Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Heller

The Monroe Doctrine

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[His] secret ambition, after all, had been to steal Marilyn; in all his vanity he thought no one was so well suited to bring out the best in her as himself.

—Norman Mailer, Marilyn

Are writers in direct competition? Any reasonable person—who, by definition, probably isn’t a writer—would have to conclude that they aren’t. The road to publication can be brutal, and there are plenty of ways in which it punishes or ignores deserving talent, but the existence of a specific rival who is consuming resources that might otherwise be allocated to you probably isn’t one of them. Any barriers to entry or success have more to do with luck, timing, and other impersonal forces than with peers who are trying to do the same thing as you. Even prizes, teaching positions, or fellowships are less about writers competing with one another than about their separate confrontations with larger systems, in which the only sustainable solution is to work together. And critical rankings can be rightly dismissed as irrelevancies, or, at best, the byproducts of a different game with incentives of its own. As the novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed wrote:

When a reviewer says that Malamud is second only to Bellow, it means he really isn’t thinking about either of them. When he’s reading Malamud he’s thinking about Bellow, and when he’s reading Bellow he’s thinking about Roth. This is the essence of the ratings game: distraction. Children play it all the time. “Is this the biggest bridge in the world?” “No, it’s the third biggest.” “Oh.” They lose all interest in the bridge.

But you could also argue that writers are effectively in competition, if only because nearly all the authors who have ever lived have behaved as if they were. When asked by an interviewer from the Telegraph if he thought of himself and Philip Roth as rivals, John Updike replied:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

Saul Bellow himself wrote, “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” while Gore Vidal was even more blunt: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Elsewhere, I’ve written at length about why novelists seem particularly susceptible to what I’ve called the Colonel Cathcart complex, after the character in Catch-22 of whom Joseph Heller says: “He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something at least as well as all the other men his own age who were doing the same thing even better.” And you could make the case that this kind of competition is good for literature as a whole, as Norman Mailer observed to The Paris Review, after noting that writers were as competitive “as star athletes”: “You say, Well, if he’s doing it, I can do it.”

But there’s another factor at work here. The most memorable consideration of literary envy I’ve ever read is Mailer’s essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” which I first encountered as a young teenager and practically memorized. Mailer speaks frankly of his competitiveness with James Jones and William Styron, as well as his uneasy sense of relief when their novels Some Came Running and Set This House On Fire turned out to be artistic nonevents. But here’s the language that he uses when he describes their relationship to the muse, or, as he calls her, the Bitch:

If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war…it would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, I would have had to try to win her back. But the failure of Some Came Running left me holding onto a buttock of the lady—if she had many lovers, I was still one of them…[While reading Set This House On Fire] I would think, “You don’t catch the Bitch that way, buster, you got to bring more than a trombone to her boudoir.”

In Mailer’s imagination, the muse seems to have taken the form of Marilyn Monroe, whom he secretly felt he might have married if Arthur Miller hadn’t gotten there first. Monroe was the ultimate unrenewable resource, and an emblem of the prize to be won. Which raises the question of how, exactly, Mailer imagined how such a rivalry might look to a writer who happened to be a woman—although it doesn’t even seem to have occurred to him that this might be a problem. He spends the rest of his essay discussing ten contemporary novels, from Henderson the Rain King to Franny and Zooey, in an attempt to figure out the pecking order. All were written by men. And it’s open to debate if Mailer even thought that women were playing the same game.

It’s hard not to connect this kind of exclusion to the conception of literature as an economic activity defined by a scarcity of resources, or, if you like, as a contest between suitors. One of the worst manifestations of this sort of competitiveness, in art as in life, is the disqualification of potential competitors who don’t look like you, which winnows the field to the benefit of those who are already on the inside. Assuming that the pool of rewards is finite, it’s rational to limit your chosen rivals to people who fit the right profile, even if it results in a twisted Monroe Doctrine—James, not Marilyn—in which any incursion is seen as an act of hostility. If any outsiders break in, you can claim that they benefited from an unfair advantage, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can pick up your toys and go home. We’ve seen this clearly in the Hugo Awards, but it isn’t unique to science fiction, which just happens to be a place where a structural weakness allowed these impulses to become visible. Over the last few years, we’ve repeatedly seen how psychological or economic insecurity on the individual level can turn to resentment of otherness on a mass scale, and writers are no different than anyone else. (If anything, they’re worse, because their insecurity is universal, and they get to set the rules of the game they’re playing. Among other things, it leads to the curious belief that newcomers need to justify their presence, when by any rational standard it should be the other way around.) Every writer ends up assembling his or her private list of rivals, and if this excludes some while including others, we can excuse this as a necessary survival mechanism in a profession that needs all the help it can get. But it’s a different matter in public. There’s no honor in winning, or even in competing in, a game that won’t accept all players. And if you don’t agree, you’ll inevitably find that you’ve been your own worst enemy all along.

The last catch

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Catch-22

This time Milo had gone too far.

—Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Yesterday, the Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos finally lost his book deal. The turning point was a video that surfaced over the weekend of Yiannopoulos appearing to condone the sexual abuse of young boys—which, for future reference, is a useful data point for establishing what the conservative movement considers excessive. Shortly after Yiannopoulos was dropped from his speaking slot at an upcoming conference sponsored by the American Conservative Union, Simon & Schuster, which had awarded him a lucrative contract to write his memoirs, decided to cut him loose, too. As far as the merits of that action are concerned, the author Roxane Gay, who put her money where her mouth was last month by withdrawing her own book from the publisher, sees it for what it is:

In canceling Milo’s book contract, Simon & Schuster made a business decision the same way they made a business decision when they decided to publish that man in the first place. When his comments about pedophilia/pederasty came to light, Simon & Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them. They did not finally “do the right thing” and now we know where their threshold, pun intended, lies…Simon & Schuster was not alone in what they were willing to tolerate. A great many people were perfectly comfortable with the targets of Milo’s hateful attention until that attention hit too close to home.

But the sequence of events is enlightening in itself. The video, which was taped on January 4, 2016, was leaked by the Reagan Battalion, a conservative outlet active mostly on Twitter and Facebook, on Sunday morning. It took the ACU one full day to rescind their invitation, and Simon & Schuster tweeted out their decision four hours later. I don’t have any way of knowing when the internal conversation about the video at the publisher began, and they might well have been discussing it intensively ever since the comments became public knowledge. Perhaps the fact that the announcement was made soon after the conference cut its ties with Yiannopoulos was just an accident of timing. But that isn’t how it looks. It feels a lot more like Simon & Schuster—the company as a whole, that is, not the imprint Threshold Editions—had been angling to get rid of Yiannopoulos as soon as he became a bigger headache than he was worth, but was unwilling or reluctant to move until it got the signal that it was fine to proceed. The response from the Conservative Political Action Conference gave the publisher the cover that it needed. If Yiannopoulos is too offensive even for mainstream conservatives, the reasoning must have gone, then we can’t be blamed for canceling his book, too. The video alone wasn’t enough. It also had to lead to action on the right. And as soon as it did, the publisher acted with suspicious quickness. Nothing ever happens that fast in publishing, which implies that Simon & Schuster was eager to act for a long time, but was afraid to do so until now.

Joseph Heller

Which, in a way, is the most frightening thing of all. Simon & Schuster—which, let’s not forget, is also the publisher of the novel Catch-22—found itself caught in a similar bind. It seems fairly clear that an internal understanding had been reached long ago that publishing Yiannopoulos’s book was a bad idea, for reasons of branding, if not ethics. No matter how well it sold, it had already tarnished the publisher’s reputation in ways that couldn’t be easily erased. Yet it seemed better to endure whatever attacks from the left it received, rather than to incite a similar reaction from the right by doing the reasonable thing and pulling the book. Maybe it’s because Simon & Schuster calculated that the protests from the left would be noisy but ineffectual, as they all too often are, or, more likely, that it felt that liberal outrage was already baked into the cake, and drawing the ire of the right would push them into unexplored territory. Whatever the reason, the result was that the parent company was effectively held hostage by one of its imprints. (In retrospect, the statement in which Simon & Schuster blandly reiterated its opposition to hate speech, while defending its decision to publish authors with “frequently controversial opinions,” seems to have been all but dictated at gunpoint.) I have a feeling that the decision by the ACU was greeted by many at the publisher with a sigh of relief. But it also means that they allowed the terms of the conversation to be set by the conservative movement, not by their own editorial standards. And it says a lot about the times in which we live that a formerly respected New York publishing house is relying on the right to police itself.

Yet it also gets at a more important point, which is that change will have to be driven by reasonable voices on the right. I don’t know much about the Reagan Battalion, which appears to have emerged last year as part of the Never Trump movement, but there’s no question that the video gained much of its impact from its source. If a liberal blog had released it, it might not have made so much as a ripple. And it’s clear now, if it wasn’t before, that any attempt to deal with all that Yiannopoulos represents will have to come from conservatives. This isn’t meant to understate the importance of protest on the left, which forms the kind of indispensable backdrop—or power source—necessary to motivate those who are in a position to effect real change. But it’s revealing that Yiannopoulos imploded just a few days after none other than Bill Maher bent over backwards in an attempt to normalize him. A lot of Republicans seem like “the treacherous old man” whom Joseph Heller describes in his novel:

I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American…When the Germans marched into the city, I danced in the streets like a youthful ballerina and shouted, “Heil Hitler!” until my lungs were hoarse. I even waved a small Nazi flag that I had snatched away from a beautiful little girl while her mother was looking the other way.

But the funny thing is that the old man isn’t even wrong. He’s just looking out for his own survival, and when another character calls him “a shameful, unscrupulous opportunist,” he smugly replies: “I am a hundred and seven years old.” It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic. The conservative movement tolerates Yiannopoulos or Trump only because it thinks that it’s better off than it would be without them. And it won’t be the left that convinces it otherwise.

Written by nevalalee

February 21, 2017 at 9:17 am

“The yacht was a monster…”

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"Maddy gazed out at the sea..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 34. You can read the previous installments here.

Umberto Eco once said that he wrote The Name of the Rose because he felt like poisoning a monk. For William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury began with a mental picture:

I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book.

Joseph Heller started writing Something Happened with two sentences that came to him out of nowhere: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” And E.L. Doctorow, in the middle of a bad case of writer’s block, began Ragtime by staring at the wall of his office, writing about it and the surrounding house, and then trying to imagine the period in which it was built—”In desperation,” Doctorow told The Paris Review, “to those few images.”

One of the subtle privileges of the writer’s craft is that while a reader generally reads a story from first page to last, the initial seed from which it grew in the author’s mind can occur at any point in the narrative, and it often isn’t clear, when you look at the finished result, which part came first. The idea of an author beginning with an inciting incident and following its implications to the very last page is an attractive one, and many writers start their apprentice efforts in much the same way. Usually, though, after the writer learns more about structure and the logistics of finishing a major project, the germ that gives rise to the rest of it turns out to be a moment that lies somewhere in the middle, with the writer working in either direction to lead toward and away from that first spark of inspiration. And this approach can work enormously in the story’s favor. We’re all hoping to come up with an arresting beginning, but we’re less likely to discover it from first principles than to derive it, almost mathematically, from a scene to which it leads a hundred pages down the line. The more rigorously you work out that logic, following what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, the more likely you are to arrive at an opening—as well as a setting and a cast of characters—that never would have occurred to you if you had tried to invent a grabber from scratch. (If you do, the strain often shows, and the reader may rightly wonder if you’ll be able to sustain that level of intensity to the end.)

"The yacht was a monster..."

Even novels or stories that unfold along fairly conventional lines often benefit from originating in an odd, intensely personal seed of obsession. The Icon Thief and its sequels were written to honor, rather than to undermine, the conventions of the thriller, but each one grew out of an eccentric core that had little to do with the plot summary you see on the back cover. For The Icon Thief, the real inciting factor—aside from a vague ambition to write a suspense novel about the art world—was my discovery of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés and my determination to be the first writer to build a novel around what Jasper Johns called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” For City of Exiles, it was my longstanding interest in the vision of Ezekiel, which I’d tried on and off to incorporate into a novel for almost two decades before finding a place for it here. And for Eternal Empire, it was my desire to write a novel about a megayacht. I’m not sure if this comes through in text of the book itself: the yacht in question, the Rigden, doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the story, and maybe a quarter of the book as a whole is set on or around it. But I knew before I’d figured out anything else about the plot that I wanted a yacht like this to be at the center, which, in turn, implied much of the rest. You don’t write a novel about a megayacht, especially one owned by a Russian oligarch at the heart of what looks to be a vast conspiracy, without being prepared to sink it with everyone on board.

The moment when the yacht goes down—and I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying this—won’t occur for another hundred pages or so, and I’ll deal with those scenes when I come to them. (To my eyes, the yacht’s destruction and the ensuing showdown onshore are the best extended sequences I’ve ever written, and they’re among the few sections that I’m likely to read again for my own pleasure.) But I want to focus for now on the first time we see the Rigden, in Chapter 34, after a few dozen pages’ worth of buildup. Aside from Titanic, my inspiration here was the obligatory scene in the early Star Trek films in which Kirk first approaches the Enterprise, allowing for a few minutes of awed tracking shots of the starship’s exterior—a convention that J.J. Abrams, alas, is too busy to honor. It slows down the narrative incrementally, but it also provides a sense of scale that strengthens much of what follows. And since this is more or less the reason I wanted to write the entire book, I felt justified in lingering on it. When Maddy gets her first glimpse of the yacht, the metaphorical implications are obvious, as is the impact of the ship’s existence on the shape of the story itself: a book about a yacht also has to be about a journey, and figuring out the start and end points was half the fun. Even if most of the book takes place on land, the events that unfold there are largely designed to get us onto and off that ship. And even if the destination remains unknown, we know that we’ll get there in style…

Is it Catch-22…or The Phantom Tollbooth?

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on October 13, 2011.

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of two of the most extraordinary works in all of American literature, Catch-22 and The Phantom Tollbooth, which were published, remarkably enough, only a few weeks apart in 1961. What’s especially fascinating about these two books, one of which has long been one of my favorites and the other which I read only recently, is that while they’re rarely mentioned in the same sentence, they’re often startlingly similar, almost as if they’d been written by the same man. (And I’m not even counting the fact that they both have characters named Milo.)

What follows is a series of quotations, some slightly modified, from both novels. Can you tell which is which?

  1. Since he had nothing better to do well in, he did well in school.
  2. When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered.
  3. Life in school was no different than life had been for him all along. Whoever he was with always wanted him to be with someone else.
  4. Each man looked very much like the other, and some looked even more like each other than they did like themselves.
  5. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.
  6. “That’s absurd.” “That may be true, but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong?”
  7. “I’d give everything I own to him. But since I don’t own everything, I can’t give everything to him, can I?”
  8. “All I meant was that perhaps it wasn’t too important.” “Of course it’s not important,” the man snarled angrily. “I wouldn’t have asked you to do it if I thought it was important.”
  9. Most of the official documents that came to him did not concern him at all. The vast majority consisted of allusions to prior communications which he had never seen or heard of. There was never any need to look them up, for the instructions were invariably to disregard.
  10. As always, they moved in ominous circles, for if one said “here,” the other said “there,” and the third always agreed perfectly with both of them. And, since they always settled their differences by doing what none of them really wanted, they rarely got anywhere at all—and neither did anyone they met.
  11. The only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since they agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.
  12. “I only treat illnesses that don’t exist: that way, if I can’t cure them, there’s no harm done—just one of the precautions of the trade.”
  13. The leader of the team of doctors was a dignified, solicitous gentlemen who held one finger up directly in front of him and demanded, “How many fingers do you see?” “Two,” he said. “How many fingers do you see now?” asked the doctor, holding up two. “Two,” he said. “And how many now?” asked the doctor, holding up none. “Two,” he said. The doctor’s face wreathed with a smile. “By Jove, he’s right,” he declared jubilantly. “He does see everything twice.”
  14. “But why do only unimportant things?” “Think of all the trouble it saves. If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. Because there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.”
  15. Actually, there were many buildings that he had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one here. It was truly a splendid structure, and he throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his.
  16. He invariably leaped before he looked and never cared where he was going as long as he knew why he shouldn’t have gone to where he’d been.
  17. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.
  18. “We don’t want to get anything done; we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help. You see, it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along.”
  19. His father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county.
  20. “You see, to tall men I’m a midget, and to short men I’m a giant; to the skinny ones I’m a fat man, and to the fat ones I’m a thin man. That way I can hold four jobs at once. As you can see, though, I’m neither tall nor short nor fat nor thin. In fact, I’m quite ordinary, but there are so many ordinary men that no one asks their opinion about anything.”
  21. “I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American.”
  22. “Are you ready to be sentenced?” “Only a judge can sentence you.” “Good point,” replied the policeman, taking off his cap and putting on a long black robe. “I am also the judge.”
  23. As a member of the Action Board, the lieutenant was one of the judges who would weigh the merits of the case against the accused as presented by the prosecutor. The lieutenant was also the prosecutor. The accused had an officer defending him. The officer defending him was the lieutenant.
  24. And the crowd waved and cheered wildly, for, while they didn’t care at all about anyone arriving, they were always very pleased to see someone go.

Answers: Odd-numbered quotations are from Catch-22, even ones from The Phantom Tollbooth—and it’s almost enough to make me wonder if Joseph Heller and Norton Juster were the same man. (You know, like Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger.)

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2013 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #5: The Phantom Tollbooth

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The Phantom Tollbooth

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

The Phantom Tollbooth is the best fictional handbook I’ve ever seen on how to be alive. It’s supposedly written for children, but if anything, the lessons it holds are even more urgent for adults, who need to be reminded from time to time of what a young child understands instinctively. I’ve noted before that you can’t fully appreciate the horrors of the Terrible Trivium, “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit,” until you’ve held your first job. This isn’t to say that children don’t understand boredom, busywork, or meaningless wastes of time: when we romanticize our own childhoods, it’s easy to forget that much of a child’s life is spent waiting around for something to happen. The difference is that adults construct these traps for themselves. Norton Juster’s great book is a manual of escape, not into fantasy, but into reality—that is, into the possibilities of life that we ignore because we tend to take them for granted. Other children’s fantasy novels offer up a vision of a world that is more beautiful than ours, and they leave us wishing that we could visit Narnia or Hogwarts just for a little while. Juster leaves you hungry for the books and people and ideas that are there for you to explore right now, if you’re willing to master a few simple tools: words, numbers, perspective, time, curiosity, and sense of humor. As the Senses Taker warns:

I’ll steal your sense of purpose, take your sense of duty, destroy your sense of proportion—and, but for one thing, you’d be helpless yet…I cannot take your sense of humor, and, with it, you’ve nothing to fear from me.

Of course, none of these lessons would count for anything if the book itself weren’t such great fun. Juster sometimes reads like Douglas R. Hofstader or Joseph Heller for the grade school set: he loves puns, wordplay, and sly inversions of familiar ideas, but all of these good jokes are windows into deeper truths. It’s all too easy to jump to Conclusions, which in The Phantom Tollbooth is a very crowded island, but you can only get back after a long swim through the Sea of Knowledge. You emerge from the Doldrums—where the schedule, with its four naps, looks a lot like the routine of the residents in The Magic Mountain—by thinking. When you’re faced with such terrors as the Triple Demons of Compromise, the Horrible Hopping Hindsight, and the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, your best chance of rescue lies in marshaling all the wisdom you’ve acquired along the way. And you especially need to remember the very important thing about Milo’s quest that couldn’t be told to him until he returned:

“It was impossible,” said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
“Completely impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king…
“Yes, indeed,” they repeated together, “but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone—and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

It’s a lesson I’ve tried to remember, with varying degrees of success, for most of my life—but I occasionally need a reminder. And thanks to Milo, and Norton Juster, I always know where to find it.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2013 at 9:00 am

Joseph Heller on the process of imagination

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I don’t understand the process of imagination—though I know that I am very much at its mercy. I feel that these ideas are floating around in the air and they pick me to settle upon. The ideas come to me; I don’t produce them at will. They come to me in the course of a sort of controlled daydream, a directed reverie. It may have something to do with the disciplines of writing advertising copy (which I did for a number of years), where the limitations involved provide a considerable spur to the imagination…

I have to be alone. A bus is good. Or walking the dog. Brushing my teeth is marvelous—it was especially so for Catch-22. Often when I am very tired, just before going to bed, while washing my face and brushing my teeth, my mind gets very clear…and produces a line for the next day’s work, or some idea way ahead.

Joseph Heller, to The Paris Review

(Note: Today is my final panel at Chicon 7: “Stalking the Elusive Story Idea,” at 3:00 pm, also featuring Vylar Kaftan, Jay Lake, Stephen Leigh, and Jacqueline Lichtenberg. I’ll also be at the Hugo Awards!)

Written by nevalalee

September 2, 2012 at 9:50 am

Is it Catch-22…or The Phantom Tollbooth?

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This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of two of the most extraordinary works in all of American literature, Catch-22 and The Phantom Tollbooth, which were published, remarkably enough, only a few weeks apart in 1961. What’s especially fascinating about these two books, one of which has long been one of my favorites and the other which I read only recently, is that while they’re rarely mentioned in the same sentence, they’re often startlingly similar, almost as if they’d been written by the same man. (And I’m not even counting the fact that they both have characters named Milo.)

What follows is a series of quotations, some slightly modified, from both novels. Can you tell which is which?

  1. Since he had nothing better to do well in, he did well in school.
  2. When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered.
  3. Life in school was no different than life had been for him all along. Whoever he was with always wanted him to be with someone else.
  4. Each man looked very much like the other, and some looked even more like each other than they did like themselves.
  5. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.
  6. “That’s absurd.” “That may be true, but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong?”
  7. “I’d give everything I own to him. But since I don’t own everything, I can’t give everything to him, can I?”
  8. “All I meant was that perhaps it wasn’t too important.” “Of course it’s not important,” the man snarled angrily. “I wouldn’t have asked you to do it if I thought it was important.”
  9. Most of the official documents that came to him did not concern him at all. The vast majority consisted of allusions to prior communications which he had never seen or heard of. There was never any need to look them up, for the instructions were invariably to disregard.
  10. As always, they moved in ominous circles, for if one said “here,” the other said “there,” and the third always agreed perfectly with both of them. And, since they always settled their differences by doing what none of them really wanted, they rarely got anywhere at all—and neither did anyone they met.
  11. The only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since they agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.
  12. “I only treat illnesses that don’t exist: that way, if I can’t cure them, there’s no harm done—just one of the precautions of the trade.”
  13. The leader of the team of doctors was a dignified, solicitous gentlemen who held one finger up directly in front of him and demanded, “How many fingers do you see?” “Two,” he said. “How many fingers do you see now?” asked the doctor, holding up two. “Two,” he said. “And how many now?” asked the doctor, holding up none. “Two,” he said. The doctor’s face wreathed with a smile. “By Jove, he’s right,” he declared jubilantly. “He does see everything twice.”
  14. “But why do only unimportant things?” “Think of all the trouble it saves. If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. Because there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.”
  15. Actually, there were many buildings that he had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one here. It was truly a splendid structure, and he throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his.
  16. He invariably leaped before he looked and never cared where he was going as long as he knew why he shouldn’t have gone to where he’d been.
  17. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.
  18. “We don’t want to get anything done; we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help. You see, it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along.”
  19. His father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county.
  20. “You see, to tall men I’m a midget, and to short men I’m a giant; to the skinny ones I’m a fat man, and to the fat ones I’m a thin man. That way I can hold four jobs at once. As you can see, though, I’m neither tall nor short nor fat nor thin. In fact, I’m quite ordinary, but there are so many ordinary men that no one asks their opinion about anything.”
  21. “I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American.”
  22. “Are you ready to be sentenced?” “Only a judge can sentence you.” “Good point,” replied the policeman, taking off his cap and putting on a long black robe. “I am also the judge.”
  23. As a member of the Action Board, the lieutenant was one of the judges who would weigh the merits of the case against the accused as presented by the prosecutor. The lieutenant was also the prosecutor. The accused had an officer defending him. The officer defending him was the lieutenant.
  24. And the crowd waved and cheered wildly, for, while they didn’t care at all about anyone arriving, they were always very pleased to see someone go.

Answers: Odd-numbered quotations are from Catch-22, even ones from The Phantom Tollbooth—and it’s almost enough to make me wonder if Joseph Heller and Norton Juster were the same man. (You know, like Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger.)

Written by nevalalee

October 13, 2011 at 11:10 am

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