Saturday, September 5, 2015
Closing Time by Joseph Heller
It starts with real promise.
Outside the hospital it was still going on. Men went mad and were rewarded with medals. Interior decorators were culture heroes, and fashion designers were the social superiors of their clientele.
These are the observations of Yossarian, Catch-22’s Assyrian anti-hero, now sixty-eight years old, and a wealthy man living in the 1990s.
There were still plenty of poor people.
Yossarian looked askance at a bunch sprawled on the sidewalk outside the hospital as he strode out to the curb and the stretch limousine with black windows waiting there to transport him to the luxury high-rise apartment building across town in which he now made his home. He had reserved a sedan; they had sent the limousine again; there would be no additional charge. The high-rise apartment house he lived in was called a luxury building because the costs of living in it were large. The rooms were small. The ceilings were low, there were no windows in his two bathrooms, and no space in the kitchen area for a table or a chair.
And Yossarian’s view of his world is somewhat unique.
From the lofty picture windows in his high-rise apartment, Yossarian commanded an unobstructed view of another luxury apartment building with an even higher rise than his own. Between these structures ran the broad thoroughfare below, which teemed more and more monstrously now with growling clans of bellicose and repulsive panhandlers, prostitutes, addicts, dealers, pimps, robbers, pornographers, perverts, and disoriented psychopaths, all of them plying their criminal specialties outdoors amid multiplying strands of degraded and bedraggled people who were now actually living outdoors. Among the homeless were whites now too, and they also pissed against the walls and defecated in the alleyways that others in their circle eventually located as accommodating sites to bed down in.
Even in the better neighborhood of Park Avenue, he knew, women could be seen squatting to relieve themselves in the tended flower beds of the traffic islands in the center.
It was hard not to hate them all.
And right now I’m thinking, good, Heller is going to skewer the madness of modern life the way he skewered the madness of war in Catch-22, and I am very much looking forward to that indeed.
Nowhere in his lifetime, Yossarian was bound often to remember, not in wartime Rome or Pianosa or even in blasted Naples or Sicily, had he been spectator to such atrocious squalor as he saw mounting up all around him now into an eminent domain of decay.
Because, of course, our modern tug-of-war between the haves and the have nots is another kind of Catch-22, isn’t it? Perhaps Catch-23 or, with a nod to Douglas Adams, Catch-42. And Heller knows just how to reveal it.
For things were good, he reminded her: as measured by official standards, they had not often been better. This time only the poor were very poor, and the need for new prison cells was more urgent than the needs of the homeless. The problems were hopeless: there were too many people who needed food, and there was too much food to be able to feed them profitably. What was wanted was more shortages, he added, with just a small smile. He did not volunteer that by now he was one more in the solid middle class who was not keen to have his taxes raised to ameliorate the miseries of those who paid none. He preferred more prisons.
Especially if Yossarian turns out to be the Milo Minderbinder of this tale--not the radical trying to disrupt the system, but the businessman trying to turn it to his own profit.
But this does not adequately describe the novel that Closing Time is.
It struck him all of a sudden that overnight everyone he’d known a long time was old--not getting old, not middle-aged, but old! The great entertainment stars of his time were no longer stars, and the celebrated novelists and poets of his time were of piddling significance in the new generation. Like RCA and Time magazine, even IBM and General Motors were of meager stature, and Western Union had passed away. The gods were growing old again, and it was time for another shake-up.
Snippets like this appear again and again in the text, constantly reminding me that this is a book written by an older generation and, I fear, for an older generation.
Because Heller constantly plays with the cultural touchstones of that generation, naming one of his characters Strangelove, and including a curly-haired writer named Vonnegut in several scenes. And like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, Yossarian seems to move through time throughout the course of the novel.
From the physicists on the plane, Yossarian also thought he heard, without understanding any of it, that in the world of science, time continuously ran backward or forward, and forward and backward, and that particles of matter could travel backward and forward through time without undergoing change. Why, then, couldn’t he? He also heard that subatomic particles had always to be simultaneously in every place they could be, and from this he began to consider that in his nonscientific world of humans and groups, everything that could happen did happen, and that anything that did not happen could not happen. Whatever can change, will; and anything that doesn’t change, can’t.
This is exactly what I think Heller is doing throughout the book, moving Yossarian around, if not physically from time period to time period like Billy Pilgrim, than at least from subplot to subplot, experiencing everything that can be experienced, and being everywhere that it is possible for him to be.
It gets confusing, and much would probably be revealed on a close second read. Surely someone (if not Heller himself) has diagrammed the novel, and such an exercise would undoubtedly reveal that Yossarian is both the cause and effect of the novel’s action, with effect probably preceding cause in at least one situation. At least things feel that way.
This surrealness reaches it’s peak when Yossarian interacts with the character Gaffney, a god-like real estate attorney who tails Yossarian throughout the novel, bugging his phone and apartment to eavesdrop on all his conversations, and, as a result, seems to know everything about him. Here’s a typical exchange between Yossarian and Gaffney, occurring near the end of the novel while Yossarian attends a wedding with several of his current and former wives and mistresses.
Dancing with Frances, for whom he preserved that special shared friendship some might call love, he felt only bone, rib cage, elbow, and shoulder blade, no fleshy thrill, and was uncomfortable holding her. Dancing equally inexpertly with pregnant Melissa, whose plight, stubbornness, and irresolution were agitating him at present into an almost ceaseless fury, he was aroused by the first contact with her belly in her sea-green gown and lusting to lead her away into a bedroom once more. Yossarian peered now at that belly to ascertain if the plumpness was fuller or whether the corrective measures restoring her to normal had already been taken. Gaffney regarded him with humor, as though again reading his mind. Frances Beach at the wedding spied his difference in response and ruminated dolefully on her sad facts of life.
“We’re unhappy with ourselves when we’re young, and unhappy with ourselves when we’re old, and those of us who refuse to be are abominably overbearing.”
“That’s pretty good dialogue you give her,” Yossarian challenged Hacker, with belligerence.
“I like that too. I got it from Mr. Gaffney here. It sounds pretty real.”
“It should sound real.” Yossarian glowered at Gaffney. “She and I already had that conversation.”
“I know,” said Gaffney.
“I thought so, you fuck,” Yossarian said without anger. “Excuse me, Olivia. We say things like that. Gaffney, you still keep monitoring me, Why?”
Pay attention to what comes next.
“I can’t help doing it, Yossarian. It’s my business, you know. I don’t make information. I just collect it. It’s not really my fault that I seem to know everything.”
“What’s going to happen to Patrick Beach? He isn’t getting better.”
“Oh, dear,” said Olivia, shuddering.
“I’d say,” answered Gaffney, “he’s going to die.”
“Before my wedding?”
“After, Mrs. Maxon. But, Yo-Yo, I would say that about you also. I would say that about everyone.”
“About yourself too?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“You aren’t God?”
“I’m in real estate. Isn’t God dead? Do I look dead? By the way, Yossarian, I’ve been thinking of writing a book too.”
“About real estate?”
“No, a novel. Maybe you can help. It begins on the sixth day of creation. I’ll tell you about it later.”
“I’m busy later.”
“You’ll have time. You’re not meeting your fiancee until two.”
“No,” said Yossarian. “And I have no fiancee.”
“Yes, he is,” answered Gaffney.
“Don’t listen to him.”
“He doesn’t know yet what he’s doing. But I do. On with this wedding, Warren.”
Yossarian, of course, has always been Heller’s alter ego, but in Closing Time, Gaffney takes the navel gazing to a whole new level. One can only interpret Gaffney as Heller himself, interacting directly with his famous character both within the text and at the level of the text’s creation. Heller is more or less manifesting himself within his work as he creates it.
Still, despite these parlor tricks, sometimes Heller’s satire is razor sharp. Here’s an exchange between the Vice President of the United States--given the moniker “Little Prick” in the novel--and Yossarian’s friend and business partner Noodles Cook, as he applies for a job in the Vice President’s office.
“You’ve been to college, Mr. Cook? You’re an educated man?”
“Yes I have, sir. I have my graduate degrees.”
“Good. I went to college too, you know. We have much in common and should get along--better, I hope”--and here a sound of the querulous crept in--“than I am getting along with those others. I have a feeling they make jokes about me behind my back. Looking back, I should have pursued philosophy and history and economics and things of that sort in college more. I’m making up for that now.”
“How--” Noodles started to ask, and changed his mind. “Sir, my experience has been--”
“I’m not going to cry over spilt milk, and that’s past.”
“My experience has been,” Noodles threaded his way onward obsequiously, “as a student, and even when teaching a bit, that people do what they are. A person interested in athletics, golf, and parties will spend time at athletic events, golf, and parties. It is very difficult in later life to grow interested in subjects like philosophy and history and economics if one was not attracted to them earlier.”
“Yes. And it’s never too late either,” said the Vice President, and Noodles did not know whether they were in agreement or not. “Lately I have been studying the Napoleonic Wars, to sort of round out my education.”
For a second or two Noodles sat motionless. “Which ones?” was all he could think to reply.
“Was there more than one?”
“That was not my field,” answered Noodles Cook, and began to give up hope.
“And I’m doing the battle of Antietam too,” he heard the man who was next in line for the presidency continue. “And after that I’m going to have a crack at Bull Run. That was really a great war, that Civil War. We’ve not have one like it since, have we? You’d be very surprised, but Bull Run is only a short car ride from here, with a police escort.”
“Are you preparing for war?”
“I’m broadening myself. And I believe in being prepared. All the rest of the work of a President is pretty hard, it seems to me, and sort of dull. I’m having all of these battles put onto videocassettes and turned into games where either side can win. Varoom, varoom, varoom! Gettysburg too. Do you like video games? Which is your favorite?”
“I don’t have a favorite,” Noodles muttered, downcast.
“Soon you will. Come look at these.”
On a cabinet beneath a video screen--there was a video screen with game controls in many recesses in the office--to which the Vice President walked him lay a game called Indianapolis Speedway. Noodles saw others, called Bombs Away and Beat the Draft.
And one more, called Die Laughing.
His host gave a chuckle. “I have nine college men on my staff with eleven doctoral degrees, and not one has been able to beat me at any of these a single time. Doesn’t that tell you a lot about higher education in this country today?”
“Yes,” Noodles said.
“What does it tell you?”
“A lot,” said Noodles.
“I feel that way too. There’s a new one coming out just for me, called Triage. Do you know it?”
“Triage is a word that comes from the French, and in case there’s a big war and we have to decide which few should survive in our underground shelters--”
“I know what the word means, Mr. Vice President!” Noodles interrupted, with more asperity than he had intended. “I just don’t know that game,” he explained, forcing a smile.
“Soon you will. I’ll break you in on it first. It’s fun and challenging. You would have your favorites and I would have mine, and only one of us could win and decide who would live and who would die. We’ll enjoy it. I think I’ll want you to specialize in Triage because you never can tell when we really might have to put it into play, and I don’t think those others are up to it. Okay?”
“Yes, Mr. Vice President.”
And a page or two later, an exchange that may be even more evocative of the dreadful political times in which we live.
“I believe in the flood,” the Vice President replied.
“I don’t think I heard that.”
I believe in the flood.”
“What flood?” Noodles was befuddled again.
“Noah’s flood, of course. The one in the Bible. So does my wife. Don’t you know about it?”
Through narrowed eyes Noodles searched the guileless countenance for some twinkle of play. “I’m not sure I know what you mean. You believe it was wet?”
“I believe that it’s true. In every detail.”
“That he took the male and female of every animal species?”
“That’s what it says.”
“Sir,” said Noodles, with civility. “We have by now catalogued more kinds of animal and insect life than anyone could possible collect in a lifetime and put onto a ship that size. How would he get them, where would he put them, to say nothing of room for himself and the families of his children, and the problem of the storage of food and the removal of waste in those forty days and nights of rain?”
“You do know about it!”
“I’ve heard. And for a hundred and fifty days and nights afterward, when the rain stopped.”
“You know about that too!” The Vice President regarded him approvingly. “Then you probably also know that evolution is bunk. I hate evolution.”
“Where did all this animal life we know about now come from? There are three or four hundred thousand different species of beetles alone.”
“Oh, they probably just evolved.”
“In only seven thousand years? That’s about all it was, as biblical time is measured.”
“You can look it up, Noodles. Everything we need to know about the creation of the world is right there in the Bible, put down in plain English.” The Vice President regarded him placidly. “I know there are skeptics. They are all of them Reds. They are all of them wrong.”
“There’s the case of Mark Twain,” Noodles could not restrain himself from arguing.
“Oh, I know that name!” the Vice President cried, with great vanity and joy. “Mark Twain is that great American humorist from my neighboring state of Missouri, isn’t he?”
“Missouri is not a neighboring state of Indiana, sir. And your great American humorist Mark Twain ridiculed the Bible, despised Christianity, detested our imperialistic foreign policy, and heaped piles of scorn on every particular in the sort of Noah and his ark, especially for the housefly.”
“Obviously,” the Vice President replied, with no loss of equanimity, “we are talking about different Mark Twains.”
Noodles was enraged. “There was only one, sir,” he said softly, and smiled. “If you like, I’ll prepare a summary of his statements and leave it with one of your secretaries.”
“No, I hate written things. Put it on a video, and maybe we can turn it into a game. I really can’t see why some people who read have so much trouble coming to grips with the simple truths that are put down there so clearly. And please don’t call me sir, Noodles. You’re so much older than I am. Won’t you call me Prick?”
I told you people in the novel call him Little Prick.
“No, sir, I won’t call you prick.”
“Everyone else does. You have a right to. I have taken an oath to support that constitutional right.”
“Look, you prick--” Noodles had jumped to his feet and was glancing around frantically, for a blackboard, for chalk and a pointer, for anything! “Water seeks its own level.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that.”
“Mount Everest is close to five miles high. For the earth to be covered with water, there would have to be water everywhere on the globe that was close to five miles deep.”
His future employer nodded, pleased that he finally seemed to be getting through. “There was that much water then.”
“Then the waters receded. Where could they recede to?”
“Into the oceans, of course.”
“Where were the oceans, if the world was under water?”
“Underneath the flood, of course,” was the unhesitating reply, and the genial man rose. “If you look at a map, Noodles, you will see where the oceans are. And you will also see that Missouri does border on my state of Indiana.”
It’s passages like these where Heller’s genius as a satirist comes shining through.
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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit www.ericlanke.blogspot.com, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.