Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Best Ending To A Book.


I just finished reading, for about the fourth time in my life, the book Catch-22.

I don't like to re-read books. I used to, when I was younger, re-read books all the time, but that was when I was younger and I felt like I had all the time in the world, probably because I did. As a young high-school and then college student whose social life could be described as "hopefully someday existing" and whose finances could be described as "even more fictional than his social life" I had lots of time to read, and I used precious little of it on reading things I was supposed to for classes.

I also didn't have a TV for a long time. Not by choice -- I love TV, and find irritating those people who claim they don't watch TV or worse yet claim they don't own a TV, as the only reason to not own and watch a TV is to make a snobbish, surly kind of point about humans and entertainment, but a point that is not well-made or well-thought out and which did not need to be made in the first place. If you don't watch TV, in short, you are Morgan Spurlock and we can get along just fine without you.

So I read a lot when I was younger, almost never reading things I was supposed to be reading, except for when I read Catch-22.

I first was assigned Catch-22 my senior year in high school, as part of a series of books that probably helped shape my belief that schools are teaching all the wrong books to kids these days and it's wrecking them. I was, therefore, disinclined to like the book, because who likes things that are assigned to them? No matter what I'm doing in life, if you make me do it, I hate it. If you brought me over a pizza for breakfast this morning and said "Your job today is to eat this pizza for breakfast and then spend the day reading celebrity gossip on The Superficial and making dumb jokes on Twitter," I'd hate it.

Go ahead. Try me. I dare you. Make that my job every day!

I figured you didn't have enough guts to take me up on that.

Being assigned the book to read, I was all set to dislike it, but then I didn't dislike it. I liked it -- a lot. I was amazed at how much I liked the book Catch-22, at how perfect the book seemed to be and how interesting it was and how it wasn't hard at all to keep in my mind the multitude of characters that Joseph Heller throws at people without much of an explanation at all. I tore through that book in days, reading way ahead of where the class was.

And I appreciated the book -- understood it, on some level or another, albeit in a way that's hard to comprehend now, for 42-year-old me looking back on 17-year-old me reading, back then in 1986, this book that I just read now in 2011.

I know I understood it because I carried with me, as I went on in life, not only memories of the characters, but of the beliefs they espoused. Ever since reading that book back in 1986, I have had in my mind various phrases that I may not remember exactly but I've got the gist of them and they'd crop up in my mind from time to time, phrases like:
What if everyone else felt that way? I'd be a damn fool to feel any other way, wouldn't I?

and

People would look silly with a series of neon tubes saying they were in pain... but they certainly look wonderful writhing in agony and doped up on morphine now, right?

and

Will America, with its fighting man who is second to none, last as long as the frog?

And more.

I remembered philosophies espoused by characters -- Dunbar wanting to do only unpleasant things so his life would seem longer (But who would want to live that way?) Orr, fixing the stove and spending his life convincing people he wasn't as smart as he really was.

That book stuck with me.

I re-read the book in my 20s, and then again in my 30s, and now in my 40s -- and if I was the kind of person who could plan those types of things, I'd make sure to re-read it in my 60s, 70s, and 80s, however far I make it (not as long as the frog, I'm sure). I don't have a specific recollection of re-reading it the earlier times; I re-read it not out of any particular love for the book then, but out of boredom.

And, the truth is, that's why I re-read it this time -- because now I'm at a stage in my life where I get precious little time to read and there's far more competing for my attention when I do have a few minutes. I've got magazines and the Internet and other books and Netflix and TV and games on my phone and so when I sit down at the end of the day to do a little whatever sometimes reading is the whatever and sometimes it's not, and I have, as I said, a rule against re-reading books (or re-watching movies) that was founded in an overwhelming sense of sadness I once got when I walked into a Barnes & Noble.

A Barnes & Noble is a weird place to get an overwhelming sense of sadness, or maybe it's not so weird. What do I know? Maybe Barnes & Noble's marketing plan is based on people getting the kind of overwhelming sense of sadness I got that time I walked in there and saw, stretching out to the back of a warehouse-sized store, rows after rows of books, and here's what I thought:

I will never read as many books in my lifetime as I would like to read.

That thought, back in my 30s, hit me as I walked through the door and made me (overwhelmingly) sad, because here were more books than I could conceive of existing, and I was sure that if even a tiny percentage of all the books I could see were books that would appeal to me and be worth reading -- a very select group -- that I would never read even a tiny fraction of those books, no matter how hard I tried. I'd never get to them all and I began to think about that as I wandered around and decided that I had to do something to avoid missing out on all those books that I might never read, and so what I decided to do was just not re-read books I'd read earlier.

For the most part, that's pretty easy to do. How many books can you honestly say were actually worth going through again? Books aren't a simple matter, after all. No matter how quickly you read and how much time you have to read, almost any book is a commitment of a couple of hours, at least - -and if you, like me, read a book only a half-hour to hour at a time, now, then a book is a commitment of many weeks, depending on the size of it.

By that standard, a lot of books aren't even worth my commitment the first time around. In the past couple of years I've gotten a lot more particular about books I read, and I've bailed on them more quickly. I've given up on Infinite Jest, The Law Of 9s, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Abstinence Teacher, and probably a lot more that I can't even think of -- books that I almost immediately could tell weren't going to be worth my time.

If it's that hard to make the cut, you can imagine how hard it would be for a book that I've already read to get back in line. A book would have to be really good just to have a chance -- and then even really gooder to make me consider it, because of that time commitment.

A few books, over the years, have tempted me to re-read them. I wanted, for example, to re-read American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and I wanted to re-read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, because both were great books that really drew me in and both were complicated detailed books that I was sure would reveal new ideas and thoughts when I re-read them, the way that re-reading A Prayer For Owen Meany (the only John Irving book I've ever re-read) had.

(And whenever I read a John Irving book, I think of Yossarian and then Major Major signing John Irving's name to correspondence. Have you seen the John, Irving?)

But I didn't re-read them because it would also have been a chore to do so and I didn't want to feel like I was taking up a task. They're long, complicated, detailed books, after all -- the very qualities that made me want to re-read them led me to decide not to re-read them.

(That's some catch, that Catch-22!)

So with all those factors militating against re-reading Catch-22: It was originally a school assignment, long, detailed books are hard to re-read even though they're the ones we should re-read, and Barnes & Noble made me sad, why did I re-read Catch-22?

And what does this have to do with the ending of the book?

Simple: I re-read Catch-22 because I was bored, and because I misremembered the ending.

I found my copy of Catch-22 when I was going through the room where The Boy used to live before he moved out, cleaning up some left-behind items. He'd been forced to read it as part of his homework the summer between his junior and senior years, as part of a series of assignments we'd given him because his junior year grades were so disappointing. When I'd assigned it to him, I'd told him how I had loved the book when I was his age and had read it for school, and the like (thereby killing it off for him, I'm sure, although I didn't mean to. I hadn't yet realized that a thing dies when someone older than you tells you about it.)

And I'd particularly told him: You're going to love the part about Snowden at the end.

Oh, by the way: SPOILER ALERT! But if a post title explicitly telling you that the post is about the ending of the book didn't warn you there'd be spoilers, then nothing can help you, Morgan Spurlock.

That was one of the things I (mis)remembered about the book Catch-22: Snowden dying at the end. (It's not a SPOILER to say Snowden dies -- Heller tells you that throughout the book.) I remembered, from the first time I read the book, Yossarian going back to help the gunner, bandaging the wrong wound

(There, there.)

and then learning about Snowden's secret -- the secret that Snowden spilled out over Avignon -- and I told The Boy that when he got to that ending he would love it.

As you've guessed, or as you know if you've read the book recently enough to remember, that's not the ending, which is weird because Snowden's secret is the big secret of the book, and it's the revelation of Snowden's secret that confirms how Yossarian views the world and why he acts the way he does: when Snowden spilled his secret over Avignon, his flak suit opening and his guts spilling out all over the plane so that there was nothing Yossarian could do but cover him with his parachute and whisper There, there, Yossarian is hit with his own world view: We are all mortal, and our bodies only count so long as there's life in them.

That's the fear that drives Yossarian to not want to fly bombing missions and to keep running into the hospital, where he wants teams of people to keep watching over him and doing anything necessary to keep him alive, and where he even impersonates a dead man

(His name is Yossarian, ma, don't you remember?)

for a while before beginning to cry and having to quit -- and it's that fear that Yossarian carries with him which drives the book -- a book in which, now that I've re-read it again, I realize that the deaths keep getting more and more explicit, like a movie warming up to its R-rating in the second reel.

Early on, deaths occur offscreen, as it were, and in inexplicable ways. The dead man in Yossarian's tent dies before he even checks in, and is both there and not there. Clevinger vanishes in a cloud, never to be seen again. Kraft's plane wrecks while Yossarian celebrates his freedom from the flak in the second run.

Those are early deaths in the book. But later on, the deaths get more explicit: Kid Sampson is chopped in half by McWatt's plane, and McWatt then crashes himself into a mountain, suicidally taking out not only his own life, but, weirdly, Doc Daneeka, who, being fraudulently listed on the flight manifest (to get some flight pay without risking his own life) ends up being considered dead by the Army and not drawing his pay anymore. The skinny maid in the enlisted men's apartment is pushed out a window by Aarfy and Yossarian sees her corpse just lying there, hideously.

(Only one person dies quietly in the second half of the book, as far as I could tell: On one bombing run, a plane runs into a second plane, and Heller describes in vivid detail the crashing of the first plane, its wing ripping off and the plane plummeting into the ocean, and then adds, to end the chapter: And Nately, in the other plane, was killed, too.)

The book by the time Nately, in the other plane, was killed, too, has entirely changed tone -- mirroring, maybe, Yossarian's development from the kind of man who could joke about stabbing Orr at the base of his skull to relax to the kind of man who cannot walk around Rome without seeing all around him the brutality of human beings -- the city itself transformed, like the book and Yossarian, from a pleasurable romp amidst war to a terrible pageant of human cruelty and greed that ends -- like I believed the book ended -- with an unnecessary and unpunished death.

I wanted to re-read Catch-22 because I wanted to feel that ending again -- I wanted to build up to the part where Snowden spills his guts all over the plane and Yossarian learns his secret and realizes that we're all mortal because, as I said, I was bored with the book I was reading, and because also, I'd liked that ending so much the first time around that it gave me chills, a little, remembering how shocked and amazed I'd been at learning Snowden's secret and having the whole book tied up by the Snowdens of yesteryear and getting the message of the book, the message, which, as it turns out, I'm pretty sure is a message I got all wrong because I misremembered the ending of the book.

I can be forgiven, I think, for misremembering Catch-22's ending, because of the way the book goes. For a wartime story in which people die a lot, Catch-22 is remarkably funny and remarkably well-written and remarkably lighthearted. For most of the book, Catch-22 breezes along on a comic romp, so lightheartedly that all the death and destruction seems to almost not even happen -- while characters brood about their death and discuss the many ways they could die, it almost never seems to happen.

But in the final 1/4 of the book, all that death comes home -- when Nately dies in the plane crash, something seems to click over and the book becomes super-grim: Yossarian begins marching backward, with people popping out of the bushes to hiss at him and wish him support and warn him. He goes to Rome, in what might be the most haunting wartime sequence ever written, wandering around a city on the brink of Hell and seeing horrors literally get worse street after street -- on one corner, he sees a man beating a dog. By the next block, an identical scene is being played out, but the man is beating a child. And he never stops to try to help anyone, walking by horror after horror until he is finally arrested and shipped back to Group headquarters where, he learns, he's going home.

That's the ending I'd forgotten -- that, and the real ending, too, that I'd forgotten, missed in my memory the way Yossarian missed the real wound on Snowden. I'd forgotten that Yossarian not only sees Nately's plane die, but that he then flees to Rome and gets arrested and comes back and is given what he wants, and more: He's offered a chance to go home a war hero, get out of flying missions, and all he has to do is be pals with Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn.

Just that: be pals. Talk them up and he gets to go home a rich and happy and heroic (but secretly not) man, and he'll live.

And Yossarian, who throughout the book has been the not-so-calm voice of reason and principal -- he refused to even okay Dobbs' attempt to shoot Colonel Cathcart and talked Milo out of making the men eat chocolate-covered cotton -- Yossarian agrees!

I'd forgotten that part -- the odious (that's the word they settled on) deal and the fact that Yossarian agrees to the deal, that he sells out the remaining men using the exact same justifications every other character in the book uses to justify their selling out people, something Yossarian had never done -- and up until then, Yossarian had not bent on his principles. He was the only person in the book who had never abandoned his principles. Every other character in the book gives up on his ideals at some point: Orr pretends to be stupid. Nately wants to marry a whore even though he despises her connection to the old man who he secretly confuses with his father. Only Yossarian had not actually given up on his ideals, until he struck that deal with Colonel Korn, shaking hands and calling him Blackie and getting called Yo-Yo, and walking happily out of Group Headquarters where Nately's whore is waiting and she stabs him.

I'd forgotten that part, too, and I can't believe I did -- so when I read it in the book, that Nately's whore stabbed him and he got knocked out and had to go back to the hospital again, it was as shocking as the ending to The Departed and I was (metaphorically speaking) on the edge of my seat. (But only metaphorically, as I was in a recliner and actually sitting quite comfortably.)

From there, the real ending comes into view, as Yossarian wakes up in the hospital and initially seems to be still stuck in the odious deal -- he's going to go through with it, and it shows, because this man who previously wanted to be hospitalized with a team of doctors ready to jump on him at the first sign of Ewing's tumor or some other disease begins telling the doctors not to do things. "No cutting" he says, and eventually comes to through a feverish dream to see the Chaplain and Major Danby -- who had his own brush with death and is eternally pop-eyed ever since he was almost taken outside and shot at General Dreedle's command -- waiting for him, and he says that he won't go through with the deal.

Have his ideals come back? No-- not right then. He's only not going through with the deal because he figures that the official press release sent out saying that he saved Colonel Cathcart's life from a Nazi assassin (that being the official version of his stabbing by Nately's whore, who has become death personified, chasing Yossarian from everywhere and appearing out of nowhere, somehow coming back from beyond enemy lines) will keep him from being court-martialed -- so he can double-cross his new pals and still go home a hero.

His victory is short-lived: Major Danby points out that there are two official press releases, and that if Yossarian double-crosses them the other official release will be the official official release and it'll accuse him of various bad things and he'll be court-martialed.

Amidst a dilemma, Yossarian ponders what to do when the Chaplain comes in with amazing news of the third real ending to the book, the other ending I'd forgotten, amidst all the horror of Rome and all that: Orr is alive! And in Sweden! He'd crashed his plane after a mission, and gotten into a raft and rowed to Sweden, from the Mediterranean, and Yossarian realizes that all along this was Orr's plan, and he should have flown with Orr on that last mission but he didn't, and decides, on the spur of the moment, to run: he'll flee to Italy himself and make his way to Sweden and run away from the deal and the official releases and Catch-22 and the Colonels and Generals and Ex-PFCs who are now Ex-Sergeants.

The Chaplain approves, Major Danby grudgingly blesses him, and the reader is left muddled: Is this okay? Is this the right thing to do?

Heller tells us that in the final ending that I'd forgotten, too: Heller tells us what to make of it all, as Yossarian celebrates his learning the real way to survive -- to run -- by having Yossarian pack his things and head out of the hospital. You'll have to constantly watch out, Danby tells him and Yossarian promises he will. You'll have to jump, Danby tells him, and Yossarian promises he will, and Jump! Danby yells, and Yossarian does and Nately's whore, who is waiting outside the doorway, misses him with her knife and he leaves -- alive.

That's the final final ending to Catch-22, all those endings that took place after the ending I thought I remembered but didn't, because the ending I thought was the ending was only about 2/3 of the way through the book: I thought it ended with Nately dying and Yossarian going to Rome and remembering Snowden's secret, the secret other wound, that hidden wound that is ripping apart Snowden that Yossarian suddenly saw, a wound that is identical to the wounds Yossarian then saw in Italy which were ripping apart us, and I remembered Catch-22 as a grimly depressing book that had a thrilling ending that was thrilling but also grim and depressing.

I spent some time wondering, this week, why I remembered the not-endings as actually the ending of the book -- was it something about me, or about the age I was when I read it? Was I developing Alzheimers' Disease? Wasn't smoking supposed to help prevent Alzheimer's disease? It's bad enough I smoked for all those years and will probably die horribly but now I have to get Alzheimers', too? And is it Alzheimers', with the apostrophe after the s, or is it the possessive: Alzheimer's? Probably the latter, as I think about it now, but I'm too lazy to go back and change those other ones.

You can see where I get very little done during the day.

Here's what I think, though: I remembered those endings, the fake endings, as the real endings because they were: I think that the Nately-dying, Rome-walking, grim portions of the book were the ending to Catch-22. And I think that Joseph Heller is wrong about his own best character.

The version of Catch-22 that I read this time is one that has an author's forward in it. I don't ordinarily read the author's forwards, but I skimmed through this one, and Heller in it notes that in his later book about Yossarian, the character is still alive, and Heller says that if he wrote another Yossarian book, Yossarian would still be alive in that one, too, but I think that Heller is wrong and doesn't understand his own book and his own character.

I think Yossarian is dead.

This is probably just the My Aunt's Dog Theorem in practice, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Yossarian died, and that the Yossarian who refused treatment in the operating room and who made the odious deal with Blackie and Chuck and who Jump!ed just in time to avoid Nately's whore's final attack was a figment of someone's imagination, or a spirit, or a metaphor. But it wasn't Yossarian.

And I think Yossarian died over Avignon.

Think about it: First off, Heller had all kinds of weird dead-but-alive, or alive-but-dead, or dead-but-dead characters. Doc Daneeka turned out to have been dead all along, according to Gus and Wes; that's why (they theorized) his temperatures was always so low. The dead man in Yossarian's tent kept haunting people until he was ignominiously removed by Yossarian's new roomies. Kid Sampson's legs were on the beach long after Kid Sampson was dead.

And Heller himself set up Yossarian as being dead after Avignon: Yossarian refused to wear his uniform after Avignon, and sat naked in the tree, forming a prophetic vision for Chaplain Tappman as he talked with Milo Minderbinder, and, if I've got my order of missions straight, it wasn't long after Avignon that Yossarian refused to fly more missions while Nately volunteered to fly more because he didn't want to get transferred back home without his whore, and it was Nately volunteering to fly that led to him, in the other plane, dying, too, and Yossarian then had to go to Rome, where Nately's whore (who we later learn was turned out of her house in the winter without protection and was probably dead herself) tried to kill him, but couldn't, no matter what she did.

Everything Yossarian does after Avignon seems not to affect the world in any way, and slowly Yossarian's character warps and rots -- he becomes more and more grim and deathlike. Nurses won't sleep with him anymore, and his friends are all gone, and then new roommates move into his tent and throw out the dead man's things, and Yossarian exists in a dreamlike state where he eventually wakes (?) in a hospital, refusing treatment.

Why does Yossarian, who wanted a team of doctors to tend him at all times, refuse any treatment in the hospital? Maybe for the same reason that he made the odious deal and told Blackie and Chuck to call him Yo-yo: because he's dead, he's not Yossarian anymore, and not symbolically dead, he's really dead.

And the final proof? The mysterious man who kept saying We've got your buddy to Yossarian in the hospital. Yossarian didn't know who his buddy was -- but it was him. He was his only friend; Yossarian got the chaplain in trouble and got Dunbar disappeared and threatened to kill McWatt and wouldn't fly with Orr (who he wanted to stab) and even tried to sleep with Nately's whore after both Nately and Yossarian had died.

The buddy they had was Yossarian, and that's Heller's final message: Yossarian throughout the book was attempting to free himself from moral constraints that society and our own conscience and God put on us: Yossarian tried to go derelict from his duty, but whenever he did he had terrible brushes with death: He had to pretend to by the dying man, or the soldier in white would turn up, or something, and Yossarian would grimly decide that he had to keep doing his job, even if it killed him. Throughout the book, Yossarian was bound by moral constraints -- he longed to get shot down at just the right place to guide the pilot to Switzerland, but still went back the second time over the bridge and got Kraft killed.

But at the end of the book, Yossarian no longer is bound by moral constraints: he makes the odious deal, he decides to run to Switzerland, he Jump!s, and he's done.

Because he's dead. Heller was wrong: Yossarian didn't escape, he didn't go on living. While he lived, Yossarian was bound by moral constraints that kept him doing his duty and constantly forced him into deadly situations in a life he hated. It was only in dying that Yossarian was free to truly live -- and to Jump! for joy at his freedom. Yossarian is dead: Long live Yossarian.

That's some catch, that Catch-22 -- and some ending-that-wasn't-really, only it was.


2 comments:

Rogue Mutt said...

I get sad sometimes at B&N or especially Bargain Books/used bookstores thinking about all those poor books not going to homes and wondering what would happen to my book if I ever had one. And that there are so many freaking books in the world, how could I ever get anyone to read mine? I'm very self-centered that way.

I didn't remember the end to Catch-22 either but then I only read it once four years ago.

There are books I'd reread but other stuff keeps coming up so I don't get a chance.

My favorite ending to a book is the ending to "Atonement" by Ian MacEwan. Mostly because the ending really redeemed the book and it was also a great lesson for writers. [SPOILER TIME!!!]

The first third of the book was especially boring because it's before WWII with 13-year-old Briony having a crush on her sister's boyfriend. Seeing that he cares about the boyfriend, she falsely accuses him of raping another girl and he goes to prison. Most of that part of the book was so incredibly boring that I would have stopped reading if I were the kind of person to do that.

The second third is in WWII during the Blitz in London as Briony and her sisters are working as nurses. In France the old boyfriend has been released from prison to serve in the army. There's a grim struggle to survive as he and his unit try to evac from France back to Britain. He makes it and deserts along with Briony's sister.

But then comes the big [SPOILER] part, the ending that redeems the boring parts of the book. In the last third, an old Briony is a famous writer suffering from Alzheimer's or some similar ailment. She does an interview and reveals that really the whole part about the boyfriend and her sister running off and being happy was made up, that really they died separately without ever getting to see each other the night of the rape.

The lie and the title stem from that Briony is trying to atone for what she did by making up a happy ending for her sister and the boyfriend and in some small way then they'll live on in people's hearts and imaginations.

It was such a great ending because not only does it show there was a method to the madness in the first two-thirds, but it's such a great message about the power of writing.

This should be a blog entry, shouldn't it?

Rogue Mutt said...

"Seeing that he cares about the boyfriend, she falsely accuses him "

Oy, such bad pronoun use. It should be "Seeing that her sister cares about the boyfriend, Briony falsely accuses him."

"without ever getting to see each other the night of the rape. "

AFTER the night of the rape.