22 May, 2006

So cold

"I would have signed them if I had," said Major Major.
"With whose name?" asked the second CID man cunningly. "Yours or Washington Irving's?"
"With my own name," Major Major told him. "I don't even know Washington Irving's name."

It's been at least ten years since I first read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and it's been at least nine years too long since I read it a second time. I'm now halfway through and can confidently state it's the best book I've ever read. Since the last best book, that is.

It's certainly the only book I've read that has made me laugh out loud in a public place. Such a reaction took me completely by surprise, and most probably several of the other passengers sharing the same Underground carriage as well.

I knew from memory how the book was acutely hysterical as well as being profoundly moving, but the passage that made me cackle unashamedly to the alarm of my fellow travellers crept up on me totally without warning and was therefore, in a way, all the more enjoyable. It doesn't look especially funny taken out of context - see above - but coming in the middle of one of the author's trademark elongated epistles of contradictory doubletalk, surreal paradoxes and downright stupidity, its potency was all the more sparkling.

I love Joseph Heller's book because of its intelligence and endless, unrelenting imagination. Nothing is what you expect. Every chapter contains a surprise, a revelation, a moment of heart-stopping poignancy or eye-popping lunacy.

The structure is incredible: events and characters are introduced in chapter two to make a point that isn't resolved until chapter 20; a catastrophe is hinted at in chapter five, the consequences of which may have been alluded to in chapter one but whose causes have to wait until chapter 26 to be revealed. A new talking point, philosophical dilemma or ethical quandary is introduced every couple of pages, but always in as non-dogmatic and questioning a manner as is linguistically possible, so you never feel you're reading an essay nor some kind of ideological tract.

It has a character in with no first name. It has a character called Major Major Major Major. It has a character whose name translates as Lieutenant Shithead. It has a character who has flies in his eyes but can't see his has flies in his eyes because he has flies in his eyes. It has a character who likes popping apples in his cheeks but can't verbally explain why he does it because he has apples in his cheeks. It has a character who sees everything twice.

It continues to be namechecked and referenced in the most implausible of places - last Saturday's episode of Doctor Who, for instance, which lifted the entire "I'm cold, so cold" death of a character straight from Catch-22. It has also bequeathed the English language one of its most ubiquitous and enduringly relevant aphorisms.

Famously, it took Heller the best part of a decade to write. Incidentally, it will take me the best part of two weeks to read. Brilliantly, it will take me the rest of my life to enjoy.


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