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a day with Yossarian

Posted Jul 27 2012 3:38am
Alas, mine is not the special 50th anniversary edition with all the extra goodies.  Same cover though, minus that nifty "50" seal.


This book caught my eye last Friday at Zia Records while the kids were browsing music, so I picked it up.  I read To Kill a Mockingbird in its glorious entirety on our travel day, and all the rest of my summer reading books I had boxed up and shipped home so I wouldn't have to stuff them into our luggage.   Something about this edition appealed to me.  Perhaps it's the white paper and the not-tiny print that enabled me to ready it without my cheaters on?  It was $4.99 so I bought it.

It was mostly waiting-room reading until today, when I really had nothing better to do.  Oh, yes, I could have done laundry or found some other housekeeping to do, but there was nothing pressing to do today.  The garage, the living room, the guest room and DS1's room are all in states of disarray because we had Retrofoam come in and insulate our pathetically non-insulated house.  (Have you seen how they build out here? Frame, styrofoam, chicken wire, stucco.  I'm not kidding.  The occasional piece of plywood.  I suppose they use Tyvek now too but I wouldn't count on it.)  This process necessitates drilling lots of holes in the walls and then filling them with this awesome expanding foam.  Today was Day 3 because of various snags that I really would sooner forget, and the guys were here from shortly after 7AM until almost 4PM and there's only so many hours I can spend on Spanish and web surfing.

Tomorrow I will paint over all the little well-patched holes inside (we paid them to do the outside walls) and get everything back in some semblance of order, but today I couldn't do anything, so I read.

It's a bit surreal, spending hours in WWII Pianosa and Rome and its environs with Yossarian and the various captains, majors, colonels, and generals who conspired to make his life unbearable, while periodically dealing with insulation installation,  piano practice, meal preparation and all the other things that make up my normal daily life.  The contrast could not be more complete.  I found myself at times thinking that Heller really pushes it too far, past surreal into absurd, but then he allowed one of the characters a recognizably human, competent, or kind moment.  M*A*S*H is a love letter to the US Army compared to Catch-22.  God does not fare well, either.

I was going to say it has a rather bleak view of traditional mores and morality, but then I realized that the rationalizations and behaviors depicted here, basically forced upon the characters by their untenable situations, have become more or less the norm.  No restrictions or repercussions for indiscriminate sexual activity (although Yossarian did get the clap once), denigration of religious faith, situational ethics, promotion of incompetence, worth based on relative merit -- all this goes on daily, and we don't have the excuse of being asked to fly yet-another-5-missions through heavy flak.  Heller was prophetic, or at least a keen enough observer of human nature to distill into his dozen or so characters the majority of the ways we can go bad.

I can see why it endures.  For all of the absurd conversations and impossible situations, the characters are solidly real and recognizable.  In Heller's introduction to the 1996 edition, he talks about the "Yossarian Lives" stickers an interviewer had made up.  It's a relief that he makes it to the end of the novel alive, sure.  But it was the image of Orr in Sweden that redeemed all the insanity that had come before it.  Even Heller has hope for the human race.  So do I.

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