Rewriting a manuscript requires reading other writers and learning from them new ways of using the language—unthinkable ways, uncomfortable ways, unlikely ways. This is a quick list of what I took away from Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22.
When Joseph Heller doesn’t use alliteration, he uses anaphora, or anacoluthon, or asyndeton—or everything else in the book.
“There was not an organ of his body that had not been drugged and derogated, dusted and dredged, fingered and photographed, removed, plundered and replaced.” – Catch-22, p. 23
Sometimes he creates his own words, if he needs to.
“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.” – Catch-22, p. 23
His dialogue works as counterpoint to his exquisite narration. The dialogue is not symbolic and it is not distilled. There are lots of thankyous and goodbyes. The characters talk to each other without catching a breath, as if that would prolong their lives in an alien world where death is waiting to strike the moment people shut up and get onto the battlefield.
“Yes, I do. No, a mart. Do you know what a mart is?”
“It’s a place where you buy things, isn’t it?”
“And sell things,” corrected Milo.
“And sell things.”
“All my life I’ve wanted a mart. You can do lots of things if you’ve got a mart. But you’ve got to have a mart.”
“You want a mart?”
“And every man will have his share.” – Catch-22, p. 76
Although this simple dialogue doesn’t seem to do much work, its lines weave themselves with similar ones throughout the chapters, creating a coherent support of symbols and facts, and allowing for a solid reality to emerge from all that clamoring. Nothing is random in this book. That last line is what Milo will use to justify his syndicate’s crimes.
Heller creates humor using the simplest method: juxtaposing unexpected images in the same sentence or paragraph.
“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him.” – Catch-22, p. 17
“Doc Daneeka was Yossarian’s friend and would do just about nothing in his power to help him.” – Catch-22, p. 37
In most cases when Heller uses these kind of disjoint sentences, the previous lines are dead serious, and it’s this continuous juggling of seriousness and hilarity that takes the reader out of any comfort zone, out of any predictable experience, and makes this writing so memorable. After all, this is a story about war, and it’s a story about the fear of dying, which are always dead serious subjects.
Pictures at an Exhibition
Heller does something quite unusual for a novel: he repeats the stories and the words of his characters across multiple chapters. The story of Appleby who had “flies in his eyes,” the story of Orr and the whore who hit him in the head with a shoe, Milo’s adventures—they recur until the reader feels trapped into a whirlwind of familiar crazy faces. The lack of visible plot for hundreds of pages adds to the effect. We are watching pictures at an exhibition, it seems, not a story unfolding, and Heller’s habit of jumping back and forth in time enhances this feeling of being trapped with no chance of escape. That’s what Yossarian must’ve felt every time Colonel Cathcart increased the number of missions soldiers had to fly before being sent home. What makes the reader stick to this crazy story (“Are you crazy?” is one of the questions the characters ask each other most often) is the writing itself: the rich narration, the humor, the absurd dialogue, the exact depiction of the absurdity of war.
Writers know that they should just use “said” after a line of dialogue, and strive to convey the emotion through the words uttered or the gestures and facial expression of the speaker. Going for the extreme, here is a list of verbs that Joseph Heller uses instead of “said,” to the effect of turning expectations on their head once more. Oh, and these verbs come with their “-ly” adverbs more often than not, such as “inquired curiously” and “barked gruffly” and “insisted lamely”—in case anybody misses the point.
|Chanted||Hastened (to explain)||Purred||Wanted to know|