I’ve been meaning to read Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” for their popularity and critical acclaim. I finally read both recently—at the same time. To be honest, they are not my favorite books, but they taught me three important lessons in writing.
If you write fiction, these takeaways may be useful. If you have insights to share, leave me a comment below.
#1 A strong social message can be a selling point.
Published 14 years apart, both books were inspired by the authors' World War II experiences. Both books are satirical and staunchly anti-war.
In “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Vonnegut uses humor to describe horrific experiences. For example, a joke about Poles led to this paragraph—“Speaking of people from Poland: Billy Pilgrim accidentally saw a Pole hanged in public, about three days after Billy got to Dresden. Billy just happened to be walking to work with some others shortly after sunrise, and they came to a gallows and a small crowd in front of a soccer stadium. The Pole was a farm laborer who was being hanged for having had sexual intercourse with a German woman. So it goes.”
In “Catch-22,” Heller’s message about the senselessness of war hits home through a character named Mudd, an officer who is killed less than two hours after he arrives. “Mudd was the unknown soldier who had never had a chance, for that was the only thing anyone ever did know about all the unknown soldiers—they never had a chance. They had to be dead,” wrote Heller.
#2 A strong, original voice makes a novel memorable.
Both novels are experimental in the sense that you can’t really compare them with novels with linear storytelling approach. Both use absurdist humor to make a point.
Heller’s protagonist, Yossarian, and Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim are both anti-hero. They are silly and paranoid, even inept. They are a far cry from what we expect of a war-novel hero.
In “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Billy Pilgrim travels through time, going back and forth various points in his life. Aliens abduct him and he lives in a zoo in a planet called Tralfamadore.
The absurdity of “Catch-22” is manifested in a character named Doc Daneeka, who’s listed on the manifest of a plane that crashed and killed soldiers. His colleagues assume he’s dead. Even after he shows up in person, they refuse to believe that he’s alive. The military even notifies Doc Daneeka’s wife of his death and sends her the money from his GI insurance policy even though he’s right there with the rest of the troops. Ridiculous? Yes, just like the rigidity of military rules, which Heller spoofs.
Even readers who scratch their heads while reading these books will remember them long after they finish reading.
#3 Choose an intriguing book title.
If you know nothing about these novels, you’ll wonder about the relevance of 22 in “Catch-22” and five in “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
Taken literally, the book titles themselves offer no hint about the stories, unlike, let’s say, Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” or Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.”
The vagueness of “Catch-22” and “Slaughterhouse-Five” make them intriguing.
Of course, the term “catch-22” has taken a life of its own. Today it’s a common expression, defined by the Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary as “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule.”
I don’t like absurdist or experimental novels, but I appreciate “Catch-22” and “Slaughterhouse-Five” for their originality. Nobody can write like Vonnegut or Heller (let’s not kid ourselves!), but their books show us how to be true to one’s voice. My biggest takeaway from Heller and Vonnegut is: be yourself. Don’t imitate them or other writers.