A Field Guide to Dystopia

Although it sounds like one of those newly minted countries forged out of the wreckage of tribal and jurisdictional wars, dystopia is a thing or condition rather than a specific place. You could, if you pushed the matter, think of dystopia as a place after all, or after certain events were allowed free reign.

Philip Roth caught dystopia in “The Plot against America,” evoking a disturbing vision predicated on the election of Charles Lindberg as President of the United States.

Jack London brought forth 100 years ago a splendid and prescient dystopia, “The Iron Heel,” in which the 20th century American Dream is brought to misery thanks to the accession to power by a brutal oligarchy (rule by a small, wealthy, powerful elite, undershot with cronyism). So prescient was London that his novel has Pearl Harbor being bombed.

George Orwell’s trenchant “1984” is perhaps the dystopia that comes most frequently to mind, followed by Ray Bradbury’s epochal “Fahrenheit 451,” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Seldom listed with these worthies, although it should be, is Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an account of a brutally repressive American religious regime.

Ah, these regimes, and -isms, all seemingly bent on restoring to its earlier position what the vast majority have come to regard as progress. Dystopia is, for dramatic reasons, always more interesting than Utopia, a splendid case in point being the relative excitement and literary merit of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” a dystopia if ever there was one, and the reversion to the way things ought to be, “Paradise Regained.” At the end of “Paradise Lost,” we had ourselves suffered the loss on one of the more interesting figures in all of literature.

[Catch-22] Comes before us now Yossarian, who first appears in a hospital with a pain in his liver. Yossarian’s liver does not hurt enough to be classified as jaundice, a fact that puzzles the doctors: “If it became jaundice, they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them.” Yossarian is our man in pandemonium; his liver is our liver in a hospital, and “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller is the vehicle in which Yossarian, his liver, and we and our respective livers navigate the reefs and shoals of what is simultaneously mankind’s biggest blunder and most egregious bureaucracy.

Humor, irony, and satire, all of which reside within “Catch-22” have a target, and accordingly “Catch-22” becomes not only a novel of escape (from the blunder and bureaucracy) but a novel in which these targets are hit by the heat-seeking missiles of Joseph Heller’s antic imagination. A direct descendant of Jaroslav Hašek’s “The Good Soldier Švejk,” which Heller acknowledged as an influence, “Catch-22” is the expert marriage of humor, irony, and absurdity in the anti-war novel.

There is considerable irony in Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage.” Indeed, the protagonist, initially fearful of cowardice in war, actually bolts, runs, and in the act of running away from battle is shot in the rear. His wound gets him a medal. Ironies abound as well in “Švejk,” which is set in a satirist’s dream come true, Austria-Hungary, a patchwork quilt of languages, cultures, and nationalities, a bureaucratic nightmare by any account. But “Catch-22,” from its first glimpse of publication hoopla, gained iconic status as the ultimate anti-war novel, transcending that to become as well what I find myself calling the catch phrase for the engaged tentacles of any large and many smaller organizations.

Yossarian is a bombardier in what was then called the U.S. Army Air Force. Having flown more than enough combat missions to be excused from further combat activity, Yossarian wishes to be excused, but in order to do so, he must submit a document from the flight surgeon attesting to his insanity. The catch is that any sane person would think it insane to want to fly a combat mission; by requesting permission not to fly, Yossarian would be judged sane and, therefore, good to go.

A catch-22 is the ultimate Hobson ’s choice, the worm Oroborous, the self-canceling choice – the choice that cannot be chosen. If there is a rule, no matter what that rule is, then there is always an exception to it. If you have enough power, you can invent the exception to the rules you have made. The plot is a labyrinth of things not being what they seem, of hidden agendas, of pragmatism overflowing its crucible. Yossarian and his friends meet frustration at every turn and, thanks to Heller’s gift at getting down the nuances of war, the expression of the lengths of absurdity to which any system can achieve.

It’s difficult to pick a place of more plausible absurdity than the hospital scene just a tad under half way in, where Yossarian is in again, and his friend, Snowden, is in, seriously wounded. Into the ward comes the famed soldier in white, who was:

constructed entirely of gauze, plaster and a thermometer, and the ther-

mometer was merely an adornment, left balanced in the empty dark

hole in the bandages over his mouth early each morning and late

each afternoon by Nurse Cramer and Nurse Duckett right up to the

afternoon Nurse Cramer read the thermometer and discovered he

was dead.

Even though he is aware of the catch-22 about the impossibility of getting out of flying on combat missions, Yossarian actually enjoys the experience, regardless of the danger, but one event changes his entire perspective of the war. The war now has a personal meaning for him, at which point his mission becomes an intense desire to live. Standing in his way, implementing the catch-22 of Yossarian’s ongoing need to fly more combat missions is Colonel Cathcart, whose own mission is to impress his superiors to the point of promoting him to the rank of general. But as we quickly discover, Cathcart’s power, although extensive, is only a cog in a much more complex machine, a kind of Rube Goldberg invention, a stunning and plausible take on large organizations. It was there for us to see all along, but even on third reading, the real power base does what real power bases do – they wait and watch and consolidate.

In later years, Heller wrote a sequel to “Catch-22,” called “Closing Time.” In it, Yossarian’s hair is thinning but his resolve is thick and steady. Heller recognized the iconic stature his character had attained and how his means of defeating catch-22 made him a cultural hero. It was Heller’s wish and intention that Yossarian live out his life, in a sense the best possible trumping of all temporal catch-22s.

It had not occurred to me until I was well into this rereading how much the catch-22 of Yossarian’s career in the Air Force compares to our current status as civilians in the social and ideological wars being waged about us, and how many catch 22s there are in modern American politics.

All you have to do is read – or reread Joseph Heller – then listen to any coherent news broadcast.

“Catch-22” is dystopia writ gloriously large, a fable and a warning for some considerable time to come. I like to think of Heller and Yossarian off in Sweden, “where the girls are so sweet and the people so advanced,” laughing as they listen to the news.