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Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: Catch-22

May 7, 2014

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Maybe Catch-22 by Joseph Heller isn’t classic literature. When I was a kid, a book had to be represented in Classics Illustrated comic books for me to consider it a classic. But a lot of those comic books were published before Catch-22 even came out, so maybe that’s not a fair standard.

Catch-22 is over 50 years old, and people still read it. If a book is still relevant after 50 years, then it’s probably a classic. And if it’s not a classic, it will be. At the very least, Catch-22 is a future classic.

Catch-22 is a novel filled with great sentences. I would list some of the examples of great sentences in Catch-22, but this is about the bad sentences. A bunch of other (more serious) literary critics have written about the great sentences in Catch-22, so there are plenty of places to look if you’re interested in the great sentences in Catch-22. You could even read Catch-22 if you’re interested in the great sentences in Catch-22. Every page has lots of great sentences. But every once in a while, in an effort to write a great sentence (speculation on my part), author Joseph Heller came up with a stinker.

Here’s an example (p. 23):

There was a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma; there was a pathologist for his pathos, a cystologist for his cysts, and a bald and pedantic cetologist from the zoology department at Harvard who had been shanghaied ruthlessly into the Medical Corps by a faulty anode in an I.B.M. machine and spent his sessions with the dying colonel trying to discuss Moby Dick with him.

Phew! If I have to stop and take a deep breath in mid-sentence while reading it aloud, it’s probably a bad sentence. And I don’t even smoke. I ride an exercise bike while I watch television or read. I’m not in the greatest shape in the world, but I don’t lose my wind that easily. I should be able to read a complete sentence out loud without having to take a breath in the middle.

To be fair, there is a semicolon in the sentence to break it up. If I pause at the semicolon, I can read the entire sentence in two breaths.

The bad sentences in Catch-22 might not really be bad sentences. A lot of readers love the bad sentences in Catch-22. I kind of like the bad sentences in Catch-22. It’s just that if I had ever tried writing sentences like the sentences in Catch-22 when I was in writers groups or in school, I would have been told I was writing bad sentences. If I’m told that a sentence is bad when I write it, then it’s a bad sentence.

Here’s a bad sentence that doesn’t have a semi-colon (p. 42):

“The system worked just fine for everybody, especially for Doc Daneeka, who found himself with all the time he needed to watch old Major ____ de Coverley pitching horseshoes in his private horseshoe-pitching pit, still wearing the transparent eye patch Doc Daneeka had fashioned for him from the strip of celluloid stolen from Major Major’s orderly room window months before when Major de____ Coverley had returned from Rome with an injured cornea after renting two apartments there for the officers and enlisted men to use on their rest leaves.”

Sometimes writing out somebody else’s convoluted sentence helps me to understand it. This time, it didn’t help at all. And if a book has a character with a name like Major Major, I usually stop reading. But Catch-22 was written 50 years ago, and back then Major Major might have been funny.

Despite Major Major, I kept reading.  And then, later on, just as I was in the flow of reading a series of great sentences, out of nowhere, came a monstrosity that I had to read and reread and rereread (p. 65):

“It was a night of surprises for Appleby, who was as large as Yossarian and as strong and who swung at Yossarian as hard as he could with a punch that flooded Chief White Halfoat with such joyous excitement that he turned and busted Colonel Moodus in the nose with a punch that filled General Dreedle with such mellow gratification that he had Colonel Cathcart throw the chaplain out of the officer’s club and ordered Chief White Halfoat moved into Doc Daneeka’s tent , where he could be under a doctor’s care twenty-four hours a day and be kept in good enough physical condition to bust Colonel Moodus in the nose again whenever General Dreedle wanted him to.”

Sometimes writing somebody else’s convoluted sentence makes me laugh and change my mind. I just rewrote this sentence and laughed and changed my mind. Maybe it’s still a bad sentence that simply has to be rewritten word-for-word to be appreciated.

Most of the time when you’re reading a book, you shouldn’t notice the sentences. If you notice the sentences, it can detract from the book. Catch-22 is the exception. When I first read Catch-22, I think I paid attention to the story and barely noticed the sentences. Now that I’m reading it 30 years later, I’m paying attention to the sentences and have no idea what’s going on in the book. Maybe 30 years from now I can read it while loving the sentences AND the story.

For now, I’m enjoying the sentences. But a few of them are stinkers.

*****

I read first Catch-22 when I was in high school in the early 1980s. I think Catch-22 reminded me of the television show MASH, and I liked MASH a lot back then. I know Catch-22 was written before MASH, and there was a series of MASH books (which I have never read). I once told a guy in college that Catch-22 reminded me of MASH, and the guy told me that I hadn’t really read Catch-22. I wish I had told him that, no, I hadn’t really watched MASH (or I could have told him that his mom never read Catch-22), but I wasn’t that quick of a thinker. It’s one of my few regrets in life.

I watched an old MASH rerun a few weeks ago. I realized that Hawkeye Pierce was a bully, and maybe Frank Burns would have been more tolerable if Hawkeye had left him alone. But it was just one episode. Maybe Frank was the bigger jerk most of the time. When I was younger, I never thought Hawkeye was the jerk.

*****

Are these sentences from Catch-22  as bad as I think, or am I a bad judge of bad sentences? What’s your favorite or least favorite sentence from Catch-22? Was it wrong for me to be reminded of MASH when I was reading Catch-22? If it wasn’t wrong, should I have kept it to myself because it’s one of those things you’re allowed to think about but you’re never supposed to admit?

10 Comments
  1. I agree, those sentences are bad. Even the one you finally liked after typing it out is bad, I think. If it’s intended to be funny, it’s trying too hard. Maybe that’s a really funny book. I’ve heard it is. I wouldn’t know, because it’s on my list of books I put down before finishing. It’s also on my list of books that I might go back to and try to finish one day, but probably won’t. I couldn’t get into it, even though I wanted to. I also didn’t finish the movie, if that tells you anything. I did like MASH, though. The tv show, that is. I couldn’t finish the movie.

    • Maybe you won’t think that last sentence is so bad if you rewrite it out word-for-word, or maybe you will dislike it even more since it’s a bad sentence that you wasted time on rewriting it word-for-word. I don’t know.

      I’m glad Catch-22 is written the way it is, but I’m glad not every book is written like Catch-22.

  2. Hawkeye could have done well to leave Frank alone, but Frank was a pest and an idiot, especially when the Colonel was gone and he was the CO.

  3. Those sentences do feel like a writer trying too hard. Is it better to try to write brilliant sentences and fail every now and then, or not have either? Especially in the case of Catch-22, I’d say the former.

    • It seems like these bad sentences (the ones I found, anyway) were about once every 20 pages. That’s not too bad of an average (especially if the other sentences are really great). So I’d agree with you. I’d take a “one bad sentence every 20 pages” average in my own writing if I could.

  4. Catch-22 really has its own style, doesn’t it? I just read it a few years ago and liked it for the most part. I liked the wacky parts, at least. I really like that first example sentence you gave, but I agree the second and third could do with some intervening periods or semi-colons to break up the full-on ramble. They get a bit hard to follow.

    • I reread that last one several times, and I couldn’t follow it, no matter how slowly I read. It wasn’t until I typed it up that I got it. You shouldn’t have to rewrite somebody else’s sentence to understand it. Thankfully, these were the exceptions, but they stood out.

  5. eq393538 permalink

    Reblogged this on The Way of the Master.

  6. I think Joseph Heller would be thrilled that anyone is still taking time to parse his sentences outside of high school.

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