Books, books, books. Gotta get the "to review" pile whittled down.

Today's book is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I read this back in November, due to a strange confluence of events. What I meant to read was Slaughterhouse-Five and I had an odd conversation with Karin where she was talking about Catch-22 and I was talking about the Vonnegut book. Then when I went to buy Slaughterhouse-Five from Amazon did the "Buy it with" trick for Catch-22 and I said what the heck. For whatever reason I encountered neither book in high school or college so they were both new to me, although I understand they are pretty common assigned reading.

Unfortunately, I'm not going to be keeping Catch-22. I wanted to like it, I really did. There were large parts I did like but ultimately the pacing and general downer nature of the anti-war message did me in.

The pacing is the first issue and it takes a long time to get the rhythm of the book flowing. Everything in the book is circular and Heller takes a long time just starting up all the circles and spinning them. You're introduced to tons of characters and also some rather maddening things that aren't explained very quickly. There's a character that is always referred to as Major -- de Coverley, and this is eventually explained as a joke that nobody knows his first name. But when I say "eventually" I mean over halfway through the novel. The first time I encountered the character I kept leafing back trying to see if I missed something. It was rather maddening to have no real choice but to keep reading and hope that it made more sense before I got hopelessly lost. There are things in this novel that make no sense because they just don't make sense, and there are things that make no sense because this is the first go-round of a particular circle and it won't be explained until the third or fourth revolution. This leads to a lot of tension - there are many open questions on first reading and it's never clear which are ones for concern and which are just examples of military foolishness and can be safely ignored.

After a while things start to hang together and you can dig into the meat of the piece: the absurdities of war and particularly of the modern military organizations. This middle section I liked the best and had a couple of moments of clear humor, as opposed the bleak sarcasm of the main story. There was a section of the book where I really thought I was going to end up liking it.

The last section suddenly takes this hard left turn into extreme darkness. Yes, it's been a war all along and there's been some deaths, but for the most part it was played for laughs. Then suddenly there's several chapters of just relentless slaughter and rape. I realize it's an anti-war book and so at some point it has to address the horrors of the situation but I really felt the end section is a far different and unpleasant tone from the bulk of the book. This is what really tore it for me. I really didn't like being drug through the violence that climaxes the story. If you ask me it weakens the book, because the mordant humor had been very effective at highlighting the dire straits the main character found himself in. Suddenly changing tacks and drenching him in gore had an odd effect of making me sympathize less with him than I had before.

There are several neat little bits of story embedded throughout. Overall I'm glad I read it, but I don't think I'd ever read it again and I'd be reluctant to recommend it to most people. While there are sections I'd like to read again I know that I'd be dreading the dark part near the end, enough so that I think it would color the whole experience. Of course, now that I've told you this you'll have the same experience-coloring without even having read through the book the first time.