50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Cynicism

Catch-22

Welcome back, class.

Author Joseph Heller invented the phrase “catch-22”—in his novel, it’s a military rule for pilots: if a pilot shows signs of insanity, he doesn’t have to fly anymore combat missions; but if he asks not to fly anymore missions, he has proven his own sanity by being aware of the danger of his surroundings, and he is required to fly as many missions as the military requests; if he doesn’t ask to be grounded, and no one declares him insane or sends him home, he continues flying missions even though he might be insane and doesn’t have to, but as soon as he asks to be grounded, he has to fly more missions because he’s clearly sane.

If you feel like your mind is doing back flips, you’re in the right place. All of Catch-22 is like this—the “catch-22” rule is one of many self-defeating bureaucratic and social conundrums that keep soldiers fighting, whether they want to or not. Unlike Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, it’s not a series of brutally realistic battle scenes, side-by-side with meditations on inhumanity (at least, it’s not ONLY that); instead, Catch-22 is an absurdist comedy, proving just how insane war really is, and how insane people have to be to want to be a part of one.


There almost isn’t a main character, but the one we focus on most is Yossarian, a fighter pilot who’s true enemy seems to be the war itself. He finds creative ways of avoiding combat—most often, he’s in the hospital for an illness that he intentionally aggravates and pretends to continue suffering from. But his officers keep raising the number of missions pilots are required to fly, and his ticket home becomes more and more out of reach. Instead of having a kind of character arc, where he finds a way to accept the war or escape it, he ends up continually fighting against the war, battle after battle, and either Yossarian or the war will lose, or it will keep on going endlessly.

The rest of the characters have a range of influence on Yossarian’s story, and each chapter is named after one of the characters in his life—fellow soldiers, superior officers, lovers, villains, and strangers he meets on his misadventures. The episodes in his life are told out of order, alternating between the present and the past so subtly that it can be hard to know when something is taking place. And one terrible event after another makes Yossarian’s life harder to protect, so that he’s more desperate to do whatever he can to save it.

The humor is warped and depraved—a not-so-subtle coping mechanism to deal with death around every corner, a mechanism that most 20th century soldiers, if not all, know very much about. This is self-defeatist comedy—comedy that points out how funny it is that the world works in such a ridiculous way, gently avoiding (or painfully reveling in) how terrible in all is. It’s cynical, uncomfortable, offensive, and nonetheless hilarious . . . that’s Heller’s genius, I think. Catch-22 is unlike any war novel I’ve ever read, because the intent is to point out, in the midst of the chaos, the rage, the terror of war, how insane it all is.

Author Joseph Heller

And for all that, Catch-22 is a messy story—and that’s a compliment. I’ve called it an “anti-story” before, because it breaks most of the rules of fiction. It’s not a linear story, and it wouldn’t be even if it was in chronological order. It’s more dialogue than exposition, and the dialogue is where most of the humor is, but it’s meant more to establish the environment of war than to tell a story. Yossarian doesn’t have an arc—he’s a desperate, determined man trying to survive, and that’s true on the first page and on the last. It’s all a mess, and most people don’t like it because of that.

And that’s exactly why it makes the list of books you should read before you die—it’s an anti-war anti-story, and nothing else I’ve ever read comes close to showing me how crazy war is, but that it’s the way of the world whether we like it or not. Yossarian seems like the crazy one because he wants to protect his own life, even as he’s criticized and penalized for refusing to die for his country. It’s a radical notion even today—that dying for your country is insane—and that makes Catch-22 one of the most important war novels from the past century.


Up next is a different kind of absurd—The Stranger by Albert Camus (referred to on the 50-books list as The Outsider—a translation discrepancy). Instead of laughing at the absurdity of it all, Camus seems to want readers to realize that nothing matters, and that’s that—much less entertaining, and much shorter, compared to Heller’s Catch-22, but just as important philosophically. What kind of life do we lead when nothing matters? More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

A Passage to India

Hello again, class.

I would put E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India in the same boat as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River—a novel on cultural clash, with one nation invading another and a set of characters caught in the racial, international chaos. But where Greene and Naipaul are too cynical and become trapped by racist misrepresentations, Forster’s treatment of racial and cultural tension is careful and even kind, without being naive to its origins or consequences. For that, I enjoyed A Passage to India and highly recommend it.


A flag map of the British Raj, the British rule over India between 1858-1947. A Passage to India takes place in the 1920’s, during the period of the British Raj.

I had never even heard of A Passage to India before seeing it on the list, so I imagine most don’t know the story. In the fictional town of Chandrapore, the English Mr. Fielding and Indian Dr. Aziz befriend Mrs. Moore, who has come to visit her son Ronny, Chandrapore’s city magistrate. Mrs. Moore has brought her young friend Adela, who is potentially her son’s fiancee. This newly formed group decides to visit the Marabar Caves, and what happens there forces the subtle racial tensions within them to explode, affecting the entirety of Chandrapore.

In A Bend in the River and The Quiet American, the protagonists are limited by their own racism, which is shown as an ingrained trait as natural as our own desires. But the treatment of race in A Passage to India reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird—it shows racism as a disease. It infects many characters, but not all, and the ones who rise above such racism are punished by the society affected by the disease.

Specifically for A Passage to India, we move between the minds of each character and see their own struggles with race and racism. Characters like Mrs. Moore and Aziz have a poetic and compassionate view of the world, while Mrs. Moore’s own son thinks with bureaucracy and practicality, even with matters concerning marriage. Ronny views the Indian population as a group who needs governance, while Mrs. Moore believes her role in India is to show kindness to others. In each character, the topic of race—of psychology, humanity, and nationality, too—takes a subtly different form, and each character believes in their own version of racial truth.


E. M. Forster, author of A Passage to India. Portrait by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920.

The story itself can’t have much said about it—it’s well-balanced and careful, to the point that it’s forgettable. The strength in A Passage to India is E. M. Forster’s total understanding of society and of human nature.

I’m willing to bet that most white writers handle race and racism poorly. Forster shouldn’t be any different, but he is (though that opinion is from another white writer, so take that opinion with a grain of salt).  I think, in part, that his careful and compassionate management of race stems from understanding the nature of an outsider, which comes from being a minority himself—though the larger public didn’t know, Forster lived his life as a homosexual man. In England at the time, homosexuality was considered illegal activity, so Forster’s identity was a crime. He could easily imagine the loneliness and stress of being considered criminal by nature, much like the Indians in his novel tend to feel around the English.

Don’t get me wrong: race and sexual orientation compare very little, even in the larger scope of societal treatment. Forster’s hidden minority hardly matches the visibility of racial tension. But the feeling of being an outsider, even in a place one considers home, is something Forster likely knew very well—and it translates to the subtleties of A Passage to India. It feeds into the natural cynicism of the plot, highlighting the inability to rise above prejudice, but Forster handles that cynicism with more grace than most authors do. It made A Passage to India good.


Next up, I’m finishing the His Dark Materials Trilogy, which I’ve been reading for some time now. I won’t say much yet . . . except that I haven’t felt this good about a series since I read Harry Potter. But I’ll save the rest for later!

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

A Bend in the River

Another book finished! Welcome back, class.

V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River is a difficult novel. Stephen King once wrote that a person can write about anything, as long as they tell the truth (from his book On Writing). I could go out on a limb and say that every author on the 50-books list has done this—they’ve told their own truths. With A Bend in the River, Naipaul has told his ugly truths, and they were difficult to read—truths about racism, lost souls in postcolonial Africa, disregarded marriages, violence, and the decay of humanity.


The main character, Salim, is a shopkeeper in a small town on a central African river. He witnesses the chaos of an unnamed country around him: a rebellion against the old order, the establishment of a new order and a new leader, and its subsequent corruption and collapse. Meanwhile, Salim rotates through relationships with a series of characters, including an old family servant (whose loyalty decays like the country around them), a woman with whom he begins an abusive affair, and the son of one of his customers who rises through the country’s political ranks.

The characters all seem to be parts of a moving (or, rather, dying) machine. Sometimes, when a story does this well, the story and characters are given more meaning (I can’t say it enough—Ulysses is my favorite example of this). But A Bend in the River is more about meaninglessness . . . about being trapped in a dying system, unable to fix it and unable to escape. This is a place where hope becomes bitterness, narrated by a cynical man.


Salim’s cynical tone is the story’s greatest weakness. If it isn’t clear already, I didn’t enjoy reading the novel, and it’s mostly because of the philosophies and opinions of an unlikable narrator. Salim looks down on any dark-skinned people and acts violently towards the married woman he sleeps with. He seems to view this African country as better off under rule from Europe, as opposed to being allowed to exist on its own. He sounds always above everyone in his life.

At this point, I would usually claim that the narrator is unreliable, and that the author uses the narrator as an extra form of commentary. Even if that’s true, the artistic element is too subtle to be of any benefit. It’s hard to forgive any of these qualities because there’s no catch, no twist . . . Naipaul does nothing to show that he doesn’t mirror the negative qualities of his character, which makes me question any of the truths Naipaul claims to support.


And yet, for all that disgusts me, the tone is also the novel’s greatest strength. With Naipaul’s cynicism comes careful, brilliant writing. The content may be bleak, but the way it’s portrayed is mesmerizing, and it never shows any narrative cracks. If you need a reason to read it, it’s because A Bend in the River is one of those rare pieces of excellent writing—each word fits like a puzzle piece to a grand and beautiful image.

In the same way, I could compare it to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (which I’ve written about here), and lots of critics have compared it to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (blog post pending). If only the story didn’t feel so rotten at the core, I could see A Bend in the River being one of my favorite novels ever written.


Next, I’m reading The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. I’m happy to put A Bend in the River behind me.

I’ve noticed that I have a tolerance for novels I don’t like (at least well-written novels I don’t like). I think that means that for any book, the plot can involve anything and the characters can do anything, and as long as the author knows what makes a story worth telling, I can read it. Some people can’t do the same—an unlikable character or a goofy plot makes them put a book down in a heartbeat.

Some books help you figure out what kind of reader you actually are. They’re worth something for that, even if you don’t enjoy the experience.

On that note, I’ll see you next week.

Prof. Jeffrey