of course, philosophically, while I know this world looks like a Catch-22 sometimes, we know it's far from that.  But I guess there's no point in trying to read these books while comparing them with Jewish philosophy. If everyone believed what I believe, there would probably not be many classics :) The book does do a superb job of painting a world that, while not our world, is far too close to it in its patent unfairness and lack of reward for goodness.  I guess I just can't see what's funny about it, even when it's told in such an amusing way.

Verdict: 4/5

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