Heller was one of the pioneers among the novelists of the 1960’s who attempted to end the long reign of realism as the dominant force in American fiction. These writers, who also included Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Robert Coover, Bruce Jay Friedman, and others, rejected what they regarded as solemn and often dull attempts to use fiction to portray the lives of everyday characters, The generation just prior to theirs, which included Norman Mailer, James Jones, William Styron, and Saul Bellow, had emerged from World War II writing novels about experiences very much like their own, using the established methods of realism: accurate description of ordinary events, plots based on logic and avoiding coincidences, and characters neither heroic nor truly tragic that readers would recognize as similar to people they might have known.
The new generation, emerging in the early 1960’s, believed that the novelist should start from the premise that fiction should acknowledge that it cannot be real and cannot successfully imitate reality. By its methods, fiction should call attention to its real nature, which is the creation of an imaginary world that may comment on the real world and reflect some of its qualities but that is not an imitation of it. Because many of the early efforts of these writers portrayed violent and sometimes brutal events in wildly humorous terms, their fiction was at first called “black humor.” Later, it was given the name “fabulation,” suggesting that these writers were creating fabulous works, fables rather than realistic fictions. More recently, the term “metafiction” has been popularized, suggesting that these authors go beyond the bounds of traditional fiction in their novels. The term “absurdist” has also been used to describe this kind of fiction, suggesting both the absurd quality of what goes on in the novels and the absurd nature of the world the authors observe around them.
One aspect of the new fiction was the abandonment by the writers of the implication that they were simply reporters, or that the author was only a disembodied voice telling about real events. The role of the author as the creator of the fiction and manipulator of the characters was to be clear, as was the fact that the world in which the characters moved was not intended to be the world in which real human beings existed. In one novel, for example, writer Gilbert Sorrentino used the names of characters who had appeared in minor roles in James Joyce’s modern classic, Ulysses (1922); they had been wandering in a kind of limbo, waiting for another writer to use them in a different novel. In other novels, Pynchon and Heller in particular gave characters names that were intentionally improbable and humorous: Benny Profane, Jessica Swanlake, Mike Fallopian, Major Major Major, Chief White Halfoat, Milo Minderbinder.
Heller’s Catch-22 was an immediate success when it was published in 1961, especially among young people, although some reviewers found it childish and exaggerated. The major contributions made by Heller to the new mode in fiction include the absence of a conventional plot or narrative sequence in the novel. Chapters in Catch-22 are named for characters, although the title character of a chapter may not, in fact, even be the center of attention. The chief indications of the passage of time are the steady increase in the number of missions the men must fly to complete their hitches and references to crucial events, such as the Great Bologna Raid or the death of Snowden.
Heller was also among the first to portray war and its violence from an absurdly comic perspective. Earlier writers had occasionally shown war as grimly comic in its grotesque moments, but none treated war consistently as the subject for jokes and wild horseplay, as Heller did. The point he was making in Catch-22 was that his characters had only two choices: They could talk and behave in ways that amused or distracted them or they could go crazy. In either case, they were likely to be killed, but one choice would allow them to retain some semblance of sanity as long as they lived. A number of writers who have produced novels about the Korean or Vietnam Wars have followed Heller’s lead in this regard.
Heller’s later fiction is less successful in its attempts to be experimental and innovative. Something Happened is an unusual effort to convey meaning in a circuitous fashion, as the narrator and central character, Bob Slocum, tries to come to grips with a crucial event in his life; for a long time, the event itself remains hidden from the reader. Something Happened is a fascinating experiment which lacks some of the vigor and most of the social criticism of Catch-22. After writing a conventional novel, Good as Gold, Heller later tried to return to the manner of his first novel in God Knows, his rewriting of biblical history. Picture This is, in its own way, highly unconventional, but it does not really pretend to be fiction.
First published: 1961
Type of work: Novel
The flyers in a World War II bombing squadron battle the absurdity of war as well as their nominal enemies, the Germans.
The events on the tiny Mediterranean island of Pianola, where Heller’s characters are stationed, are often grotesque exaggerations of events in the larger society. There is a Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, when the entrepreneur Milo Minderbinder, supply officer of the group, tries to insist that all the officers and enlisted men sign loyalty oaths before they can eat in the group’s mess halls. Other actions are simply inexplicable, as with the reluctant officer who refuses to see anyone during office hours. Still others are grim, such as the “soldier in white” who is placed in the hospital ward with other officers, completely encased in plaster; he never moves or speaks, and after a couple of days he is declared dead.
Heller’s central character, Yossarian, is fond of confusing other characters with apparently crazy but logical views of events, and he frequently...
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