Saturday, September 18, 2010

Catch-22 - A magnificent book

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is one of all-time favourite books. It is an extraordinary satire on war. Although the book focuses on the futility of war, some of the statements made by the key character, Yossarian, are applicable in many other contexts. (For instance, this)

I have been thinking more and more about one classic conversation that appears towards the end of the book. This is a conversation between Yossarian at his aggrieved-and-cynical best and his colleague Danby (a dope, in Yossarian-speak).

"You must try not to think of them," Major Danby advised affirmatively. "And you must never let them change your values. Ideals are good, but people are sometimes not so good. You must try to look up at the big picture."
Yossarian rejected the advice with a skeptical shake of his head. "When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don't see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy."
"But you must try not to think of that," Major Danby insisted. "And you must try not to let it upset you."
"Oh, it doesn't really upset me. What does upset me, though, is that they think I'm a sucker. They think that they're smart, and that the rest of us are dumb."

The last two sentences are the best. It captures that fleeting moment of utter self-revulsion that the set of we-are-nice-guys-its -alirght-if-we-finish-last face when we see someone else unreasonably cashing in. It is not the finishing last that bothers us, it is not even the sight of some undeserving character getting ahead of us. It is the fact that the we can picture the undeserving moron who broke the queue laughing all the way back thinking to himself how these other guys are big losers. It is when every decent impulse is perceived as another sign that we would be willing to lie down and take more that gets to me.

It is the one reason why I quit my first job. I had thoroughly enjoyed my first job although I was posted in a godforsaken location. My boss asked me if I enjoyed the job and the HR team took my "Yes" to mean that I would be willing to work in godforsaken places for the rest of the decade. The HR team in this company evaluated every employee's location preference in conjunction with how much he/she is likely to quit if given a cr*ppy location. And I, naive, fresh out of college eager employee had told them that I loved the company and was promptly posted to godforsaken location 2, post the mandatory "You are a great asset to the firm, we are posting you here only because we need you to sort out his mess". I hated myself for being naive and honest for 24 hours and quit within the next 48 hours and the exit interview was something that brought me great joy.

Anyway, enough ranting about my sad personal stories. Great book. Utter delight to read (and reread any number of times). I must confess that when I first read the book I just did not 'get' it and did not understand what he big deal was. It was only on the second read that I could appreciate the satire. Joseph Heller is a genius. Cynicism laced with humour is the style all no-hopers aspire to. But only few get it right. Joseph Heller, in my mind is the best at that.

1 comment:

  1. a small request.. can you create a profile in and add the books you have read and your ratings for them? would be very helpful for people like me who are just getting into the reading habit to decide what book to read next..