Joseph Heller: 13 Years From Catch-22 To Something Happened

Last Friday writer Joseph Heller was in town for the Boston Globe Annual Book Fair, and agreed to an interview with Crimson editors Seth Kupferberg and Greg Lawless. Heller came to The Crimson that afternoon with his wife, and they were both relaxed and very friendly. The soft-voiced author of Catch-22 and the just-released Something Happened was so responsive that on several occasions he began to talk before a question had been asked. Here follow some excerpts from the discussion.

Q: I don't know where to begin. We can start--

A: You don't have to begin at all. Whose idea was it to do an interview with me, the publisher's or yours? You don't have to worry. You ask the questions and if you don't get the picture let me know.

Q: In your new book, Something Happened, the style is radically different from Catch-22. Do you see any parallel between the two at all?

A: The only parallel there is the fact that each has a very conspicuous style which I felt was appropriate to the content of the book. With the subject matter in Catch-22 I tried very much to make the style part of the content--maybe you found that yourself--the method of telling being as important as what's being told. I think the same is true with Something Happened. What I want to tell in Something Happened is so much different in terms of emotions and viewpoint than Catch-22. The choice of style I think is very much different from the style used in Catch-22...and another thing, I certainly didn't want it to read like Catch-22... Now you shut the machine off if you're not going to ask me any questions. Otherwise the tape keeps going...


At this point in the interview Heller turned to speak to his wife, who expressed her desire to see Harvard Yard, despite his evident disinterest.

We can get somebody to drive you around Harvard Yard while...ah...this is going want to go see a memorial to Kissinger, or McGeorge Bundy or Schlesinger? They've got statues for all of them: Galbraith Park, Schlesinger Square...

Q: Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in his New York Times review the other day said that Something Happened would anticipate the seventies just as Catch-22 anticipated the rise of the military-industrial complex in the sixties. Do you believe that?

A: No. Catch-22 was written, not before you were born, but it was partly in outline before you were born. It was published in '61. And in '61...ah...Kennedy was president. [Heller verified that Kennedy was indeed president then, and that there was an election in 1960, and continued.] It did anticipate--in the sense that it came before the Vietnam war--everything the Vietnam war brought with it, which was--it's not a phrase that I ever use--the 'military-industrial complex.' But it was there and certainly it grew with the whole morality of deception practiced by the executive in dealing with the American people and other nations, which often involves lying and distortion. But what I have to say about the military in Catch-22: I don't recall it being characteristic of the military in World War II. It was characteristing of the military during the Korean War, during the Cold, War, and became manifest during the Vietnam War. It was just a perversion of all codes of honor that are being taught at Annapolis or in American military justice. Misuse of the FBI, the CIA, misuse of the courts, the attorney-general's office, and so forth. Political persecutions. Indictments would be started, trials would be carried out even though the chances of conviction were non-existent, or if convictions were achieved reversal was a certainty afterwards--I'm referring to the Spock trial, or the Ellsberg trial, the Ellsberg trial was a continuation of these things. All these cases are political. We all know that the Ellsberg trial was an attempt by the White House to discredit Ellsberg, or else to persecute him whether they got a conviction or not. Tying somebody up in a trial for two or three years is punishment, and it's a very great punishment. As I say, I don't recall Catch-22 being characteristic, it wasn't characteristic of the military in World War II.

Q: Why did you set the novel in World War II?

A: Because I know World War II. I set it toward the end of World War II, the last few months, when Germany was not a factor. The dangers of Catch-22 don't come from the enemy--they do as far as the flak goes--but the real dangers are the ones that continue after the war comes to an end. Yossarian's own superiors and their superiors are no different from the enemy. All right, Catch-22 is about a person being destroyed by the war, about from their own superiors from within the organizations of which they are a part. That is the truth of this country.

Q: What did Yossarian do after he took off?

A: I don't know. And I don't think that's really a bona fide question to ask about a book. My book ends with him taking off...ah...and I can live with the thing like that. I don't know about the reading public. I leave with him getting out of the hospital without being either captured or stabbed by Nately's whore.

Q: But supposing he got to Sweden?

A: That becomes a different book--

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