Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Military

The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Another confession from the life of the would-be booklover: I haven’t kept up with the Man Booker prize winners. In fact, The Narrow Road To The Deep North was my very first. The Booker is pretty much the most prestigious international literary award that a book can win, so I had high expectations for Richard Flanagan’s sixth novel…

From the blurb: “August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever.” So, we can tell right from the outset that The Narrow Road To The Deep North ticks a bunch of boxes: historical WWII novel, love affair, heavy themes, horrific setting, a sliding doors moment… and, to top it all off, in the Acknowledgements section Flanagan says he was inspired by his father’s experiences as a Japanese POW, so we can probably tick off “write what you know” as well. These are all the criteria for a Man Booker, right?

OK, I’ll stop being sassy. (Just kidding, I can’t turn it off.)

It’s the story of Dorrigo, a POW doctor who can’t stop obsessing over a few lusty weeks with his aunt-in-law back home. It’s another jumpy timeline, which I didn’t love, especially given that in this one there were no helpful year/place markings at the beginning of any of the chapters; the reader is expected to just bloody well figure it out as they read (even though the chapter might be happening ten years after or thirty years before the one preceding). Flanagan really wanted the reader to work for it. He didn’t even bother with inverted commas around his dialogue; I know it’s “artistic” to do that, but it always strikes me as pretentious and try-hard. Hmph.


Anyway, The Narrow Road To The Deep North spirals out around one particularly horrific day on the Burma Railway in August 1943. Some chapters build up to it through Dorrigo’s pre-war childhood and courtship with his wife, while other chapters focus on the post-war lives of Dorrigo, his fellow prisoners, and his prison guards. So, yeah, it’s kind of sprawling and epic; the timeline runs to about a century all up.

(Oh, and you might think that the title refers to the railway they were building, but actually Flanagan borrowed it from a 17th century haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō, whose book “Oku no Hosomichi” translates roughly to “Narrow Road To The Interior” or “The Narrow Road To The Deep North”.)

From the beginning, the book is kind of a mixed bag. Some passages are really great and poignant and immersive, while others seem really over-wrought and ridiculous. The Romeo and Juliet-esque plot twist was a bit much (both Dorrigo and his aunt-in-law, the one with whom he was having the affair before he went off to war, believe the other to be dead, and this little miscommunication fucks up their entire lives). I’m not a romantic, so their whole tragic love story really didn’t “move” me in the way I think Flanagan intended. All the chapters set in Australia basically amounted to a bunch of bellyaching about how Dorrigo really enjoyed fucking women who weren’t his wife. That just wasn’t fun for me, and – taking off my sassy-pants for a minute – I’m not sure it makes for good literature.


On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the sections focusing on the POWs on the railway. That sounds twisted, I know, but those parts were straightforward, no bullshit, and totally gripping. Flanagan did not sugar-coat the realities of war at all, and for me that’s huge points in his favour. There were no ellipses, no fading to black: he described the full physical horror and indignity suffered by the POWs, not to mention their mental anguish, in complete and gory detail. So, as I’m sure you can guess, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is not one for readers with sensitive stomachs (or souls) – I’m a tough bitch, and even I felt queasy in places.

So, it covers off two major themes: the effects of war, and the nature of love. They’re pretty lofty themes, and a lot to tackle in a single book (which is probably why it seemed that Flanagan did the former so much better than the latter). To be quite frank, I think Flanagan would have been better off just chopping off the entire first third off the book, getting rid of it altogether. The story wouldn’t have lost anything that wasn’t reiterated and reinforced later on anyway. It’d be like cutting off a gangrenous limb (the way Dorrigo had to do on the Burma Railway, incidentally).

It’s a better book than All The Light We Cannot See, I’ll give it that; in fact,  it’s probably one of the better historical WWII fiction books I’ve read in that it highlights quite well the ongoing and intergenerational effects of war (setting it apart from the ones that end on V Day). I suppose I can even (begrudgingly) see why it beat out We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the Man Booker in 2014; it’s a more “literary” book in that snooty, elitist sense… but I know which one I’d rather read, and which one I’d recommend more highly. Can you guess? 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Narrow Road To The Deep North:

  • “I picked 4 because of the start of the book. It tired in well, but took a bit to catch my attention. It was dreary and sad and I enjoyed it.” – Megan Vandewall
  • “Why can’t writers just tell a story, instead of trying to be clever? I’m not sure Flanagan actually has a decent story to tell, but this is a piece of junk.” – ggh
  • “The protagonist is an unappealing narcissist with a sophomoric attitude towards love.” – S. Luke
  • “Had trouble reading and staying interested in it. Too much narrative.” – saunabear
  • “Horrible pictures in my mind! Don’t need any more examples of man’s ability to be cruel and stupid. I’m going to go hug my cats.” – Diane Denham

The White Mouse – Nancy Wake

I’ve been obsessed with the story of Nancy Wake ever since a friend told me about her a couple of years ago. She was one of the most highly decorated women of WWII, and the stories of her exploits in resisting the Gestapo are legendary. That’s why I added this book in particular to The List. Peter FitzSimons wrote a far more popular biography (which I would also like to read some day), but I really wanted to hear the story of this incredible woman in her own words. The White Mouse wasn’t hugely popular upon release, and it didn’t have a massive print-run, so I thought I had sweet fuck-all chance of finding it in a secondhand bookstore. I always checked the biography section just in case, never expecting much… until one day I ducked into my local while I was waiting for a bus, and there it was! To this day, I can’t believe my luck.

OK, it turns out that Nancy Wake was actually born in New Zealand, even though we claim her as an Aussie (we will claim any decent Kiwi as our own without blinking an eye, it never ceases to amaze). In The White Mouse, she only gives us a page or two about her early life, though; she speeds right ahead to the ascendancy of Hitler and the beginning of WWII. She was living in Marseilles with her French husband at the time, and she found increasingly inventive ways to help the French efforts resisting the Germans, helping sneak refugees out of France when the Occupation began. She went on to become a leading figure in the Resistance, using her “native cunning and beauty” to overcome the suspicions of German guards and get through checkpoints. Yep, she literally flirted her way through the war, all the while killing German soldiers with her bare hands. That’s girl power, folks.

The Special Operations Executive training reports say that she was “a very good and fast shot”, noted for “put[ting] men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character”. She also won a lot of drinking contests. By 1943, there was a 5-million franc price on her head. The Gestapo took to calling her “the White Mouse”, referring to her ability to elude capture – thus, the book title.


Her story is incredible, but the editing is shithouse, which is a real shame. There’s more than a few typos, and a lot of repetition; I quickly lost track of the number of times she described something as “extraordinary”. Little things like that could have been easily (and quickly!) fixed, and that would have made for a much more engaging read. We can hardly fault Wake herself for that; she was a bad-ass assassin spy, not a writer. And the level of detail she manages to recall is unbelievable – she must have kept really meticulous journals.

“For weeks now I had been subjected to more than my fair share of drama. I had been forced to flee from home, separated from my beloved husband and my darling [dog] Picon, made six fruitless journeys to the Pyrenees, been thrown in prison and kicked around, jumped out of a moving train, been fired at by a machine gun, sprinted to the top of a mountain, lost my jewellery, walked for five nights, been starved for eight days, and infected with scabies. There was no way I was going to let the little matter of a password deter me…. I crossed the road, went up to the front door and knocked. A man opened it and immediately I said, ‘I am Nancy Fiocca, you are in charge of our guides, I work for O’Leary, so do you, I want to go to Spain, I’ve had enough trouble getting here so don’t give me any crap.’”

So, yeah, as you can tell, Wake had a really matter-of-fact voice, and she talks really nonchalantly about the most terrifying of circumstances. Her affect doesn’t change between describing a dinner party and a major Resistance operation. I get the feeling she was much like that in real life as well.

Unfortunately, after the war, she didn’t exactly get a happily-ever-after. Her first husband, Henri Fiocca, had stayed behind in France after she was forced to flee, and he was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo when he refused to give them her location. Wake, however, was unaware of her husband’s death until after the war ended. Her dog survived, and the story of their reunion in peace-time was one of the most heart-warming anecdotes I have ever heard.

She was also denied a medal by the Australian government for over five decades (shame!), on the grounds that she was “not fighting in any of the Australian services” during the war (double shame!). Indeed, from what I can tell, the Australian government treated her like shit in all other regards as well. When her second husband died in 1997, she was deemed ineligible for any pensions or benefits, and she had no children or family to support her. She ended up having to sell her war medals to support herself in her advancing years. Even so, she hardly seemed bitter; she said “There was no point in keeping them [the medals], I’ll probably go to Hell and they’d melt anyway”. She died in 2011, aged 98, of a chest infection.


Reading The White Mouse, I had to examine my own biases really closely. Why was I so enamoured with Nancy Wake, I kept asking myself, when I was so repulsed by Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper”? In the end, I think it came down to the fact that Nancy seemed far more grounded in reality, and far more self-aware. While she (self-admittedly) “loathed” the Gestapo, she came across as someone who had quite natural biases and constantly re-evaluated the evidence at hand. She watched the Nazis sack a city that she had lived in and loved for most of her life, first hand. Kyle, on the other hand, came across as someone who had been brainwashed into hating brown people and loving guns, and had never thought to question it.

Nancy Wake’s autobiography isn’t a romantic narrative, so if you’ve come here looking for a non-fiction version of The Book Thief or All The Light We Cannot See, you can move right along. The White Mouse is not a work of art, it’s not going to win any literary awards, but it’s deeply – unavoidably! – charming. It’s a story of incredible bravery and hardship, told without any sentimentality or self-effacing bullshit. Imagine if you got your no-nonsense grandma drunk, and found out she’d spent most of her life killing enemy combatants and doing courier runs for an underground resistance movement: that’s what reading The White Mouse is like. I fail to understand our collective obsession with fictionalised WWII narratives when there are books and stories like this out there (and they go out of print due to low sales). I can’t recommend The White Mouse on its artistic merit, but I think that you should read it anyway, and pay your respects to this incredible woman who probably could have won the war single-handedly if she’d needed to.

All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

How’s this: I’m reviewing a #1 book on the #1 day of the year! Cute, eh? I’ve been meaning to read All The Light We Cannot See ever since it topped the Dymocks 101 back in 2017 (and it was only just pipped at the post by Harry Potter on the 2018 list, too). So, this seems as good a time as any!

All The Light We Cannot See was written by American author Anthony Doerr, and published by Scribner in 2014. It went on to win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Plus, it spent nearly 120 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List for Hardcover Fiction. Long story short, a lot of really smart people really liked it… but that was all I knew about it going in.

Now, I’ve struggled to find a way to say this sensitively (diplomacy is not my talent), so I’m just going to go for it: I was kind of disappointed to find that it was a(nother) fictionalised account of WWII. Will we never tire of them? I mean, these stories are getting so much air time of late, and for me they’re starting to wear a bit thin. The real-life WWII narratives we have are so compelling (see: Diary of a Young Girl, or The White Mouse), and there are so many other conflicts that we could examine, from all across the world, some still ongoing… I’m not saying WWII should be forgotten about altogether (I’m not a monster!), but I’m ready for something else to get a look-in.

Anyway, to the review (and consider this my timely reminder that I do not give a shit about spoilers, so read this review – and all others on Keeping Up With The Penguins – at your own peril): All The Light We Cannot See is set in occupied France. It centers on two primary characters, a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, whose paths eventually cross. It’s basically The Book Thief for grown-ups.

It took a few chapters for me to fall into Doerr’s rhythm. Every chapter follows a different character than the previous one, and the time-line jumps all around. It’s all done very carefully and deliberately, though, to reveal the story at exactly the right pace. I did settle into it after a while, and it’s totally possible for readers to stay with it as long as they keep their wits about them, so don’t let that put you off.


Straightened out, the chronology goes something like this: we begin in 1934, where the blind six-year-old Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, while the eight-year-old Werner lives in a German orphanage with his sister. No one’s having fun. Marie-Laure’s father is a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History, and there’s a rumour of a priceless – but cursed (oooh!) – diamond, buried somewhere in the bowels of the collection. The story goes that whoever holds the “Sea of Flames” jewel cannot die, but their loved ones would be stricken with unending misfortune as long as they have it. Sounds like a rip-off of the Harry Potter resurrection stone to me, but I’ll go with it 😉

In 1940, Germany sets about invading France, and Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father. Unbeknownst to her, his boss charged him with transporting and protecting the cursed diamond, and they are being pursued by a Nazi gemologist who will stop at nothing to get his greedy hands on it. They hide out in the home of Marie-Laure’s great-uncle (who’s bonkers, by the way), but the father is (inevitably) arrested by the Germans. He conceals the magic diamond in the model of the town that he built for his daughter, keeping it out of sight. Marie-Laure, her great-uncle, and their maid find ways to help the Resistance, at great personal risk. I noted down, reading all of this, that Doerr did a great job of capturing the additional layer of terror experienced in this kind of situation by a person with a vision impairment, but he did so in a way that didn’t read as exploitative or “inspiration porn”-y. So, that’s one in his column!


Meanwhile, Werner (back in the German orphanage) has shown a real gift for radio mechanics, and it draws the attention of the Nazi recruiters. They take him to a “school” (and I’m sure you can guess what it was like for him), and when his skills are sufficiently honed, their HR department adjusts the record of his age to make him 18, which means they can send him out into the field. He and his fellow soldiers trace radio transmissions, and do/witness some sickening shit (well, they’re Nazis, so it’s a given).

Then, in 1944, Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths converge. The Nazis have traced a resistance radio transmission to the city of Saint-Marlo, where it is, indeed, broadcasting from Marie-Laure’s attic. What links the two of them and brings them together is that Werner used to listen to those same transmissions in the orphanage with his sister. The Nazis bomb the city within an inch of its life, but Werner decides not to reveal the location of the broadcast to his comrades (he’s a Nazi with a heart, I guess). He ends up seeking out Marie-Laure’s house for himself, and he kills the Nazi gemologist who has been ransacking the place (looking for that ol’ cursed diamond), effectively saving Marie-Laure’s life. When the bombing stops, Marie-Laure takes Werner to a hidden grotto, where she throws the diamond into the ocean (gasp!).

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Werner then drops Marie-Laure off at a refugee camp, and stumbles off to a field hospital. He meets a pretty sticky end, actually – in his delirium, he steps on a land mine. Kaboom!

Then the story skips ahead to 1974, and speeds up considerably (this is the “big conclusion” that’s supposed to tie up all the loose ends). Werner’s former army boss tracks down his sister from the orphanage, and returns all of his personal effects to her – including the model of Marie-Laure’s house that once contained the cursed diamond. She, in turn, tracks down Marie-Laure, and returns the model to her. Marie-Laure’s father was never found, even after all the POWs were freed, and her great-uncle is dead. Everyone’s super-traumatised by this series of events, but they all try to pretend that they aren’t – it’s super-healthy.

The story ends in 2014. Marie-Laure is walking the streets of Paris with her grandson, still blind, and marvelling at how the internet works.


All The Light We Cannot See is readable enough, but I had to Google Translate a few bits and pieces (from French and from German). It’s billed as a “touching story”, but I don’t think it really told me anything new about WWII. Plus, I’m really not sure how I feel about the depiction of a Nazi soldier “saving” a person with a disability. I think I understand what Doerr was trying to get at, but it’s a very sympathetic depiction of Nazis on the whole, and that extra layer of Marie-Laure having a vision impairment was just a bit on the nose…

Tl;dr? Well, as I said, All The Light We Cannot See is basically The Book Thief for grown-ups. It’s worth reading as an academic exercise, to keep current with the landscape of literary fiction and all that. But if you’re looking for a revelatory WWII novel that completely changes your perspective, you can move right along, there’s nothing for you here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of All The Light We Cannot See:

  • “This story pulls the reader into the life of a special girl. I am a man, so this is not at all a girl’s book. It is transcendant. You will not be disappointed.” – Kindle Customer
  • “Eloquent writing, lame plot, shallow ending” – Yiannis F.
  • “Why was she blind” – Dev Mac the conqueror
  • “The linguistic and grammatical clumsiness, even in the sample, is unbearable. Talk about turgid prose. It was like walking on an inviting beach that turns out to be covered in sharp pebbles.” – Serious Reader
  • “Was never able to read this book. Ordered it, but received Fifty Shades of Grey instead.” – MDWFORD

American Sniper – Chris Kyle

The best part about the Keeping Up With The Penguins project is the ample opportunity for rapid gear-shifts. In this case, I went from classic children’s fantasy to a 21st century assassin’s memoir, in the form of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper.

This copy was proudly borrowed from the library of my mate Drew, which I guess makes him a Keeping Up With The Penguins sponsor of sorts. Top bloke!

So, let’s get the obvious stuff out the way: the book’s full title is “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”. Kyle, the primary author, was a former United States Navy SEAL. His two (two!) ghostwriters list this book as the shiniest jewel in their career crowns, according to their author websites. I suppose the stats back them up on that; American Sniper was published in 2012 and spent 37 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, followed by the release of a film adaptation (directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper) two years later. Them’s some solid signs of success.

What’s the draw? Well, American Sniper tells the story of Kyle’s Texas upbringing, SEAL training, and a decade’s worth of tours in Iraq. During that time, he became “the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history”, killing somewhere in the vicinity of 255 people (160 of which have been “confirmed by the Pentagon”, whatever that means).

Aaaand I think I have to end my “objective” overview right about here, because American Sniper is fucking ugly. In so many ways.

From the opening pages, you can just feel Kyle’s militarised boner pressing against your upper thigh. He’s going to be slobbering in your ear all night about how white men with big guns saved the day. Welcome to your spot in the American Imperialism Circle Jerk.


Lest you think I’m overstating it: by page 4, Kyle is passing moral judgments on the “worth” of Iraqi lives versus American ones. Oh, but he doesn’t call them Iraqis – they are the “bad guys”. They are also “pure evil”, and “savages” (like it’s the 18th century and the generals are handing out a few smallpox blankets to the locals). He also calls them “motherfuckers”, and “whackadoos”. He “wishes he’d killed more of them”. I use all of these inverted commas to emphasise that these are the actual words he used to describe the human beings that he killed. Pro tip: don’t try taking a drink every time he says “bad guys”. It won’t make the writing any better, and you’ll pass out long before you finish the book, so you’ll just have to start again the next morning (with a hangover).

He also calls the Iraqis “targets” now and then, like it’s a bad ’80s action movie. The lack of self-awareness, not to mention basic critical thinking skills, is truly astonishing. Catch-22 it ain’t. Kyle will, on the one hand, try to impress upon the reader that the war in which he was a willing (eager) participant was Absolutely Necessary, because the “bad guys” were coming to kill Americans. Why or how the “bad guys” were going to do that he doesn’t make clear, but regardless he is Absolutely Sure it is the case. As such, he sees no problem in taking out these “targets”, and talking about the joy of it ad nauseam. On the other hand, Kyle seems to lack the mental capacity to attribute those same feelings – fear of strange invaders coming to kill you, doing everything you can to stop them in their tracks – to the Iraqis. He storms and raids their homes, shoots them in the streets, ignores and denigrates the Iraqis who would fight alongside him… and doesn’t understand at all why that might piss them off. After all, he’s forgotten that they’re humans. They’re “targets”. They’re “bad guys”.

If you can get past his dehumanisation of the 25 million people living in Iraq before 2003 (you’re a better person than I am), you’ll still have plenty of other shitty stuff to contend with. His false modesty is the worst. The whole book reads something like: So many people want me to tell my story, and I don’t know why! I’m just an average Joe! Also I really love killing people, I’ve killed lots and lots of people, more than anyone else, did I tell you? I’m really good at it. I’ve basically saved the world from evil savages. But I’m just a guy doing his job, and I can’t believe that sooooo many people want me to write a book… Appeals to group authority abound. I lost count of the number of times he did that before I was 100 pages in: “people” wanted him to write a book, “people” ask him all the time how many bad guys he killed, “people” ask him every day about his favourite gun… ugh.

It’s not just that the writing is exceedingly average (which, of course, it is). Kyle is just awful: literally him, his personality and his way of being in the world. At best, he’s just dull and clichéd. He fancies himself a real-life G.I. Joe. He got his first “real” rifle at age seven, and he talks about guns more often (and more lovingly) than he does his wife. He opines at one point, without a hint of irony, that the British soldiers “speak English funny”. The thrust of every anecdote is that he is a hero, anyone outranking him is an idiot, and the Iraqis are dispensable savages. Rinse and repeat. If you told me that American Sniper wasn’t, in fact, a memoir, but instead the wish-fulfillment first novel of a socially-awkward young white man who spends 100 hours a week playing first-person shooter video games, I’d believe you, without question.




The bit that truly turned my stomach – the point at which Kyle became completely irredeemable in my eyes – was on page 161. He tells the most horrifying story of stealing a child’s video game from the house that he and his team raided and occupied. He talked about it so glibly, without a hint of remorse or regret – indeed, joking about the circumstance and inviting the reader to laugh along with him – that it brought me to tears. He literally stole from the child of a family that he turned out onto the street in a war zone. He turned a crib from that house into a sniper bed; he used it for eight hours, then discarded it, and moved on to the next raid.

He and his team did this a lot, according to Kyle. They would take over entire apartment buildings (“stinking slums”, he called them), give any civilian family they found $300, and tell them to fuck off and live somewhere else. All so they could use a single room as a sniper hole, for less than a day. He talks about it all with such immense pride, it’s fucking disgusting.

“I don’t shoot people with Korans – I’d like to, but I don’t.” – an actual quote from American Sniper

There were several controversies about the book following publication. Kyle described beating a man in the first edition, and the victim brought a lawsuit alleging defamation and unjust enrichment. Then there was an official investigation into Kyle’s claim that all of the book proceeds went to veterans’ charities (in fact, 2% went to charities, while Kyle’s family received $3 million). There were also squabbles over Kyle’s alleged embellishment of his military record and honours (seriously, by this point, who cares? seems to be the least of his crimes).

I make a point of not Googling books before I read them, so it was only after I’d finished American Sniper that I learned about Kyle’s death. He was shot by another (mentally ill) veteran on a rehabilitation sojourn to a shooting range. It’s a tragic story, but it really doesn’t change my opinion, or this review, at all – the book must be judged by its own merit (or lack thereof) after all. It might be callous to say, but Kyle lived by the sword and he sure as shit died by it. I can’t say I was surprised.

So, is Kyle’s story one that should be told? Maybe. On its face, it’s an interesting window into a world that we don’t often see in full technicolour. But to do it this way, without a trace of self-awareness, not a hint of insight, nary a critical thought… is that really the best we can do?

My tl;dr summary: American Sniper is basically Fifty Shades of Grey, except that it’s the love story of Chris Kyle and his guns. It’s a few hundred pages of horribly-edited masturbatory anecdotes about war. If you want to learn the truth of war, seek it elsewhere. I would recommend American Sniper to precisely no one.

My favourite Amazon reviews of American Sniper:

  • “Very good book. I would defiantly recommend to anyone. It was full of action and just very well wrote in my opinion” – Riley Madsen
  • “Great book! So great someone busted out my car window and only stole this book and a cellphone charger.” – Two Dogs
  • “I checked this book out from the library. I was thoroughly enjoying this book until I got to page 199 where Chris Kyle talked about watching porn. That ruined the whole book. Although I appreciate his service for the United States, after reading that, I felt completely disappointed and disgusted.” – K.M. Lessing
  • “I think one can be a patriot and Not be disgusting. This is not that.” – alan babcock
  • “Reminded me of junior high school.
    I don’t plan to see the movie.” – Letha Courtney Harmon

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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.

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.


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

 

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