I’ve been working on Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge this year (I’m on track to finish by the end of the year!) and I’ve read several books that I might not have read (or at least gotten around to for a while) otherwise. Many of them I’ve loved – one, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is now one of my all-time favorites. Maybe at the end of the challenge I’ll do a wrap-up list, but they’ve all been thought provoking, most have been highly engaging and I’m glad to have read all of them.
This is the first one that I’ve disliked – and rather vehemently disliked at that. I’m still glad that I read it – it’s a classic for a reason and it’s definitely given me a lot to think about. The way it was constructed is way ahead of its time and it makes a lot of points that I agree with philosophically. There were even a few parts that managed to emotionally engage me (not many, but I can’t say that I wasn’t affected at all by the story). I get why it’s important. I get why it’s culturally relevant. This doesn’t change the fact that my personal response to it was not a positive one.
On a surface level, the humor was hit and miss for me. At times it was clever and hilarious but the extended (so, so extended) Who’s-On-First-ish sequences got old fast. I also found the book really difficult to invest in emotionally, and for me that’s such a crucial part of reading a novel. If I don’t care about the characters there’s only so engaged I get, and it was extremely difficult for me to care about the characters in Catch 22. Most of them seemed to be there to make a point rather than to portray a person.
There were a few characters that got to be people, at least in part – Yossarian and the Chaplain, mainly; few other characters struck me as more than conceits or plot devices. And here’s where we get to the part that I had the hardest time with – none of the women get to be people, not even a little bit.
And it’s not just that the women characters are one-dimensional, it’s that the entire book is rampantly misogynistic. Blah blah blah product of its time blah blah blah lens of cultural context blah blah blah – yes, okay, I get it. I can detach myself enough to say that yes, as I said, I get why this book is important/relevant. I can’t detach myself enough to not find the misogyny repulsive, nor would I want to.
The misogyny is so thoroughly shot through the book that I’m not going to try to call out every example, I’ll just mention the ones that angered me the most. The most revolting scene was the sexual assault of Nurse Duckett that is played off as boys-will-be-boys shenanigans. The assault itself isn’t written in a “she secretly enjoyed it” manner – at the end of the encounter the nurse is frightened and crying – and to me this makes the handling of the assault as an amusing prank even more horrible. It would be bad enough if the author somehow thought that a woman might enjoy this treatment, but instead he acknowledges that it was highly distressing to her and he doesn’t seem to care in the slightest. The fact that Nurse Duckett (whose only personality characteristic that we ever really learn about is how much she loves attention from men) later ends up having an affair with Yossarian (at least until she decides he’s an obstacle towards her marrying a doctor, any doctor) makes it even worse.
I also can’t get over “Nately’s Whore,” who never even gets a damned name of her own, and who goes from being thoroughly disdainful of Nately to falling madly in love with him for no apparent reason (the narrative claims it’s because she finally got a good night’s sleep) other than that it’s convenient for the plot for her to do so.
I keep thinking of the definition of feminism as “the radical notion that women are people.” Women aren’t people in this book. They’re objects, playthings, distractions and plot devices. And my tolerance for that shit is really not high. So yes, I’m glad I read this book, because it’s a piece of cultural history that I’ve now experienced. I’m proud of myself for sticking it out and finishing it. I’m exceptionally glad that I’m done with it now, and I will never read it again.
I’m now going to rebound by reading something just about as far from Catch 22 as I can imagine – Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which I’m going to read to fulfill challenge #19, read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey. That ought to help me shake it off.