Joseph Heller

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Joseph Heller American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2521

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.

Catch-22

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 undertakes bizarre actions—for example, sitting in a tree naked during the funeral of one of the flyers. It becomes clear, however, that for Yossarian and his buddies—other flyers, such as Orr and Dunbar—jokes and unusual behavior are the only ways to retain something like sanity. Their commanders are even crazier than they are, their missions become increasingly hazardous, and their fellow fliers die, one by one or in groups.

Yossarian is the most religious character in Catch-22, willing to try any way of circumventing authority and retaining his individuality. He argues that he is a unique victim because the people he drops bombs on are trying to kill him. When the logical Clevinger responds by pointing out that the Germans are trying to kill everyone, Yossarian says simply that this does not matter to him if he is killed. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that all the men, in fact, are dying: Doe Daneeka, Kraft, Coombs, Kid Sampson, McWatt, Chief White Halfoat. In a single raid, Dobbs, Havemeyer, and Nately are killed, as is the most insane of all, Hungry Joe. Some simply disappear. Others die in horrible accidents, as Kid Sampson does: Swimming at the beach with others, he jumps up from a raft just as McWatt swoops low in his plane to salute his friends. Sampson is cut in half by the propeller, and McWatt, in his horror, deliberately flies his plane into a mountain.

There are frequent references throughout Catch-22 to the death of Snowden, a gunner on one of the planes. Only at the very end is the secret of Snowden’s death revealed, when Yossarian’s witnessing of the event is recorded in terrible detail, and he understands its full meaning: Humans are no more than physical matter, and once the life spirit is gone, what is left is only garbage. This understanding first encourages Yossarian to accept the bargain offered by the evil colonels, Corn and Cathcart: He can escape further missions if he will like them and speak well of them. The same understanding, however, eventually leads Yossarian to refuse the offer and try to escape the way his friend Orr has, by rowing a raft through the Mediterranean Sea, out the Straits of Gibraltar, and around to the North Sea and eventually to sanctuary in neutral Sweden. It is an impossible idea, but it is the only one left to him.

The novel’s title refers to a trick that is always available to the colonels and generals. In any offer they make to the flyers, whether to limit the number of required missions or to improve conditions at the base, there is a single catch, “Catch-22,” which, in effect, enables the leaders to do anything they want. They can break any promise they have made or introduce new regulations simply by citing Catch-22.

The world that Heller creates is absurd to such an extent that the grimness of what is going on is often cloaked by the foolishness of the action, as in the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade or in Milo Minderbinder’s attempt to corner the global market on cotton followed by his desperate attempt to get rid of all the cotton he has acquired, even trying to get the men to accept it as candy. Yet the references to death are everywhere, and the number of deaths piles up. Yossarian’s walk through Rome at the end, seeing all the horrors of the world in which he lives, punctuates all the foolishness with a dark period. He finally must decide to do something, even if it is only to resign from the war machine and try any means to find his way to freedom.

Something Happened

First published: 1974

Type of work: Novel

An ordinary man struggles to deal with the banality and absurdity of his marriage, his family, and his job.

Bob Slocum talks endlessly and compulsively. He talks about the people with whom he works; he talks about each member of his family; he talks about the women in his life. When he is not talking to other characters, in long stretches of rapid-fire dialogue, he is talking to himself about what he fears, what he wishes he had done, and what he hopes for (but not very hard). His talk reveals that he is a bully with his daughter, son, and wife but also that he loves them, knows what they fear, and wishes he could remove the causes of those fears. Yet he cannot bring himself to name the members of his family. His wife is called that; his son and daughter are never called by name.

The only family member Slocum ever names is his youngest, Derek, a boy with Down syndrome who is an embarrassment to all the other members of the family. They know they should love and cherish the helpless child, but they would be happier if he were not there and if the series of unpleasant women hired to look after him could be sent away. Still, Slocum and his wife cannot bring themselves to institutionalize the child, so Derek is always present.

A major achievement of Something Happened is Heller’s ability to sustain interest in and even a degree of sympathy for Slocum, who is in many ways a despicable individual. He lies, frequently and easily. Told by an executive that he is being considered to replace the head of another division in the corporation where he works, he lies to the man and to his own boss. At work he is a toady, obsequiously playing up to anyone he fears, even as he enjoys instilling fear in those below him.

At home, he manipulates his family, especially his wife and daughter. He relishes his superiority to them in one-upmanship, playing verbal games with them which he knows will humiliate them and make them hate and fear him. He hates the fact that they cannot seem to deal with their own lives: His wife thinks that she is losing her attractiveness, and his daughter thinks that she is fat and ugly; he hates them for feeling that way. At the same time, he feels sorry for them and wishes he could make them more confident. His thoughts often turn to physical violence, which he never actually commits.

Slocum is most tender about his son, a boy of nine who is experiencing all the fears and horrors that his father had at the same age. He hates gym class, and Slocum tries to ease his way by talking to the dim-witted gym teacher, Forgione. The boy hates speaking to groups, reflecting Slocum’s wish to speak successfully at his company’s annual meetings and his fear that he will not be allowed to speak (and that he will make a mess of things if he is). Slocum is haunted by the fear that something will happen to the boy and he will be unable to help in time.

Much of the time, Slocum is thinking about women. He plans continuously to figure out ways to get younger women to go to bed with him; he reminisces about the lovemaking of the early years of his courtship and marriage. He returns compulsively to memories of a young woman he met when working at his first job, a woman he might have made love to but did not. He regrets bitterly what he considers his failure and wishes he could meet the woman again—although he has known for several years that she has died, a suicide. His memory of her makes his recent conquests among the young women he meets at work or while traveling seem silly; once he has seduced a woman, he has no desire to see her again.

Heller sustains interest in this character in part because he keeps revealing new depths of his soul, and in part because there is an atmosphere of fear and horror underlying all Slocum’s ramblings. “Something must have happened to me sometime,” he says on the first page of the novel, and that something is not revealed until the very end. Then, the real horror becomes clear. Slocum’s son, the one person he loves unreservedly, was injured in an automobile crash. The boy bled profusely from superficial wounds but was not seriously injured. He died, however, when Slocum, trying to comfort him, held him too closely and suffocated him. In a brief epilogue it is clear that Slocum has gone on with his life. He has been promoted; he plays more golf, a game he hates; he inspires fear in more of his fellow employees. No one knows that he was responsible for his son’s death.

Something Happened does not have the fierce wit or the absurd humor of Catch-22. It deals much more clearly with ordinary people and everyday lives, and it takes the risk of boring the reader with Slocum’s unstoppable voice. In the end, however, it has a powerful emotional effect. As a portrait of a damned and suffering individual, it has few rivals in recent fiction.

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Joseph Heller Long Fiction Analysis