Yossarian rides again

Michael Wood

  • Closing Time by Joseph Heller
    Simon and Schuster, 464 pp, £14.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 671 71907 6

‘Logic is doubtless unshakeable,’ Joseph K. thinks towards the end of The Trial, ‘but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living.’ He is wrong, of course, since he is killed within a page by the brutal logic of the novel he is in. But there is a logic that resists such logic, and one of its masters is Joseph H., author of Catch 22 and other objections to the absurdity of dying.

    ‘They’re trying to kill me,’ Yossarian told him calmly.

    ‘No one’s trying to kill you,’ Clevinger cried.

    ‘Then why are they shooting at me?’ Yossarian asked.

    ‘They’re shooting at everyone,’ Clevinger answered. ‘They’re trying to kill everyone.’

    ‘And what difference does that make?’

This is a conversation between servicemen in wartime, but there are other mortal risks, like accident, riot, natural catastrophe, and disease. Especially disease. ‘There were lymph glands that might do him in. There were kidneys, nerve sheaths and corpuscles. There were tumours of the brain. There was Hodgkin’s disease, leukaemia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. There were fertile red meadows of epithelial tissue to catch and coddle a cancer cell.’ The list goes on for quite a while (‘There were so many diseases that it took a truly diseased mind to even think about them as often as he ... did’), and might well appear in Heller’s terminal new book. In fact, it appears in Catch-22, that supposed anti-war novel. It is an anti-war novel, but only because war is such a help to what wants to do us in.

‘Clevinger was dead,’ we read about a hundred pages after the account of his argument with Yossarian. ‘That was the basic flaw in his philosophy.’ Clevinger is wrong not because he is dead – anyone can die, and everyone does – but because his philosophy refuses the erratic imminence of death, or if you like, because he believes that no one is murdered in a war.

The joke in the phrasing is stealthy, more oblique than it looks. There are many things we might think death was, especially our own death, before we arrived at the notion that it was a flaw in our philosophy. The ‘secret’ of a dying man in Catch-22, whimpering about the cold, his entrails spilling over the floor of his aircraft, is ‘easy to read’: ‘Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.’ The grisly, tasteless, literary gag is perfectly placed. No metaphorical maturity here; tragic dignity turns to rot.

Death has no logic for Heller, but it creates logics in the world: both the murderous logic of the many systems run by death’s human agents, all of them resembling the officials in Kafka’s novel, and the shakeable, threatened logic of people who want to go on living. In parts of Catch-22 and in much of his later work, Heller appears to be pushing the not very compelling idea that everyone is crazy (‘He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy’: Nabokov in 1956, on what he thought American publishers wanted then in the line of fiction), and that unscrupulous, power-hungry people are everywhere. Late in that first novel Catch-22 comes to mean ‘they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing,’ and the formulation recurs at several points in Closing Time. This isn’t a catch, it’s a fact of life, and the first illustration of Catch-22, the (I take it imaginary) US Air Force regulation stating that insanity is a ground for release from combat duty, suggests something far more intricate, a sort of three-way collusion of craziness and logic and exploitation. It’s the world’s order that’s the problem, not its disorder. If you’re insane enough to want to fly, you don’t have to; if you’re sane enough not to want to, you can’t be excused because you’re not crazy.

     Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

     ‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.

     ‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed.

     Yossarian saw it clearly in all its spinning reasonableness. There was an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of parts that was graceful and shocking, like good modern art, and at times Yossarian wasn’t quite sure that he saw it all.

Spinning reasonableness. What Yossarian admires is not the fact of power but its occasional elegance. Death itself disappears into this logic, or appears only at the end of a dizzying, inarguable proposition, a sort of after-effect. The world as Heller sees it is full of these manic manoeuvres, and in Catch-22 he tirelessly and brilliantly duplicates them. As tautology, for instance, aided by a nicely-timed cliché. A colonel asks what Yossarian’s name is.

    ‘Yossarian, sir,’ Lieutenant Scheisskopf said.

    ‘Yes, Yossarian. That’s right. Yossarian. Yossarian? Is that his name? Yossarian? What the hell kind of a name is Yossarian?’

    Lieutenant Scheisskopf had the facts at his fingertips. ‘It’s Yossarian’s name, sir,’ he explained.

Or as a kind of grammatical free fall:

    ‘I didn’t say you couldn’t punish me, sir.’

    ‘When?’

    ‘When what, sir?’

    ‘Now you’re asking me questions again ... When didn’t you say we couldn’t punish you? ...’

    ‘I’m sorry, sir ... I never said you couldn’t punish me.’

    ‘Now you’re telling us when you did say it. I’m asking you to tell us when you didn’t say it.’

    Clevinger took a deep breath. ‘I always didn’t say you couldn’t punish me, sir.’

    ‘That’s much better ... ’

Heller loves jokes involving escalating negatives, and we could see them as lying at the heart of this book, a sign that nothing is what it all comes to. ‘And if that wasn’t funny, there were lots of things that weren’t even funnier’; ‘Actually, there were many officers’ clubs that Yossarian had not helped to build, but he was proudest of the one on Pianosa.’

‘You could have lots of things you want.’
‘I don’t want lots of things I want.’

At times the enemy even speaks like the enemy, out-parodying Yossarian’s parody. ‘You’re an intelligent person of great moral character who has taken a very courageous stand. I’m an intelligent person with no moral character at all, so I’m in an ideal position to appreciate it.’

The number of missions the men need to fly before they can go home is raised yet again, as Milo Minderbinder, the group’s mess officer and master crook, the man who has arranged to bomb his own side, and who has stolen the morphine that might have eased the unfortunate Snowden’s last moments, needs to have some missions attributed to him. Twelve men die because of this new ruling. Catch-22 as continuing metaphor says the rules are always right although they are always changing, and someone is probably turning those changes to his profit. They are right because they are the rules.

    ‘You must try to look up at the big picture.’

    Yossarian rejected the advice with a sceptical shake of his head. ‘When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.’

Yossarian has a point, but he has momentarily forgotten the allure of Catch-22. His world is not a lie, as the world was for Wilfred Owen, and not a new-found absurdity as it was for Sartre and Camus. It is a place where lying and absurdity are the plausible norm and manage to sound, to all but the most satirical minds, like truth and reason. They sound like honour and service and sacrifice and virtue, monuments of logic, and even cashing in is orderly, a triumph of calculation – you don’t have to ask your lymph glands about it or look at your spilling entrails.

You might think the idea of a sequel to Catch-22 was a prescription for disaster, one of those great schemes best left in the lockerroom or on the drawing-board. Heller is no stranger to disaster. Good as Gold managed somehow to be slack and laborious, and God Knows was not even funnier. But Something Happened acquired a strange dignity through its sheer doggedness, and something of the kind happens with Closing Time. It’s not a disaster, far from it. It’s a lumpy, unequal, slow-moving book, more than a little self-congratulatory, but it refuses, with its returning hero Yossarian, to treat death with the respect that is due to life, and it is often very funny.

The first voice we hear is that of Sammy Singer, the (in Catch-22) unnamed ‘small tail gunner’ who kept passing out while Yossarian attended to Snowden’s wounds. Sammy is in his late Sixties now, a widower, marking time, the world empty since his much-loved wife is gone. He remembers Coney Island as it was before the war; his neighbour Joey Heller and his literary ambitions; his tough childhood friend Lew Rabinowitz, who takes up the narrative at a later point, and dies of cancer before the book is over. Sammy and Lew have three chapters each, and Lew’s widow Claire has a grieving chapter of her own. The rest of the novel’s 34 chapters are told in the third person, by a character who resembles Heller himself and who closely follows and much admires the doings of the now 68-year-old Yossarian. Yossarian is as fit as a fiddle, ‘without symptoms of any disease, not even hypochondria’, and by the end of the book about to become a father, if the world lasts that long; but he keeps going into hospital (as he did in Catch-22) to escape the world and keep abreast of death’s methods. His old gags work pretty well – ‘the President, whom he did not like, was going to resign and ... the Vice President, whom he did not like even more, would certainly succeed him’ – and he is a figure of considerable influence (and wealth). On behalf of Milo Minderbinder, flourishing in peace as in war, Yossarian sells a fancy military plane to the new President on the understanding that it won’t work (unfortunately it does). He also arranges for an immense wedding, the social event of the season and maybe the century, catered and policed by Milo, and starring Milo’s son as the groom, to take place at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. The homeless and the drug dealers and all the other people who usually live there are rounded up and shipped off to shelters in New Jersey, and replaced on the spot ‘by trained performers representing them whose impersonations were judged more authentic and tolerable than the originals they were supplanting’. A spokesman for the homeless – the very idea catches a certain kind of modern cant – says: ‘This was the kind of event that makes one proud to be homeless in New York.’

The chaplain from Catch-22 reappears, his name strangely changed from Robert Oliver Shipman to Albert Taylor Tappman, but complete with a close to verbatim quotation from the earlier book about his fantasies of the harm that could come to his family. He is still helpless and well-meaning. Here as in Catch-22, ‘immoral logic seemed to be confounding him at every turn,’ but he is in worse shape now, since he turns out to be passing heavy water when he pees. This makes him a security risk and a possible military asset, but above all a mystery. He is sequestered in an elaborate underground system run by the American intelligence service in collaboration, it seems, with the proprietor of Dante’s inferno, since a number of dead people are working here, and the underground scenery merges imperceptibly with a more traditional underworld landscape, although even there the famous dead appear to inhabit a version of the Coney Island fairground. You get to this place, as you would imagine, by going downstairs at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Pretty much everyone in the book is going there anyway, since the new President, a man who thinks ‘Be prepared’ might be a single word and doesn’t know what an amendment is, is so devoted to his video games that he can’t recognise the difference between simulated and actual destruction, and has started a nuclear war by mistake. It is closing time all round. You have to like the narrative egoism which says that if Yossarian is going to die, everyone is going to die.

Kurt Vonnegut appears in this book as well as Heller himself, because Lew was in Dresden when Vonnegut was, but the best literary jokes involve the repeated appearance of the enigmatic figure with red hair and a straw hat who so disturbs Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice, and the performance of music by Mann’s fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn. Some Wagnerian parallels are less happy, and I’m not sure what to make of Heller’s most elaborate bit of self-reference. When the dopey President recognises his own situation as ‘just like Catch-22’, Heller may be (I hope) commenting not only on his own fame but on something like the taming of absurdity. ‘I can’t appoint a chief justice until I’m the President, and he can’t swear me in until I appoint him. Isn’t that a Catch-22?’ The person asked the question is a stooge and a creep but not a fool, and decides he can’t deal ‘with a person like this one with a conjecture like that one’. Pretty cagey. Perhaps the suggestion is that what was ‘graceful and shocking’ in Catch-22 was a little too easy to package after all. Even Kafka can become a home movie, although the joke here cuts both ways. Near the beginning of Closing Time, Yossarian remembers an American soldier he met in Naples during the Second World War. He was born Joseph Krautheimer but ‘changed his name to Joseph Kaye to blend more securely into his culture’.