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Wednesday, 19 November 2014
Closing Time by Joseph Heller
I wonder if my new-found bachelordom is the reason that I have seemingly embarked upon a morbid trend in my reading. I have long avoided reading this novel, billed as the sequel to Catch 22 and, from the publisher blurb on the back, dealing with the tying up of ends in the lives of the characters from the first novel as they move towards their own deaths - not an uplifting prospect, Heller's acute and acerbic wit notwithstanding. What did I read after this? Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut. And next? Mendelssohn Is On The Roof by Jiří Weil. I suspect you'll see a trend. In my defence, I would posit that there is a deep, atavistic humour to be found in all three novels, something that everyone can access and recognise, the hangman's joke, the infantryman's bluster. That all three deal on one level or another with the atrocities of the second World War might raise a tired sigh from my estranged wife, who has long been disturbed by such trends in my literary taste (or lack, she would argue thereof). Again, in defence of my taste, I would argue that such atrocity is scored deeply into the consciousness of anyone born during or after it, and the World still resonates with the agonised cries of those whose destinies are still twisted around the hate and violence that thrust through the soil across Europe and the Middle East creating the forests of thorns that divide many cultures and even families.
I should stop listening to Arvo Pärt.
In truth, Vonnegut lead to Heller (I had Mother Night on DVD sat looking at me on my coffee table, but more on that later), and Heller lead back to Vonnegut; Weil was hanging around anyway, smoking a cigarette on the corner and chatting with a lady of questionable circumstance. Vonnegut features in Yossarian's recollections, or maybe it was Sammy Singer's memories; Joey Heller sneaks into Vonnegut's Dresden. Did they actually meet in the war, during or after the Battle of the Bulge? Only Google can tell us, but they are luminaries, their light casting shadows on the same areas of humanity.
In Closing Time, we meet Yossarian as a near septuagenarian, still mostly virile, still febrile with the paradoxes of life. His life's trajectory has soared higher than the parabola of a rocket, and he finds himself rich, socially well-connected and in business with Milo Minderbender at M&M Enterprises, an organisation which has diversified and is attempting to find a niche in the second-response military market with a plane that could end the world but doesn't exist (or does it?). Yossarian is still attempting to be immortal (or to die trying) although as he ages, his desire to keep living is on the wane. Former comrades appear in Sammy Singer, tailgunner, in Chaplain Captain Albert Taylor Tappman, now retired but mysteriously passing heavy water and therefore kept under close supervision by the Government's plausibly deniable secret research team in the off-chance that he could be militarised (by them or by their enemies), and a new (or at least poorly remembered) character from a shared military past, Lew Rabinowitz. Sammy and Lew's stories are intertwined with those of Yossarian as they each face their eventual fate. Yossarian is more Yossarian than I can possibly explain - more Alan Arkin* than I thought possible too - and the dissonance between thought and action throughout displays perfectly judged humour. Sammy and Lew are more sober characters and narrators, one reflecting on his life as second fiddle, the other refusing to concede defeat to anything he didn't want to be beaten by.
The story is pretty straightforward and a little obvious, if it were to be told straightforwardly, but as with Catch 22, Heller chooses to muddy the waters with his inventive use of an omniscient third person narrator, mixing with the direct testimony of Singer and Rabinowitz, and Yossarian intrudes throughout in his inimitable fashion. To attempt a synopsis as a result, as the evidence above perhaps proves, is tricky and ultimately futile, but as always, the journey is more important than the destination, and perhaps that's one of the many wise aphorisms that could be used to sum up this novel. There are morals everywhere if you want to look for them. There are truisms a-plenty. There's even some thinly-veiled autobiography - Heller did in fact marry one of the nurses that looked after him during his hospitalisation with Guillain-Barré syndrome. It might not have garnered the praise lavished on the first novel, and there are inconsistencies (for example Yossarian is only 68, whereas he should be 78 if the timeline from the first book were to be accurate), but it does for old age, and dying, what Catch 22 did for fighting wars, and dying. It's hard to contain the scope of the book in 1000 words on a reader's blog, so I will stop trying. Suffice to say I love it. You probably will too.
*More intertextual coincidence - Arkin, the Yossarian in the 1970 Mike Nicholls film of the novel, appears in the movie of Mother Night as Howard W Campbell Jnr's 'friend' George Kraft. I had completely forgotten about this, but in retrospect it all makes perfect sense.