Catch-22’s Within Catch-22

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 can be summarized by the last two sentences on page 305: “‘They’re not going to send a crazy man out to be killed, are they?’ ‘Who else would go?'” This sentiment is at the core of Catch-22. The book is filled to the brim with the notion of the catch-22, and it manifests itself in many different ways and locations. But the catch-22 is not just a feature of the novel, rather it is a (if not the) defining characteristic of our time with Yossarian.

It is fitting that the title of Heller’s novel is Catch-22. The idea of catch-22 is a lose-lose scenario, where no matter what you do, you can’t win. It is first introduced on page 46: “Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to” (46). It is this catch which keeps all the men in Yossarian’s outfit flying their missions when Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of required missions. It is an excellent example of bureaucratic meddling (which is also a recurring theme), but it also pops up in other situations in the book. It shows up in a social context when Yossarian asks Luciana to marry him.  Yossarian summarizes the situation: “You won’t marry me because I’m crazy, and you say I’m crazy because I want to marry you?” (159). Heller uses the idea of catch-22 to great effect. It helps the reader see things the way Yossarian does. He feels that he is surrounded on all sides by people who want to kill him, people who want him to fly more missions, and people who won’t ground him for being sane enough to not want to fly more missions. The reader gets this feeling of being surrounded by numerous instances of catch-22. Every few pages there is another example of a new trap (such as Major Major Major Major’s open door policy only in effect when he isn’t in his office). Not only does this skillful repetition help the reader identify with Yossarian, but it is also a strong unifying theme within the novel. As a reader it is pleasing to find the different catches scattered throughout, and the consistency of the recurring catches is helpful considering that the novel does not always progress chronologically. While the idea of catch-22 is not the only consistent piece of the story, it does follow Yossarian no matter where he runs.

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.

Giving the Bizarre a Face: Characterization in Harry Crews’ Car

by Matthew McEver

An inherent pitfall in writing the grotesque or carnivalesque is that our work can become nothing more than a litany of stupidity played for laughs and contrariness for its own sake and, resultantly, the exploration of human emotion falls by the wayside. Unexpectedly, Harry CrewsCar – a novella about a man who attempts to eat a car – offers more than a bizarre premise or gimmick. Crews often said that his fiction is about people searching for something to believe in, and this novella is populated with isolated, secularized characters seeking salvation. In Car, he mixes comedy with moral outrage while offering a sensitive treatment of the lengths to which we will go in search of ultimate meaning.

Herman Mack, son of a junkyard owner, hopes to make something of himself by consuming a Ford Maverick in half-ounce chunks on stage in a hotel ballroom. As anticipated, the stunt takes its toll on Herman but the narrator’s implication is that the problem is psychosomatic in nature. Herman’s body rejects the car because he cannot bear to destroy an object that he loves.

The proportion of humor in Car relates to mindless devotion to the automobile. Herman’s stunt elicits extreme reactions. People had threatened to “shoot him dead if he ate that car” (343). A man in a robe paces the sidewalk with a doomsday sign. The Ford Motor Company files for an injunction to stop Herman on the grounds that his depraved act will “ruin the image of the car in the minds of the American people” (374). Yet, while some characters regard the eating of the car as heretical, others deem it a holy event. Herman eats a chunk, steps behind a curtain, sits on a commode and the audience is given full view of the drop. Each piece of passed metal will be melted and cast into a replica of a Ford Maverick and auctioned. As the first bit of metal hits the bowl, people launch into a bidding frenzy.

Easy Mack, the family patriarch, truly provides insight into Crews’ indignation. Easy treated cars “with the gentleness of a lover” (340) and feels that abandoned cars beautify the landscape. However, Herman’s stunt confronts Easy with his obsession: “In a slow horror Easy realized that Herman liked… the noseburning, eyewatering emissions from smoky tailpipes. It was like finding out that your son liked to hang around public restrooms smelling the toilets” (350). Henceforth, Easy’s obsession gnaws at him. Herman’s sponsors award Easy a Cadillac, his dream car, but it squeaks, driving Easy mad.

Car features an absurd premise but it’s driven by characters that prompt us to consider soul-searching questions. Undoubtedly, the humor is off the wall and America’s mindless devotion to the automobile is caricatured, but the characters are not caricatures. One even senses that Crews has compassion for them. Emblematic of many Crews characters, the father and son in Car chase the American Dream. One finds the Dream will tear apart a person’s insides. The other discovers that the Dream, despite its luster, squeaks.

Crews, Harry. Car. Reprinted in Classic Crews. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972. Print.

No Place Like Home

 By Liat Faver

            Joan Didion has written a book of tales with complex lessons tucked between and beyond its words. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, written between 1961 and 1967, takes a lighthearted view of some weighty subjects, and ventures into acutely painful territory with just enough distance to keep the reader from needing a box of Kleenex. Didion has a refreshing way with words, her turns of phrase dryly humorous, intelligent and poignant. In her preface she shares inklings of what it means to be a writer in which she imagines, “almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening” (12), and finds “there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke” (13). We become part of her space, sitting with dictionaries and coffee and the eternal call of the keyboard, having the same lapses of confidence and creativity.

She begins by introducing us to her homeland, California, where “no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer . . .  the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else” (20). Didion’s California plays a large role in Slouching. It is the soul to which her wanderings return when all else has not sufficiently delivered on its promises.

Didion’s insights into issues of morality are astute and accurate. She questions what we deem acceptable in terms of what is and is not correct, indicating that we “have no way of knowing—beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code—what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong,’” because “there is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work” (165). Didion explains that we have no business suggesting we are above anything we haven’t had the experience upon which to draw conclusions, and the concept of what is moral is nothing more than an agreed-upon social code with no bearing whatsoever in truth. Her worry is that our “moral imperative” will join us with the “fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and we are in bad trouble.”

Didion’s final chapter takes us to her early twenties and her move to New York City. We follow her through naive years when she was sure “nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before” (225), to the ultimate understanding, in her 28th year, that “not all the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it” (231). Instead of being maudlin in her observations, she brings a matter-of-fact perspective to the dilemmas of growing up in world whose integrity is flawed. And we learn we can go home again.

 

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem.New York: Washington Square Press. 1968. Print.

Should I post it? Thoughts on poetry, publishing, and sidewalk chalk.

April is National Poetry Month. The idea is to raise public consciousness of poetry. Poets.org has posted a list of 30 things you can do to celebrate poetry, including “Poem in your Pocket” which is exactly what it sounds like, except then you have to share the poem, with another person, and my personal favorite, “Put a Poem on the Pavement” which is, again, exactly what it sounds like. Sidewalk chalk and all that. Then there are the many, many sites where poets are posting daily prompts for NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) for anyone to use. Most of these sites allow viewers to post their drafts from that day’s prompt. Everyone can read the drafts, comment, and learn. It is a wonderful opportunity to share your poetry with the (cyber) world. And there’s the problem. You’ve shared it. It’s out there. It has been (wait for it) published.

Say what?

I am following two of these sites: NaPoWriMo run by DC poet Maureen Thorson and Writer’s Digest 2013 PAD (Poem a Day) Challenge with prompts by Robert Brewer. Every day, I go to the sites, get the daily prompts, and choose which one I’m going to write on, or I go a little crazy and sometimes combine the two. That’s me: rule breaker, or at least bender. Anyway, The point is that, every day of NaPoWriMo, a month set aside for poetry appreciation and publicity, hundreds if not thousands of people write poems and post them to the Internet. If most submission policies of most literary magazines, both print and digital, are to be believed, none of these poems can ever be published, unless it is in a chapbook or full-length book of poetry. While I understand the principal behind these guidelines, I question whether or not this policy is in the best interest of spreading the news, as it were, about poetry.

Just about every day, I read a new article, tweet, or post about the rapidly changing publishing industry. E-books, self-publishing, small presses; there are more options out there than ever before, but it’s hard to tell which ones can kill or damage a career before it starts. Poetry is most interesting because its place in the capital I Industry is next to non-existent anyway. All I know is, there has got to be something in-between posting poems on the Internet or making your own chapbooks and keeping your poems closely guarded on a flash drive, possibly to die a horrible death of never, ever being read by anyone except you and your cat because you followed the rules and waited, sometimes for six to eight months, to hear back about possible publication. 

The stereotype of the writer, of the poet, is someone holed up by him or her self, scratching out words, usually with a quill pen. Why we are thought of as living before the ball-point, much less the tablet, is beyond me. But truthfully, many writers are solitary. I imagine a huge ball of tangled up words like yarn hovering out in space somewhere, never to be read, never to be shared. And I’m sure some of it probably shouldn’t be. But some of it should, and that’s a shame. Me? I have chosen two paths. One is my series of Facebook poems which I began with the understanding that I’d have to try to publish them as a whole because they exist online. The second path is NaPoWriMo. I’m keeping these to myself, until I send them out to some online submission system for some (possibly online) journal, of course. 

Poetry’s reputation as something that only certain people can understand and enjoy, as something that you had to do in school and thank goodness when that unit was over, as something holed up and antiquated; that reputation will not be changed by ignoring the power of the Internet and social media. I’m not suggesting that journals abandon the “no previously published” requirement. I am suggesting that we need to take a look at the definition of previously published, and we need to acknowledge that poetry needs a profile update if we want it to become part of our, all of our, everyday lives.

Either way, write on, friends. And do me a favor, share your work with someone! Put your own poem in your pocket, write it on the sidewalk, put it on a postcard and send it to someone. It will be read, and it will be celebrated.

Tools and Rules for the Short Story Writer

by

Rhonda Browning White

If you have chosen to be a writer, you’ve selected a career path that requires lifelong learning. While it’s crucial to critically read literature in the genre in which you write, it’s also important to study texts on the craft of writing. Rick DeMarinis’s The Art & Craft of the Short Story is one of the few texts I’ve found dealing specifically with problems unique to short story writing. Some of the advice in this book is universal to writing in general, however it is particularly applicable to abbreviated stories. DeMarinis both begins and ends his book with a chilling confession: “I don’t know how to write a short story” (4, 224). Frightening though his beginning and ending statements may be (in between them is couched over two hundred pages of solid advice and direct examples), they are somehow freeing. Sure, there are rules to follow when writing short stories, but those rules serve as guidelines, not as binding strictures that force writers into a cookie-cutter formula of limited creativity. It also helps us realize that, whether we’re beginning writers or advanced writers with plenty of publications under our belts, we all face doubts and mysteries as we apply our minds to the first blank page of story writing.

DeMarinis gives fine advice regarding short story endings–a topic not often found in craft books. “No one can help you here. An ending takes an act of inspiration” (40). He goes on to say that he’s talking to himself, of course, but he admits that the last lines of the story are the hardest to get right. He asserts that, “Closure in short story writing has a similar function to closure in poetry. . . . the ending of a poem is like a ski jump. There’s the long accelerating downhill glide, and then, whoosh, you are thrown ballistically into space” (40). Such a wonderful analogy! Of course the text provides firm advice and instruction for both open-ended and closed-ended stories, but it is helpful to understand that DeMarinis–a well-respected writer of powerful short stories–still wrestles with many of the same elements of story that new writers often face.

DeMarinis’s text offers also an excellent chapter on “Description and Imagery” (188-207) in which he challenges short story writers to cast aside stock images, working instead to make an imaginative effort at creating new images that will involve the reader in the creative effort. The reader can then see a familiar setting or situation with new eyes.

One of the best things about this text is that it not only addresses common writing issues in the often-difficult parameters of short story writing, but that it provides direct examples from the short stories of masters like Hemingway, Chekhov, Welty and Faulker, as well as both successes and failures from DeMarinis’s own work.

Throughout the text, Demarinis makes it clear that the so-called rules of writing can and often should be broken. Realizing that these rules can actually be used as tools not only provides us with a means to build vivid, lasting short stories, but it offers freedom to experiment, to grow as we create.

Work Cited

DeMarinis, Rick. The Art & Craft of the Short Story. Cincinnati: Story Press, 2000. Print.

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Hampl Uses Theme to Unite

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

 

Story collections can be a great sampling of a writer’s work, but it can also be a way to present a universal theme that can transcend plot, setting, or character.   I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, by Patricia Hampl, is a book of and about memoir that engages readers with a variety of memorable scenes and characters. What works in this collection besides   Hampl’s insight on craft and her descriptive and poetic storytelling, is her ability to connect her collection of strong and individual nonfiction stories to a common theme. Innocence, whether it be real, contrived, imagined, or denied is investigated throughout.    

The order of the essays follows Hampl’s presentation of what memoir is and what it can do. Hampl is concerned with the real job of the memoirist who has to investigate why some memories stay in the mind and others don’t. She asserts that when writing memoir, one has to find connections and see into their deeper meanings. She includes personal essay with commentary on other works of nonfiction. Initially, Hampl shows a real interest in how the imagination shapes memory and illustrates how something invented can end up in a memoir piece. She attributes this to the human inclination to remember the past and to forget and reinvent it at the same time. She challenges the idea that a memoirist is involved in “dutiful transcription” and questions the idea of an innocent nonfiction story or storyteller. 

In the essay, “The Mayflower Moment; Reading Whitman during the Vietnam War,” Hampl talks about her own innocence regarding her first ideas about national identity.   In “Reviewing Ann Frank,” she presents Ann Frank as one of the only “sane” people of the twentieth century which refers to Ann Frank’s innocence in a time when the world seem to go mad. In “The Book Sealed with Seven Seals,” she presents Edith Stein as an innocent martyr for her “people.”  She also presents the individual need to be blameless or unaccountable in “What She Couldn’t Tell,” where Mrs. “Barenek” wants to be seen as innocent as lamb when she was not.  In “Other People’s Stories,” the writer herself wants to feel like she is innocent of betraying her mother by telling stories she hasn’t be given permission to tell.  Finally, in “The Invention of Autobiography: St. Augustine’s Confessions,” she notes that St. Augustine did not present himself as the ideal innocent and faithful follower.  He too questioned his faith and longed for answers until the moment he died.          

The book’s title comes from a personal experience of the author who felt like she was promised a story, but never got it. She becomes aware that “I could tell you stories” doesn’t mean that the real story will actually be told. After reading this collection, the idea of innocence becomes a prism that shines light on new questions about writing memoir and about humanity itself. 

 

Hampl, Patricia. I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.1999. Print.