My reading group recently selected Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. I read the book years before and barely remembered any details except the increase of flight missions. I must admit that this time it took me a while, nearly a third of the book, before I was able to really get into it.
What bogged me down was the dark humor and the style—after a few chapters, I felt it repetitive in a way that you could tell the author would use the same method to make the war and everything resulted from it ridiculous.
As I read on, however, it dawned on me how much truth lay beneath the mocking, which, in turn, shocked me and made me feel depressed.
I forged on because our discussion date was approaching, until one day I found myself drawn deeply into it. The black humor, accompanied with such grotesque exaggeration, exposed the cruelty and meaninglessness of war. One couldn’t help from laughing, though not without a heavy sense of sadness. The narrative, going back and forth in time, also amazed me—it often goes back to the same event, revealing more details each time a particular scene was re-visited. Very cleverly done.
As I got deeper into the novel, it occurred to me that if someone could write about China’s Cultural Revolution in this manner, it would be brilliant! The absurdities, betrayal, despair, destruction, vulnerability and fear of individuals, and the extremity of situation were the same, if not more. Perhaps, Mo Yan’s novels were the closest to Heller’s ridicule, but without such poignancy and directness.
Our group met last Sunday over a delicious corn soup, apple cake, pasta, BBQ pork, fruit, veggies, and a variety of cheese and crackers. I thought we needed the food to cheer up a discussion of such dark and serious issues. The food certainly helped, but what brought the discussions alive was the different perspective of the reading by each of our members, as we always do.
Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning documentary by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset. Visit www.mulberrychildmovie.com for more information.