Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Satire

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

It was quite some time ago now that I picked up a perfectly-preserved copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from that ever-giving local secondhand bookstore. I know at least one very loyal reader is very excited for this particular review; he’s a former colleague, and for years we shared an in-joke that we would buy a copy of Heller’s seminal work as a Secret Santa gift for a woman on our team who would constantly refer to difficult circumstances as “Catch-42s”. Yes, we’re horrible, petty people, but in our defense it was really, really funny.

Catch-22 - Joseph Heller - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Joseph Heller began working on Catch-22 in spare moments at his day job in 1953. The sonofabitch book took eight years to complete, finally published in 1961. Heller died 30 years later. He was the poster child for the uber-precious 20th century white male author, if his introduction is anything to go by. To summarise, he looked back on his masterpiece shortly before his death, stomped his foot, and whined “it didn’t win ANY awards or get on ANY bestseller lists, even though my publisher made some smart people read it and THEY said it was really good! HMPH!“. He was more than a little bitter about the reviews that were less than glowing, even though the book is largely lauded as one of the greatest satirical works of all time. There’s just no pleasing some people…

Catch-22 is set during WWII, between 1942 and 1944. The main character is a bombadier; Heller was also a bombadier during that very period, so apparently he took the whole “write what you know” thing pretty literally. The story follows the life of Captain Yossarian and others in his squadron. They’re all just trying to fulfill or circumvent the requirements of their deployment so they can get the fuck out of Dodge.

I would think that the main reason to pick this one up today is to figure out for yourself the origins of the cultural shorthand “a catch-22”. Luckily, I’m here to save you all the trouble! It’s essentially a plot device: a Catch-22 initially refers to the paradoxical requirement that men who are mentally unfit to fly planes in the war effort did not have to do so, but to claim that you were mentally unfit and did not want to fly made you demonstrably sane (ergo, fit to fly). So, you can’t win either way, it’s a catch-22. Geddit? In the story, Yossarian has a few stabs at getting the squadron’s doctor to declare him mentally unfit (so that he could go home without having to fly any more missions), but he’s stymied at every turn by Catch-22. This “catch” is invoked a lot as the book goes on, with broader and broader applications, until it becomes an explanation for virtually all unreasonable restrictions encountered by the cast of characters.




The ultimate catch, as Yossarian figures out towards the end, is that Catch-22 doesn’t actually exist, except that everyone simply believes that it does – as such, it can never be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. It’s pretty clever, if you ask me. A “catch-22” is now, of course, understood to mean any type of double-bind or absurd no-win situation, but I’d imagine that only a really small percentage of those who use the phrase have actually read the book. (It’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde all over again!)

Catch-22 reads like a satirical memoir in that it’s a series of anecdotes cobbled together to showcase the ridiculousness of war and bureaucracy. In a lot of respects, though, it’s all over the shop; as the introduction puts it, the novel has a “distinctive non-chronological third-person omniscient narration”. Basically, the reader has to figure out for themselves what’s going on and where things are at, because it jumps around like a coked-up rabbit.

The first couple hundred pages are really funny. I don’t think you need to have had exposure to military life to appreciate the comedy – really, any experience in bureaucracy will do. It’s a lot like watching any satirical TV show; there’s a cast of exaggerated characters and maybe a thread or two tying things together, but no real cohesive plot. Everything comes together to leave you shaking your head.

Even though Heller was pissed off about its critical reception and sales, Catch-22 actually did quite well. It became particularly popular among teenagers in the 1960s, as a kind of manifesto embodying the feelings they had about the Vietnam War. Indeed, “Yossarian Lives!” became an anti-war slogan at the time, and there was a joke about every liberal arts student arriving at university with a copy of Catch-22 under their arm. So, really, Heller needed to calm down – he captured the youth market at a very turbulent time and coined a phrase used by English speakers every day to describe the universal frustration brought on by dealing with bureaucracy in all its forms. Bloody neurotic writers, they wouldn’t know success if it bit them on the arse…

Like I said, Catch-22 is really funny… for the first couple hundred pages. Past that point, it starts to wear a bit thin. I know Heller was probably Making A Point with all the circular reasoning and repetition, but the point was well-made pretty early on. The second half of the book started to get really predictable (read: boring), and then it nosedived at the end into some really dark realities of war. I recommend that reading some of the funniest excepts online is the best way to go, rather than sinking your teeth into the whole thing (Heller’s neurotic tantrums be damned).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Catch-22:

  • “Worth buy.” – Sarah
  • “Great opening but then the story becomes more and more predictable and boring as the characters develop. The jokes for some reason don’t captivate my soul.” – lolly
  • “It’s a great book. I hate it!” – Cullen Forster
  • “First published in 1961, this scathing satire of nincompoops in the Air Force works today about nincompoops everywhere else.” – Gale H. Weir
  • “I’m in the Army.” – Daniel Dobson
  • “Other than the bible, this is one of my favourite books!” – Mr Paul

 

Save

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

My third undertaking for Keeping Up With The Penguins undoubtedly took the longest. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray was one hell of a trudge.

Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero”, set during the Napoleonic wars. It was originally published as a 19-volume serial, from 1847 to 1848 – and boy, does it show. The title is a reference to John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”: a never-ending fair in a town called Vanity, representing man’s sinful attachment to worldly things (see: old-timey Instagram). The blurb on the back promised a “scandalous tale of murder, wealth and social climbing”, which was a relief after the giant whingeing bummer that was The Scarlet Letter… at first.

See, here’s the thing: the first couple hundred pages were amazing. I was laughing out loud, interrupting my husband cooking dinner to read him passages, delighting in the strong, sassy women holding their own among the vain, sooky fuck-boys of the 19th century. Things started to get a bit bleak once the Battle of Waterloo kicked off (I mean, I get bored during fight scenes in movies, let alone reading about military events) – but at least, 400 pages in, things were still happening (George Osbourne is dead! Fuck!).

By the 600th page, things had become frightfully dull. There were endless character sketches of folks beyond even the periphery of the plot. Thackeray treated us to lengthy (and I mean lengthy) descriptions of people’s living quarters. It’s abundantly clear, by that point, that Vanity Fair wasn’t written as a novel, and Thackeray just wanted to keep getting paid for his serial, even after all the action had passed. Indeed, I found out later that he had only written the first three volumes in advance – the rest he came up with on the fly. It’s like reading an essay where the student has made their point and just needs to pad out the word count.

When you just need to hit that word count - Very Young Small Early Peas - Vanity Fair - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let me save you a bit of time. Vanity Fair opens in some kind of finishing school for girls, and – having lived in an all-girl dormitory at boarding school myself – I can attest that not much is different from present day. The story centers on two female characters: Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky was my favourite from the outset: she had “no soft maternal heart”, all of the bitches were mad jealous of her, and she basically ran around the whole book just sorting her husband’s shit out, teasing the fellas and ignoring her kid. She flirts her way into high society, and cons sugar-daddies into paying her debts without even taking her clothes off. This is the kind of anti-hero I can get behind!

Amelia, on the other hand, is the polar opposite: a whiney goody-two-shoes who really could have done with a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You. She gets hung up on a dude who condescends to marry her even though her Dad’s poor (what a guy!). Then he trots off and gets himself killed in battle, so it’s back to square one. Amelia mopes around after him for years, keeping his best mate Captain Dobbin shackled to the wall of the “Friend Zone”. Eventually, Dobbin sacks up and tells her off for pining over the ghost of a guy (who had shagged her best friend anyway). She capitulates and marries Dobbin in the end, and they go on to live a life of boredom.

The end of Becky’s narrative arc was far more fun. Her husband abandons her; he tried to have her and her chief sugar daddy merked, but the sugar daddy came through with a plum job for him on a far-away island, so hubby figures that’s just as good and gets the fuck outta Dodge before Becky can fuck anything else up. Becky falls into a life of prostitution and gambling, eventually snagging Amelia’s brother for Husband No. 2, only to top him and run away with the life insurance money. She lives far more happily after than the rest of them.




So, with all that, the story does perk up a bit towards the end, but it was well past the point where I was desperate for some murder or adultery to stay awake. At least crappy TV shows have the decency to cram in weddings ruined by car crashes and unplanned teen pregnancies to keep us entertained once they’ve jumped the shark. By the time Vanity Fair got interesting again, my brain had leaked out of my ears reading all those passages about home furnishings, and I no longer cared what happened. If you can bear with Thackeray through the endless dull passages about people you’ve never heard of and houses you’ve never seen, he does have some delightful asides and insights that are still startlingly relevant over 150 years later (e.g., “What’s the good of being in parliament, he said, if you must pay your debts?”). Modernise the language, and Vanity Fair would read like a 21st century blog (albeit one where the author is getting paid by the word).

The big “plot twist” is more of a cute little narrative device: it’s only on page 796 that Thackeray reveals the whole story has actually been written in the first person. The narrator is an actual character, recounting the entire tale as second- and third-hand gossip. The whole time, I’d thought it was just a charming, conversational, Woody Allen-esque omniscient figure, recounting a story designed to make girls scared of getting hung-up on fuck-boys and living lives of excess.

Ultimately, I’m not going to read Vanity Fair again, and I’d recommend that you don’t, either. Just Google a list of Thackeray’s best quotes, and watch a film version (where they’re forced, in the interests of time, to cut out the boring bits).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Vanity Fair:

  • “Great book. Becky is unique I hope.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Ugh, give yourself some time and alcohol; it’s a long one.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I wasn’t smart enough to stay with it – and I read a lot. Good luck.” – julie castleberry

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save