Medal of Honor

I finished reading Catch-22 today (a week after starting it), and I must say, after reading a book that long and unenjoyable, I feel like I deserve a Medal of Honor. Reader Perseverance is so underrated sometimes.

I once heard a bestselling author at a book signing say, “Catch-22 is the greatest war novel ever written.”

Um, yeah. That is not my opinion. At all.

I read another 100 pages on the train ride home, and a girl next to me asked what I was reading, and what the book was about, and I said, “It’s like Mel Brooks doing World War II.”

She looked at me funny, like she didn’t understand. So I said, “Mel Brooks directed Blazing Saddles… so it’s like the Blazing Saddles version of World War II. Only without a real central character, like if every person in the movie had fifteen minutes dedicated to learning about them, with information that was completely separate from the plot. And racism isn’t a feature of the book. Though there is one very minor Native American character. But the main character doesn’t have a true friend or try to save anything, he’s a coward who’s terrified of being killed and keeps running around naked and acting like a crazy jerk so he’ll be sent home. All the women in the book are vapid sex objects, and most of them are referred to as ‘whores’ rather than by name. There’s a lot of misogyny in this book. It’s actually one of the biggest themes.”

“Oh my GOD!” the girl said. “I love Blazing Saddles! That book sounds wonderful!!”

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Blazing Saddles is a great buddy movie,” I agreed. “Only this book isn’t about buddies. It’s about the fear of death, and, to a lesser extent, the fear and hatred of women.”

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The girl still seemed to think this book was amazing. I’d really sold her by comparing it to Blazing Saddles. That movie also features women as vapid sex objects, and the only woman with a speaking role is a prostitute– so I still think the similarity holds. And the general nonsensical craziness of a Mel Brooks movie. That’s very much Catch-22.

But take this passage from the novel, one of many examples I could use of the rampant misogyny in the book. Here (on p.277), a psychiatrist is trying to help Yossarian (the pseudo-main character) decipher a dream he’s been having:

“Do you ever have any good sex dreams?”

“My fish dream is a sex dream.”

“No, I mean real sex dreams– the kind where you grab some naked bitch by the neck and pinch her and punch her in the face until she’s all bloody and then throw yourself down to ravish her and burst into tears because you love her and hate her so much you don’t know what else to do. That’s the kind of sex dreams I like to talk about. Don’t you ever have sex dreams like that?”

You might think I’m being silly, not understanding the humor here, and that the psychiatrist’s words are meant to be completely absurd… but this is not the first time hitting/slapping/whipping/hurting women during sex has been mentioned in the book, including statements that one woman liked to be whipped during sex, but her husband was too lame to satisfy her in bed.

One of the most depressing lines of the novel comes toward the end (p.383), as Yossarian is wandering the war-torn streets of Rome, full of anger, resentment, and fear of death, full of his own cowardliness and hatred of life… and he takes in the sights around him, including random passers-by:

“On squishing straw sandals, a young woman materialized with her whole face disfigured by a God-awful pink and piebald burn that started on her neck and stretched in a raw, corrugated mass up both cheeks past her eyes! Yossarian could not bear to look, and shuddered. No one would ever love her.”

Because in Catch-22, women only exist to be sex objects (or are viewed as old women well past the age of serving that function), so a woman whose face is disfigured can no longer receive love.

As if the novel couldn’t get any more brutal. There’s no one heroic in the tale (male or female), nothing to root for… just absurdity coupled with observations like that.

That second passage reminds me of my friend Annie, who says, “A lot of older books, I just can’t bear to read. They’re too hurtful. The sentences those authors write… they hurt me too much. Their viewpoints are too… trapped in the past, too negative against women, and it’s too much. I can’t let those sentences into my mind.”

That was how I felt reading Catch-22. I would have rather not let this book into my mind. But I want to teach grad school one day… one day far away, like when I’m 60 or so… and I will need to have read this novel to be a good teacher. So I read it.

Now I want my Medal of Honor for Reader Perseverance. Because that was a long, agonizing book to read. Granted, the book is a comedy, and supposedly full of humor, but not the humor that makes me laugh or even crack a smile– though I read with due diligence, read for understanding, and finished.

Now I must dash off to the library. Because when I finish a book I haven’t enjoyed, my response is to get it away from me, as fast as I can, so those sentences don’t occupy space around my body anymore.

But I want to read The Rosie Project and Red Rising soon… looking forward to both of those books. Yay!!

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