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Of Vonnegut and Heller: Billy Pilgrim, Ice-9, Catch-22, and the writing life

Joseph Heller

A few things I didn’t know until the last couple of days: First, in the 1950s, Joseph Heller worked as a highly paid advertising executive for some of America’s most popular and influential magazines, such as Life, Look, and McCall’s. Second, Kurt Vonnegut could be a real prick.

I first read Cat’s Cradle in high school for an English class. A kid with a tumultuous home life, bereft of friends, and feeling alone in the universe, I took to the absurdity of life that stands at the center of Vonnegut’s work.

Kurt Vonnegut

I was an optimistic fatalist. That is, I hoped all the time that I was wrong in my belief that everything would go wrong. If human beings could invent genocide in a two-ton package that a plane of missile could deliver to unsuspecting people within a few minutes, they could certainly invent other ways to destroy the planet. Dr. Hoenniker’s Ice-9, which turned water into ice at room temperature made sense to me. Someone besides me knew, or, at least, grasped the fact that life in the twentieth century could have no meaning. I hoped that things would be different but held out little hope that they would.

I moved on to Vonnegut’s bleak first novel, Player Piano, which asks the question, “What are people for?” After pondering that the world was becoming less and less human the more we relied on technology, I went and read all the Vonnegut I could find in the school and the public library. I understood Billy Pilgrim, victim of Tralfamadorian time shift, walking through a door in 1954 and into 1944. He skittered uncontrollably between a child’s birthday party into a German POW camp in Dresden, from the Tralfamadorian paradise he lived in with Montana Wildhack to a cold trench during the Battle of the Bulge.

slaughterhouse_fiveVonnegut’s circuitous story telling didn’t confuse me. It soothed me. I never knew what was going to happen at home. I might find my father in a good mood one minute and then be smashed across the room the next. I also had no control of my moods. I might wake up on the top of the world, feeling that I could do anything. Then, within the span of an hour, I knew the world would be better off without me and was thinking how to off myself. Up and down, back and forth, who knew where or when the wild ride would end. I didn’t. I just held on sometimes, knowing that whatever I was in would change soon enough.

But not knowing what I would be in made me nervous. I suffered nightmares. I chewed my fingernails and through countless plastic pens. I wear permanent scars on my lips from being electrocuted by an extension cord on whose end I was gnawing. Nothing was safe.

(When I was young, I cried all the time. Then, Mrs. Herron sent me to see Father Masturbation-Fornication who told me I was living beyond God’s will and that I had to buck up. I quit crying but ate more, smoked more, drank more. I was 11. By the time I was in high school, I weighed 250.)

I ran into Heller’s Catch-22 sometime in my senior year. The book should have been over my head, but again, it made sense. Like Billy Pilgrim’s journey along the space-time continuum, Heller’s novel moved back and forth through time with seeming randomness. It wasn’t random, if course, it was Heller being a genius writer. Every shift made sense in the context of the novel and its stories.

Catch22I got it when I read about Yossarian doing anything to stay alive or die trying. There was sense in the catch, that fliers who flew in the bellies of planes so easily plucked from the sky were insane to do the work. But if they asked not to fly, they were sane and, thus, had to fly.

Catch-22 became a reading staple for me. I read it at least once annually, if not more frequently for years. Heller caught the absurdity of living in a corporate society and the meaningless of our actions in it and our powerlessness in the face of it spoke to me. The book was funny, as was much of Vonnegut’s work. It only got funnier and more relevant the older I got.

I never knew much about these writers who so informed my outlook and perspective. Somewhere the other day, I was reading about Vonnegut and came across the title of Charles Shields’  biography, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life. Between reading books at the moment, I bought Shields’ book for my Kindle. It was a 500-page tome. But I read it in two days. I just couldn’t stop.

and so it goesWhat struck me was how the public Vonnegut was often diametrically opposed to the private man. He often treated his wife and kids poorly. He cheated on his wife and wound up marrying someone who he cheated on, as she was cheating on him. He successfully played the stock market, even buying stock in the maker of napalm, while he wrote about the absurdity and cruelty of war.

But I was also reading to see about his discipline, how he wrote. For years before and after he made it famous with Slaughterhouse-Five, he worked every day on his writing. He rose early in the morning and wrote through until lunch time. He often worked longer than that. He was a tyrant at home, disappearing into his study and screaming downstairs at rowdy kids—there were six—and taking his wife to task for not keeping the kids under control.

He worked. Slaved. He was so dedicated to writing that nothing could stand in his way. After his marriage ended, he would up with a tyrant to match him. He never deviated from his writing discipline, no matter what kind of shattered mess his private life and relationships were.

Just-One-Catch-192x300Reading Shields’ book got me to thinking about other influential writers in my life. I poked around and found that Tracy Daugherty’s Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller had gotten good reviews. The reviewers said the book was readable and covered Heller’s work in depth. Good enough. I bought that book and have read most of its 560 pages in just a day.

Heller was also a contradiction, a corporate man intensely focused on the inanities and absurdities of corporate life. The social critique in Catch-22 is biting, acerbic, scathing. In order to stay alive in the corporate society, you must fight the institutionalization of every aspect of living. To live you depend on institutions and routines. If you succumb to the routine and like it, you must be crazy. If, however, you question the routines and institutions, you must be sane. But in coming to that sanity, you must admit how much you depend on the institutions. In the end, the corporations have all the power except the one that is your desire to live as an individual.

I’d love to live off the grid, or would I, really?

Heller wrote in the evenings after he came home from his corporate jobs. He spent time with his wife and two kids, going for walks, eating dinner—his mind likely far from the moment and deep in his book. He wrote with pencil and typewriter, often combining the two on a single page and clipping and taping passages into pages. He read and reread. It was slow going. Sometimes he’d achieve just one page for a night’s work.

But he kept at it. It took him between 1955, when the first draft of a first chapter of a book then called Catch-18, appeared in New American Literature, to 1961 to get that book finished. Work. Plain, unforgiving work. And Heller was a pragmatist. He had a vision for the book and would ditch anything, any passage or number of pages that seemed to get in the way. He eyed his own work as a surgeon would a patient. It’s not personal, it’s excising or mending the offending part.

I take a lot from both. I try to write two or three essays a week. When I’m drafting a book, I will get at least 1,000 words written every time I sit down. In revising I tend to get one to five pages completed in a day.

But I stop. I am not as disciplined as I should be. Some days, I find excuses not to sit down to the computer and write. I’m too busy or there is too much going on. In fact, I’m just lazy. Life has meaning and purpose when I write, so I should write. On the other hand, it’s very difficult to take up the responsibility that comes with meaning and purpose, so I put off writing.

In the end, I have not dedicated myself, my every free moment to writing like Vonnegut. I have not put together a routine where I carve out a little time for my writing every day the way that Heller did. Sometimes, though I call myself a writer, I am not.

With a solid four hours a day, I know that I would be able to produce a great deal. I would love to know the feeling that overcame Vonnegut toward the end of his life—that he had said everything and didn’t have any more to say. I don’t know that. I often look at a page and wonder where to begin. But once I begin, like Heller did, with just a sentence, the rest flows of itself.

I have put off forming the discipline for too long. I still have seven books to write before I reach the age of 70. I have only 17 years left. I have to get moving.

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