Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
There is an appendix to my copy of Catch-22, in which Heller calls to mind his numerous good reviews at the time of publication, and then considers his bad reviews. It's a neat echo of the book's own warped logic that both of these diametrically opposing viewpoints are absolutely correct.
The good reviews rightly claim the book as one of the greatest comic novels. They praise the characterisation - particularly the protagonist, Yossarian. They salute the brave anti-war sentiment and enjoy the ambitious scale of it all. The bad reviews seem particularly vexed by the leaping, anecdotal, narrative voice. The New Yorker likened the author to an overexcited child, desperate for our attention. And he is - but that's funny. In a way, the whole novel is a series of comedy sketches - and these sketches are certainly what I am left with upon finishing the book. But the force at which these comic vignettes are hurled at the reader makes the book a really entertaining read (I laughed out loud a number of times). As Woody Allen said - "…comedy is an odd talent. Anyone can actually write a drama. It won't necessarily be a good one, but anyone can do it. But a comedy…you can't write a comedy if you don't have the knack. Where do you begin? How do you write a joke?" The bad reviews also claim the book to be over-long. I'd agree with this too.
Each chapter is titled with a character's name. Anecdotal tales are loosely told around the character, but then are often returned to, and embellished upon, later in the book. So the whole narrative is not really chronological, and has no real story arc, but does fit together into a satisfyingly cohesive whole. This narrative trickery could easily grate if from a less skilled writer. But here Heller really proves himself. Even when Heller attempts to bring some gravity to the tale, he succeeds. The chapter "the eternal city" is an acknowledged riff on Dostoevsky. The chapter where Snowden loses his innards is quite grotesque.
But the greatest anti-war book ever? Maybe. To be honest, as I read, I thought little of the atrocities of war. From my perspective, I found much in the whole ridiculousness of it to be a critique of capitalism, and office politics. Which, of course, is where his surviving characters end up, in the much later sequel Closing Time.
At the end of his appendix, Heller concludes that the bad reviews were plainly wrong, because history has proved Catch-22 to be one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Well, I can't refute that. The greatest pleasure to be had from this novel though, is the comfort it provides in recognising the absurdity of the world. And laughing at it.