Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Art of Sarcasm

So there, I finished the first book of the 100 that I'm working at reading.  Technically, it's more like the fourth, because I recently re-read a couple of them before I discovered the list, and so I'm counting those as done, gosh darnit.  Whatever.  Regardless, Lord of the Flies is now read.  And--yes, it's good.  I see why it's considered a great novel.  More on that, and on the whole book versus movie debate, in a later post, I promise.

Next on the list?  An old friend, rather than a new discovery.  Like some of the other books on the list, I've read this one before, but unlike the others on the list, I've always recalled the reading of it with a certain degree of fondness and joy. 

It was one of the first war books I procured a copy of, and it was the last in that collection to go once I finally accepted that my private study of warfare didn't need to continue.  See, I went to West Point as a guy who'd already read nearly everything Isaac Asimov had published by that date, and I'd read many other sci fi works besides.  For the fun of it I'd read many of the older classics, including the biggies by Euclid, Marx, and Aristotle, and if I'd put nearly half as much energy into reading the books I'd been assigned in high school as I put into not-reading them, I'd'a had one heckuva philosophical base behind me. 

Then I got to West Point, and despite my continued fervor at not-reading the books that the English department decided I ought to, I discovered warfare as a topic.  The West Point texts, written by the West Point staff, weren't half bad at describing the battles as they happened, but I started devouring other great works as well: biographies, memoirs, non-fiction accounts, and even works of fiction.  The Brotherhood of War series was good, though it became repetitive eventually.  Tom Clancy got really big at about that time, and I enjoyed his stories. 

And then there was Catch-22.

Joseph Heller's masterpiece grabbed for itself a long-standing central space on my bookshelf.  Hey, there were many books that described military actions and activities.  Most of them pointed out how mankind hadn't really learned anything from previous warfare, or how we had and one side made the most of it.  Many other books told of people who fight.  None of them, though, made warfare or the people who fight it seem so--human. 

And it accomplishes that through the art of sarcasm.

An example:

"The colonel dwelt in a vortex of specialists who were still specializing in trying to determine what was troubling him.  They hurled lights in his eyes to see if he could see, rammed needles into nerves to hear if he could feel.  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."

Even back when the only specialty professional language I knew involved military acronyms and words you might see in an OpOrd (er, "Operations Order," a five-paragraph thing of linguistic repetition and plagiarism and command and control wisdom), I found that paragraph to be hilarious.  Now that I'm much--well, um, just much--and I am familiar with the masterwork that is medical terminology, it's beyond hilarious.  It's stunning. 

Another thing that is stunning--and not in as positive of a reference--is that Heller didn't do it entirely by himself.  The 50th Anniversary edition contains something that my ancient, worn, and long-since donated copy did not: an introduction that I probably wouldn't have read at that time anyway.  Now, though, I do read such things, thanks not only to a certain degree of curiosity I have as one who's been-there-done-that-but-not-had-a-bestseller, but also in the hopes of learning something useful. 

In this volume's introduction is the meta-tale (a story describing a story) of how others collaborated to make Catch-22 the work of art that I believe it is.  Specifically, Robert Gottlieb, a man considered by many to be one of the finest editors of all time, sat down with the author to "piece together a jig-saw puzzle from a total of nine separate manuscripts."  Nine.  "Their collaboration was astonishingly devoid of friction.  Gottlieb was a genius, but Heller was an editor's dream, that rare thing--an author without proprietary sensitivity, willing to make any change, to . . . murder any darling." 

And there ya have it.  An author who'd spent seven years writing the original work, who was then willing to take a genius's suggestions to heart--and he wrote a masterpiece that was acclaimed critically by all.  Well, nearly all.  Well, okay--according to the introduction, it was actually panned by quite a few literary critics, folks who I'm sure have been blown sour raspberries by many now-famous authors. 

And now, I'm off to write, to finish constructing the true end of the novel I called "ended" just in time to win NaNo.  It's not really done till the loose ends are tied, though, and I still have some tying to do.  And then, perhaps, some time spent with Bombadier Yosarian is in order.


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