Catch 22 by Joseph Heller – Let the Book do the Worrying

Catch 22, published in 1961, is Joseph Heller’s novel about American airmen flying bombing missions over Italy during World War Two.

In many ways this is a book about fear. There is much to be afraid of in Catch 22, most obviously having to climb into an aircraft and fly it over places where people on the ground are determined to shoot you down. Amazingly, not everyone is scared by this situation. While the book’s central character, Captain John Yossarian, is terrified every time he steps into an aircraft, other airmen seem quite relaxed in their work. Some actually enjoy themselves, and fly recklessly when they don’t have to, looking for additional thrills. Some are terrified by the thought of flying, but are alright when they are actually flying. Adding to this confusion are the scary accidents and illnesses that can happen to people on apparently safe, solid ground, all of which causes Yossarian at one point to think that getting through the average day is a bit like flying through gunfire over Bologna. The book portrays fear and threat as existing everywhere, skewed by varying individual perceptions of risk. Sometimes dangers are imagined, sometimes they are real. Danger results from both worrying too much, and too little.

At the same time there is the contrary suggestion that safety is always within reach. After being pulled about by all the book’s contradictions, ironies, upended logic, Sergeant Bilko comedy meeting Saving Private Ryan horror, you might even start to think that having someone shoot at your aeroplane is not so different from, say, fearlessly sitting down in your favourite armchair to read a novel about people shooting at your aeroplane. Then you can gather up your courage and write a review of it, and receive a medal for publishing your thoughts on the internet. While it might not seem very brave to read and review a book, this particular book turns the idea of bravery on its head. Yossarian might resolve to take his plane all the way to a target, only because destroying the target is the best way to never go back there again. Yossarian is only brave as a part of his unashamed strategy of fear and avoidance.

The consideration of fear meant more to me than the satirical material – about corrupt military authority, or heartless capitalism – that the book is famous for. Take, for example, the Catch 22 after which the book is named. The Catch describes a weird logic trap that keeps airmen doing dangerous missions. They can be relieved from flying if stress has driven them mad. But if they say that stress has driven them mad and they can’t fly missions anymore, that means they are clearly sensible and sane – because who in their right mind would want to undertake hazardous bombing missions? And being sane, they will have to keep flying. It’s the people who keep flying without complaint who are really mad, but as they don’t ask to be grounded, they have to keep flying. So everyone keeps flying.

I was a bit suspicious of all this. It seemed more of a fancy literary device than a reflection of reality. Wondering how many people were actually relieved of duty for mental health reasons during World War Two, I did a search, and found figures quoted by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, suggesting that roughly 40% of medical discharges for American military personnel during the war were due to psychological injury. So, the idea that someone could not be discharged for combat stress is not true. For me, the book’s satirical elements characteristically took a kernel of truth, and expanded it to less than truthful proportions.

Joseph Heller himself said that when he was serving as an airman during the war, he never had a bad officer. His real wartime experience did not reflect a situation where ruthless commanders would keep their men flying no matter what. He described his book as a satire of 1950s McCarthyism and the Cold War, rather than a reflection on the wrongs of military organisation during World War Two. That might be so, but, for me, bringing the Cold War into it doesn’t really make the idea of Catch 22 any more realistic. John Steinbeck said that in satire ‘you have to restrict the picture,’ and that’s what happens here.

I had mixed views on Catch 22. Nevertheless, I did admire its unexpected relevance to the mental heath and anxiety problems which have become more prominent in our own times. I would even go so far as to say the book could increase our understanding of these issues.

The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley – Different Ways to Build a Bunker You Can’t Use

The Survivalists is Kashana Cauley’s 2023 novel about a young New York lawyer questioning her direction in life. She starts dating the owner of a coffee business, whose two housemates are survivalists – people who spend their time preparing for disasters and societal breakdown.

If you’re wanting a story where New York succumbs to something like a zombie virus, leading to chaotic scenes of soldiers barricading bridges, while choppers fly overhead, then this is not the book for you. The setting is a resolutely un-apocalyptic New York, where people struggle with jobs and relationships. Disaster would be easier to deal with if we all knew what it looked like. The survivalists described in the story spend their time preparing for what never seems to happen, while getting blindsided by unexpected developments. The book satirises the cliches of disaster, and undercuts our clumsy attempts to achieve security. People might prepare for life’s uncertainty by spending a fortune on going to law school in the hope of landing a secure job. That job might never materialise, leaving the law-school survivalist with debts they can’t pay. Going to law school is a bit like building a bunker in the back garden, designed for a nuclear war, but flooding in heavy rain.

The Survivalists is an interesting novel, often funny when the cliches of danger collide with the unpredictable challenges of real life. It’s also timely, exploring the concerns of an anxious age, confirming that while the ground beneath our feet is indeed wobbly, there is nothing to be gained by worrying about something that will probably never happen. I found The Survivalists a nuanced and oddly reassuring read.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry – Mine’s a Sparkling Water, Thank You

“Would you deny the Consul such astounding visions? Me neither. In fact, I think I’ll have a mescal myself …”

Sam Jordisan – the Guardian

Published in 1947, Under the Volcano is Malcolm Lowry’s famous book about Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British consul, living in Mexico, trying to resurrect a relationship with his ex wife. The action takes place over the period of one day, the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Drink is a big thing in this book. Alcohol provides the extreme experience that people often look for in reading a novel, enjoying drama and danger without the risk. For some, all the visions, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, might even make heavy drinking an attractive real-world option. In The Guardian, I found a reviewer who was inspired to reach for an explosive glass of mescal. Writing for The Guardian must have felt pedestrian compared to the galactic visions provided by Mexican alcoholic beverages.

My reading of Under the Volcano, did not leave me wanting to reach for mescal. Apart from graphic descriptions of the physical horribleness of alcoholism, there was the confirmation that any supposed exciting elements of alcohol, potentially bringing colour to the humdrum lives of Guardian journalists, are an illusion. My favourite scene in the book involved an ‘over the garden fence’ conversation between Firmin and his neighbour, Quincey, a dull, American retiree. Quincey is a conventional, judgemental fellow whose imagination does not stray beyond the watering of plants in his beautifully kept garden. Firmin, too bohemian, drunk and out-there to worry about anything as suburban as watering and pruning, has a derelict garden. The irony is, Firmin, searching for a bottle hidden in his weeds, is not really breaking free from conventional limits through drinking. For all his visions of flying amongst the stars, alcohol has him in a ruthless death grip. And there’s a further irony in the name of his narrow-minded neighbour. Quincey’s name echoes that of the author of 1821’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey, founder of the ‘addiction literature’ genre. There is a suggestion that Firmin and his symbolically named neighbour are actually living similar lives. Both inhabit their own Garden of Eden, and both in their own way have brambles invading their pleasure grounds.

I have to say I didn’t really enjoy Under the Volcano. The action is supposed to happen over a single day, but that’s not how it felt. There were so many walks and visits to people’s houses or bars, trips to fiestas, and days out on buses, that it didn’t seem feasible to pack all this into a day. And between great descriptive passages, and sections like the Quincey conversation, there were long stretches, particularly in the second half, which I found confusing, and I have to admit, boring. Finally, the life of constant drinking did not resonate with me. I had one or two evenings at university involving quite a lot of drink, but they only taught me I didn’t like it. There’s no point pretending I’m some kind of William Burroughs. Drinking always left me feeling terrible, and provided no ethereal visions. Maybe I was a total lightweight, and if I’d tried harder, and drunk the equivalent of Crime and Punishment, the rewards would have come. But I very much doubt it. The alcohol would have killed me before I got anywhere near that point.

In no sense am I envious of Firmin’s experience. I appreciated the descriptive writing, and the contradictions involving freedom applying to drinkers and non-drinkers alike, but it was a relief to reach the end.

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud – Retail Therapy

The Assistant is Bernard Malamud’s 1957 novel about an ageing Jewish shopkeeper who runs a struggling grocery business in New York, and the young man who becomes his assistant.

Although shopkeeper Morris Bober is an immigrant, with all the suggestion of rootlessness that his situation involves, he has spent decades in the same shop going through the same routine. He is honest and steady by nature, but his business has suffered in not changing or adapting. By contrast, Frank Alpine, a second generation Italian American, lost his parents early, and before becoming an assistant to Bober, has never remained anywhere for longer than six months, suffering a loss of educational and advancement opportunities in the process.

This conflict between the benefits and problems of moving and staying, drives the story. The opposite sides of the issue become so tangled, that it is difficult to tell them apart. For example, Bober is an immigrant, but his experience of having to flee Russia, combined with a cautious personality, has moulded a profound stick-in-the-mud. He creates an unchanging world in his shop, into which Frank Alpine becomes the immigrant, even though Frank was born in America. This isn’t a case of them and us, when the immigrant is very much settled in outlook, and the person born in the country, because of his individual circumstances, is in the position of a migrant. And both Morris and Frank are vulnerable, Morris because his caution threatens his business, and Frank because his rootless wandering leaves him isolated. This confusion also applies to cultural identity, which is important to Bober and even more so to his wife, but which seems to dissolve into nothing if the characters discuss it too closely.

I think the quality of The Assistant shows in the way you can read a book published in 1957, and then find yourself thinking of immigration in the twenty first century. There’s an ongoing debate in the book about whether Frank’s arrival reinvigorates the shop, compared to other factors, like the changing level of local grocery competition. The ins and outs of this reminded me of an article I read recently by an LSE economist, assessing whether immigration offers economic benefits. With some provisos, the article suggested that yes, immigration does bring economic benefits, just as Frank’s role in the survival of Bober’s grocery shop seems undeniable in the end. This puts the Bobers in the position of trying to get over their innate distrust of a stranger, who becomes important to their livelihood. In the UK, there has been debate about ‘secure borders’ for years. Some of the most hardline Conservative politicians in the UK, with an extreme fixation on borders, themselves have an immigrant background. Their efforts at promoting national isolation and border control are highly controversial, not least in the sense that such measures – according to say, the LSE, the UK Office of Budget Responsibility, the Centre of Inclusive Trade Policy at the University of Sussex, Small Business Britain, and surveys conducted by the British Chamber of Commerce – hurt the economic prospects of the UK grocery shop.

I enjoyed The Assistant. It provides a view into a highly specific community and a reflection on general human dilemmas, which certainly remain relevant. There is quite a lot of skipping about between points of view, but this doesn’t generally make the straight forward writing difficult to read. In fact moving about between different heads is a good way to see how contrasting outlooks, can end up finding unlikely common ground.

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford – Accepting Who I Am, and Accepting I Can Do Better

Published in 1986, The Sportswriter by Richard Ford tells the story of Frank Bascombe, who enjoys some early success as a novelist, only to give it all up for sportswriting at a major New York magazine.

Well regarded, appearing in Time’s 100 best novels 1926 – 2010, The Sportswriter made me think about what we look for in a novel. Often readers will seek out a central character they can identify with. Reading can then be a process of ‘cheering on’ the hero through various challenges. This, of course, is reminiscent of sports fans getting behind an athlete.

But what happens when this sporting analogy is applied to real life? Frank Bascombe travels to Detroit to interview a former American football player who is now confined to a wheelchair following injury. The plan is to write a ‘former sports star meets new challenges’ story, where our damaged warrior tackles his situation with the same bravery he demonstrated playing against the Dallas Cowboys. Frank, however, is in for a shock. Herb Wallager does not fit this neat, heroic scheme. Herb is living a squalid, aimless existence. On the sports field he was respected and successful. In his rundown house, living with a long-suffering wife, who is trying to look after him, he is a broken man. Frank makes a hasty exit and abandons any idea of writing Herb’s story.

In terms of one particular skill, kicking a football say, a person might have heroic gifts. But beyond that narrow world of ball-kicking, things are more complicated. People are rarely all-round heroes. Just as Frank can’t apply his preconceived, uplifting story to Herb Wallager, Frank himself, the central character of The Sportswriter, is no hero. He’s not a villain but he is definitely not someone to shower in ticker tape. Following the death of his son, he sleeps with lots of women, gets divorced, and continues to move from one love affair to another, usually with women who are much younger than him. He is not above using his writer ‘celebrity’ status to help seduce an attractive intern at the magazine. Frank was a bit dodgy in 1986, even more so now.

But do we really want our literary heroes to be like sports stars, when sport is a discipline separate from the rest of life? It’s true that stories have always been built around a hero. Joseph Campbell’s description of the ubiquitous hero’s journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is the mythic blue print for the entire output of Hollywood, and the hero’s journey has no doubt long served as a tool to show people how they might deal with life’s challenges. But the character in a story has to deal with the whole of life, not just with the highly specific ball-kicking bit of it. Is trying to see yourself, and others, in terms of this kind of narrow heroism really healthy? One of Frank’s acquaintances from the local divorced mens’ group shoots himself. Frank thinks that things would have gone better for this man if he had given himself a break from unrealistic expectations.

So, the book is about trying to do better, accepting yourself and others as they are, and the tension that exists between these two things. If anything, the book is more relevant now than in 1986, as social expectation around behaviour has become stricter since then.

I understand unhappy reviewers who feel Frank is a hard man to get behind. But ironically, that’s where you could say the real interest of this book lies, and why it has a place on lists of best novels.

The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler – Learning to Love the Bomb

Samuel Butler wrote The Way of All Flesh in the 1870s and 1880s, but it was not published until after his death in 1903.

The book is famous for satirising Victorian morality and family life. Words like ‘scathing’ and even ‘blow up’ (V.S. Pritchett) appear in reviews. There’s a feeling that this bomb of a book was so destructive to Victorian sensibilities that it could not be published at the time of writing, having to wait for a slight loosening that came with the early twentieth century.

The book is certainly interesting for charting the effect of scientific advance – the publication of Darwin’s research – on a specific, rigidly religious family in England, and their wider society. But the quality of the book doesn’t really lie in simple demolition.

The interesting thing for me was how many echoes of the old world we find in the emerging new one. Literal interpretations of the Bible do come in for demolition. But while taking a metaphor at face value might be ridiculous, the general drift of the thing might not be so ludicrous. For example if someone tends to be positive rather than negative in their outlook, that state of mind can tend to make things go better for them. Some people would call that ‘having faith’. Separating the dogmas of Christian faith from just faith in general is the kind of thing The Way of All Flesh goes in for.

I sometimes find an assumption that the job of a writer is to act as a kind of investigative reporter with a wide ranging brief to expose social hypocrisy and delusion and make people see where they are going wrong. This is a tough task, it seems to me, when people will only want to see where they are going wrong when they are good and ready, which is usually a long time after they went wrong. Otherwise they won’t be interested and no one will buy the brave writer’s book. The thing about The Way of All Flesh is that it does show people their wrongs, but does so in a humane way, where right and wrong, new and old, can be shades of each other. In that sense The Way of All Flesh is both a modern book and a good book.

Milkman by Anna Burns – The Middle of The Troubles

Milkman by Anna Burns, winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, tells the story of an eighteen year old girl living in an unnamed Northern Irish city during the 1970s. The fact that author Anna Burns is from Belfast, gives us a pointer to how we should picture this fictional city. The narrator, sometimes referred to as Middle Sister, lives in the equivalent of East Belfast, a ‘renouncer’ area, run by paramilitaries fighting British rule. With trouble all around, Middle Sister tries to muddle along, attending a French evening class, going running in the park, reading nineteenth century novels while out walking, and pursuing a not-quite-committed relationship with her motor mechanic boyfriend. Then a man known as Milkman, high in the local paramilitary hierarchy, embarks on programme of intimidation designed to coerce Middle Sister into a relationship with him.

Milkman is often funny, told in a charmingly off-kilter, conversational style. But don’t expect something like Derry Girls. The narrator lives in a very hard place, trying and failing to remain neutral and middling in a situation where neutrality is impossible. She becomes the talk of the neighbourhood as rumour spreads about her ‘relationship’ with Milkman. In many ways this is a study in the contradictions of extremism. Does Middle Sister suggest the middle, as in the most important centre of things? Or is she middling in the sense of being ordinary and unremarkable and nowhere near the centre of things? The story presents her as both. The middle is a boring place that people go to extremes to avoid. It is also the best place. A character called the ‘real milkman’, who delivers actual milk, is a much better man than Milkman, the paramilitary leader.

Apart from this consideration of extremism, which of course remains very relevant, the 1970s society portrayed in Milkman also resonates in the way its truths rest on rumour, propaganda, fear, disinformation, and people believing what they want to believe. An ordinary girl living in a judgemental, divided society with fluctuating rules, suddenly finds herself the focus of something that feels very like a social media pile on.

As chance would have it, I started writing this review on the evening of Good Friday 2023, the 25th anniversary of 1998’s Good Friday agreement which brought peace to the warring factions of Northern Ireland. Milkman, describing a world long before the peace negotiated in 1998, still feels relevant. That is quite an achievement.

Erewhon by Samuel Butler – Reassurance For When AI Starts Writing My Reviews

From what I have been reading in the news recently, my reviews might soon be written by a chat bot. Erewhon, by Samuel Butler published anonymously in 1872, contains one of the earliest explorations in literature of artificial intelligence. I thought it was time to take a look.

The opening chapters introduce us to Higgs, the book’s narrator, who lives in an unnamed British colony working on a sheep station. Butler based this section on his own experiences in New Zealand, where he fled to escape his overbearing, religious family. Just like Butler, Higgs goes on an expedition to explore uncharted areas.

After a perilous journey across a mountain range, Higgs finds himself in the country of Erewhon, which is an odd, distorted, mirror image of his own society. Different aspects of Erewhonian life come in for study – the criminalising of physical illness while moral lapses receive compassion and medical assistance; the odd banking system where people deposit money at symbolic banks to build up a kind of spiritual capital; a literal-minded religion, an antipathy to machines, and a shaky tradition of halfhearted vegetarianism. All of these topics cause Higgs to question conventional ways of thinking.

And this is where the famous section on machines and artificial intelligence comes in. Pursuing his Erewhonian studies, Higgs finds The Book of the Machines. This is a set of documents describing a crisis thousands of years previously, when rapid technological evolution led to fears that machines would eventually enslave, or supersede, humanity. Reading The Book of the Machines, conventional assumptions come in for a pummelling. Machines are not considered as living, sentient things, but where does the dividing line exist? Is a leg a machine that life uses to get about? Or is a leg itself life? Plant life is not generally considered sentient, even though plants act to protect themselves and communicate with each other. Machines also protect themselves and communicate with each other. They need outside help to reproduce, but so do plants, which employ the services of bees. And if we worry about becoming slaves to machines, what is the nature of the relationship that already exists? In the nineteenth century people were already serving machines in a slavish capacity. A stoker on a ship spent backbreaking days feeding and tending a machine which relies on people for its continued existence. Equally, people rely on the labour of machines for their continued existence. The present population of the world could not be supported without them.

So coming back to where I started, does this book make me feel any better about the prospect of a chat bot writing my reviews? Well, first I have to say that Erewhon is remarkable, coming out of strait-laced Victorian society, throwing over conventional thinking so completely that it remains challenging and thought provoking hundreds of years later. As for what the book has to say about artificial intelligence, you might end up agreeing with the Erewhonians who decide that it is safer to get rid of machines, given how they might develop in the future. However, there is much to suggest this is not sensible The relationship between people and machines is almost as old as humanity itself. In fact, use of tools, which evolved into machines, might actually be the defining characteristic of humankind. People and machines are mutually dependent. Rather than seeing a threat to humanity from machines, you could say that for better or worse, humans without machines are not really themselves.

A Contradiction of Sandpipers – a new novel by Martin Jones

My new book A Contradiction of Sandpipers is now available. I thought it was worth taking a few moments to think about my reasons for spending years writing it. You’d think as author of the thing it would be clear to me what I was trying to say, but writing is one thing – thinking about it afterwards is another.

So, the book is set in Victorian London, but is really about the sort of popular music that burst upon the world in the 1950s, and then went on a wonderful rampage through the 1960s and 1970s, and is still going strong into the twenty first century. That music has always been an important part of my life.

In the past, music with strong rhythm and beat was not the fun thing it is now. For centuries this sort of music was largely functional, whether it was coordinating the effort of oarsmen in galleys, seamen pulling ropes, soldiers on the march, or farm workers toting bales or picking crops.

The Industrial Revolution, in many ways, dragged people further into a working life of relentless rhythm, in factories and mills. Nineteenth century society more than any other, saw the dark side of mundane, repetitive labour. And yet the music that once accompanied backbreaking effort evolved from an aid to hard work, into something to be enjoyed for itself. The movement it tends to encourage, which we call dance, is not a march, or an accompaniment to rope hauling, but an expression of freedom.

I suppose that is what I was after. The book is an attempt to capture the feeling of coming home after a mundane day of putting yet another brick in the wall, and then listening to the sort of music which makes you feel like you could jump right over the wall.

That is the contradiction underlying A Contradiction of Sandpipers.

Libra by Don DeLillo – a VAR Controversy

Libra by Don DeLillo, published in 1988, is an imaginative reconstruction of events surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963.

It might seem unlikely, but one of the first things that came to mind whilst reading Libra, was VAR, the Video Assistant Referee, which was supposed to take the controversy and doubt out of refereeing decisions in football. Did it? No. Instead the controversies just concentrated themselves on ever more subtle distinctions. And there isn’t really time for forensic analysis of video footage in the middle of a game of football, which after all is what people have paid to see. A recurring thread in Libra involves a CIA historian sitting in a room with vast amounts of mounting evidence. The assassination of President Kennedy is like a deadly serious and endlessly complex VAR controversy. Time moves on rather than freezing itself on one moment, leaving the historian gathering more and more information, not getting any nearer a conclusion, the conclusion becoming of academic interest only, as the events under study slip into the past.

Libra reads like an arty thriller, and it works well like that. But there is a lot to think about with this book. It is very relevant to contemporary concerns regarding conspiracy in its various forms – from the self-centred idea that certain people claim to see truth hidden to normal people, to that vague feeling of life itself seemingly pushing you in a certain direction through coincidence and unlikely twists of fate – which is where the somewhat ironic reference to astrology in the title comes in.

Anyway I will leave my evidence there. Gathering more won’t make the picture clearer. I have to make a call and not interrupt the run of play – so, yes, a compelling, interesting book, exploring typically modern dilemmas.