If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

You, the reader, purchases Italo Calvino’s newest book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The Reader soon discovers a problem; the book only has the beginning of the story and then breaks off right at a moment of suspense. The Reader returns to the bookstore to exchange his defective copy. There the reader meets the Other Reader, a girl named Ludmilla, a veracious reader who remembers the details of most of the books she has ever read and who has also come to return a defective copy of Italo Calvino’s new work. The Reader and the Other Reader exchange phone numbers and agree to discuss the book after they both finish. Unfortunately the replacement copy turns out to be a different story, which also ends shortly after the beginning at a moment of great suspense. The Reader calls up the Other Reader to discover she has the same problem. As they try to solve the mystery, they encounter yet more stories that begin, but never end. They journey into the corridors of universities where professors defend their esoteric subjects and obscure books, where feminist study groups rip apart books in discussions while only having read a fraction of the book, where chaotic publishing houses face an onslaught of writers and other shady literary figures, where internationally renowned authors struggle to overcome writer’s block, and even to South America where revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries infiltrate each other’s organizations and falseness pervades everything in society, all while hunting down a mysterious translator named Ermes Marana who wants to fill the world with fake bastardized copies of books and who has some kind of past relationship with Ludmilla. While trying to solve the mystery, the Reader tries to understand his new budding relationship with Ludmilla in the hopes of beginning a romantic relationship with her.

Like other books in the Postmodern tradition such as The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon and Operation Shylock by Philip Roth, there is a conspiracy-type of mystery at the heart of the novel, and the attempt to unravel this mystery not only creates a strong sense of confusion and chaos, but also raises questions about our identity and the character’s identities. As a metafiction, it is a fictional story that directly comments on the nature of reading and authorship. The novel employs the unusual second person perspective in order to address the reader directly and force the actual reader to identify with the Reader-character in the story. This is a metafictional trick to make us aware of the fact that the fictional reader is both like us and not like us at the same time.

The Reader as character is an Everyman figure who stands in for readers in general. This Every Reader represents the general desire of the average reader: to get to the end and solve the mystery underlying the main problem of the story. Traditional reading involves a story beginning with some sort of problem that causes the character to attempt to solve it, reaching an ending in which they either fix the problem, are changed by it, or both. Like the Reader character we, too, experience the frustration of ten separate stories that have beginnings, but no ends. Calvino tempts us to feel disappointed along with the reader since we never get to hear how these stories finish. However, unlike the Reader-Character we can see the real story is the frame narrative around the individual unfinished tales. The problem of the novel that draws the actual reader in is the Reader-character’s attempt to solve the mystery of the unfinished novels and his pursuit of Ludmilla as a love interest. These unfinished stories are themselves a means to an end, a trope that allows us to experience the real story. Instead of thinking of them as unfinished stories, we should instead treat them as clues in a mystery. The real story then is about how the reader character tries to solve the mystery of the unfinished novel and whether he can build a relationship with Ludmilla.

The identification with the Every Reader, emphasized through the second person perspective, is a fictional trick that urges us to consider the boundaries between fiction and reality. The perspective of the novel might encourage us to identify with the reader, but we are also not like this character. It is only a character, not us. The Every Reader captures a generalized version of a reader—in other words, it might capture what we want out of reading—but at the same time it lacks all our individualities as flesh-and-blood people. I have a daughter and I think I’m a pretty good father, I have a wife who I love, and I have a job as a librarian in a school. The Reader Character has none of these specific qualities or background. This reader character is not really me. So it is important to remember then that although the narrative tries to get us to identify with the Every Reader, this figure in the text is still a character at the end of the day; it only captures the real us to a point. By doing this the novel is warning against identifying too closely with a character in any book and forgetting they are products of the imagination. They might seem real, but they are just words on a page. We might see aspects of ourselves in them, but they are still very different from us and often in very different social circumstances. We might see people similar to ones we know, but if you think about it more they almost certainly are differences between the real person and the character on the page that reminds you of them. This point is addressed further in the relationship between the two readers. The reader is constantly trying to figure out Ludmilla. Is she interested in him? Why is she always late for their meetings? When we actually think about it, the reader character barely knows Ludmilla. He struggles to understand her and wonders if she is truly interested in him. Here, the novel is addressing the difficult question about how well we ever know anybody. How much do we truly understand the inner workings of our parents, our spouses, our children, and our friends? How much as readers do we understand what motivates Ludmilla? If the reader doesn’t know much about her and we only see the world through his eyes, how can we know much about her?

The novel offers other views about the purpose of reading. Ludmilla is the ideal reader. Ludmilla wants a pure and organic reading experience. She doesn’t want to know how books are made, revised, cut, changed, etc. She doesn’t desire books to comment on the deeper social world. She wants the final product, the book itself, to read for reading’s sake.

“For this woman . . . reading means stripping herself of every purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least expect it, a voice that comes from an unknown source, from somewhere beyond the book, beyond the author, beyond the conventions of writing: from the unsaid, from what the world has not yet said of itself and does not yet have the words to say (239).”

Reading for Ludmilla is a losing of one’s identity. We temporarily explore other worlds, other people’s experiences, other people who are not necessarily like us, and who have had different experiences from us. Reading for her seems to be about experiencing the world anew through the imagination. If there is deeper meaning to be found in literature it is the way it erases us as individuals and our petty concerns, and lets us experience the lives, worlds, and problems of others. The point for Ludmilla is the experience itself.

Some readers turn to books not to lose their identity and preconceptions, but to confirm and reaffirm their identity and political commitments. This is the case with Ludmilla’s sister, Lotaria, who is presented as a typical left-wing university student. She states at various points in the novel that the purpose of books is not so much to read them as to analyze them for clandestine social impulses and political points. She doesn’t enjoy reading books, but rather the point for her is dissecting and discussing books. She reads books already knowing what she is looking for and then finds it.
Our third model is Ermes Marana, the main antagonist who is behind the forgeries that forms the core problem of the novel. He also has ideas about the nature of books and readers.

“As for him, he wanted, on the contrary, to show her that behind the written page is the void: the world exists only as artifice, pretense, misunderstanding, falsehood (239).”

Unlike Ludmilla who views books as an escape into imagination, which may have the potential to change the way we view the world through new experiences different from our own lives and Lotaria who views books as social products to be critiqued and dissected, and thus are reflections of a certain social order that exists in the world, Ermes Marana believes that fiction is artifice. The world is meaningless, but stories give the illusion of meaning. His character who assumes multiple identities, fake credentials, and travels throughout the world on false pretenses embodies this understanding of reality. We never really learn who this man is in any definitive form. In a way, the character Ermes Marana is nothing but a series of artifices and false personas. Reading for him is about creating a variety of false meanings about the world to cover its meaninglessness. Is reading about the experience of exploring ideas, places, people, and worlds different and unknown to us that helps us open our mind to new experiences in the real world? Is reading about the pleasure of getting to the end of the story and feeling the comfort at the resolution of a problem? Is reading about challenging the status quo and an important political tool for change? Or is reading an act in which people fool themselves into creating false meaning and identity for their lives in a meaningless world? One might also see a hidden metaphor for life itself. Life is a series of stories and different people have different readings of other people’s lives. Ideal stories might always have an ending that resolves everything, but real life often doesn’t work that way and different narratives in our life don’t always have conclusions. Life often is a series of bumps and half-finished narratives, which we then replace with different narratives that matter more to us.


Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut draws on black humor and satire to give voice to the unspeakable horrors of war. The comical tone transforms a depressing topic into a more palatable form that might otherwise desensitize a reader and cause them to shut down by overloading them with too much sensory detail of misery and depravity.

Vonnegut’s anti-war novel centers on the firebombing of Dresden, focusing on Billy Pilgrim’s experiences during the war and after as he becomes “unstruck” in time after being abducted by aliens. The story unfolds in non-linear time as Billy jumps haphazardly between past, future, and “present” that directly influences his philosophy of life, and helps him create meaning in what is otherwise a chaotic world by ironically embracing the chaos of timelessness.

Billy learns this philosophy from aliens who abduct him called the Tralfamadorians. They teach him an extremely fatalistic understanding of time in which freewill is a human illusion and the past, present, and future have already occurred simultaneously and cannot be changed. The Tralfamadorians take this to such an extreme that they even know when the universe will end, but believe themselves powerless to stop it. Time simply unfolds, it has already unfolded. There is no possibility of individual agency; the living beings of the universe exist as observers pulled about by the strings of events destined to happen and much larger than themselves. On the one hand, this serves as a powerful metaphor for war and history in the sense that large historical events drag people along and uproot them from their lives without them really having any control over it.

The novel opens with a frame story introducing us to the person writing the book. This writer-character converses with a movie star about his plans to write an anti-war novel who responds by telling him he’d be better off writing an anti-glacier book than an anti-war book.

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.

In this quote we see reflected the viewpoint of the Tralfamadorians: war is inevitable, and it is extremely unlikely that writing an anti-war book will be effective in preventing the next war. It is a momentary sense of realism in a book whose main character cowers from the realistic by replacing it with the fantastic. I think, however, it would be a mistake on the reader’s part to assume Vonnegut agrees with the perspective of his aliens.

It is true that Vonnegut in this quote seems to accept the inevitability of war. Even though his book criticizes war, he harbors no illusions that it will effectively prevent the next war. On the other hand, he still believes it important to write, to criticize, to share his experiences in a fictional form about his horrible experiences, and hope that his book may have some effect in stopping war. Even if impossible, it is still an ideal worth aiming for. By the very act of writing an anti-war book, he challenges the perspective of the Trafalmadorians, but by acknowledging that his book probably won’t end wars he also affirms it as well. It may be unlikely that you can stop war, but it is still worth the effort to try and depict its brutal realities and senselessness. Like much contemporary fiction, these opposing and intermingling viewpoints also serves as a commentary on the nature of art itself as being both the most powerful and most powerless medium for social change.

The character of Billy is the authors own way of expressing the inexpressible. Billy’s mediocrity as a soldier and a human being in general adds to the absurdist tone of the book, while we watch more promising, stronger, and tougher men die around him during the war, somehow this man survives. Mediocrity defines his whole life. Although he ends up rich he does so by marrying his wife who he doesn’t particularly love or dislike, but feels is satisfactory. He is the most unspecial person in the whole world, sort of coasting through life. All of this brings us to perhaps the most important question of the book: has Billy imagined the aliens in his senility or are we to understand the aliens are real and Billy was actually abducted by them within the narrative? And if he has imagined them, why would he do so?

Certainly the book hints that Billy’s aliens might be a symptom of his senility or brain damage from a plane crash that he survived. The opening of Billy’s story raises his senility as a potential issue:

“Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day.”

What I love about stories like this is that it leave open the possibility of the reality of the events and its causes. If we believe the aliens to be an illusion of a crazed mind, was it the terrible experiences and memories of war that caused it? Was it the brain damage he received from the plane crash as Billy’s daughter, Barbra, suggests? Was it reading too many Science Fiction novels by Kilgore Trout that led him to imagine he had been chosen by aliens to learn the philosophy of time? Was he creating these creatures to fantasize away the mediocrity of his life? Or was it all just a dream. There is no correct answer as the novel gives hints that allows the reader to infer all these possibilities, but leaves these issues open-ended enough that any of these can fit or a combination of them. Likewise, there is always the possibility that the aliens are real and he really has learned this philosophy, which of course leads to a very different reading of the story and its theme. It is almost like solving a puzzle with multiple correct ways to solve it.

While recognizing all these possibilities, I like a reading in which Billy makes up the aliens as a way to give some meaning and importance to an otherwise mediocre meaningless life. The Trafalmadorian’s fatalistic philosophy of time helps Billy evade the psychologically traumatic experiences of war, especially the firebombing of Dresden. This belief allows him to reduce death to an unimportant moment in time, one moment in a person’s life not more important than any other moment. Often it feels like when anything too traumatic in the narrative occurs, he jumps to a different time period after the war before he must deal with the emotions. His stock phrase “so it goes” trivializes death; he never faces it in all its grim reality. Although the constant repetition of the phrase also serves as a kind of counter for the reader that calls our attention to the endless quantity of death and destruction. Billy’s experiences living in a zoo on Trafalmador is the ultimate erotic fantasy where he gets to live in an ascetic bubble away from reality and have sex with an attractive famous actress (in comparison to his fat unattractive wife).

Vonnegut writes a science fiction author into the book called Kilgore Trout. We are led to believe that all of this is a fantasy that Billy uses to deal with the mediocrity of his life and the horrors of war when we are told that one of the Kilgore Trout science fiction novel he likes to read has the exact same plot as his alien abduction experience and life in the Trafalmador zoo. Billy’s jumps through time are nothing more than escapism, a way for a senile old man to evade the horrors of his past and the boredom of his quotidian existence through the tropes of science fiction.

Vonnegut has plenty of fun with these science fiction stories within a science fiction story. One of these mini-stories within the story that stands out is about a robot with bad breath and who accidentally incinerates the people around him when he burps up fire. However, it is the bad breath that people find intolerable. Once the robot solves his bad breath problem he quickly becomes the most popular person (robot) in town, despite the fact that he still incinerates people on occasion. This sub textual commentary points out the superficial quality of human beings, and their tendency to focus on the wrong priorities. They care more about bad breath and personal hygiene than people being incinerated, which of course ties back directly to the firebombing in Dresden.

This also leads us to the core point of the book: war and lack of sympathy for others thrives on a loss of human dignity (that moment when people become less than human in the minds of other people). Not only is this explicitly shown throughout the war scenes with its repetition of “so it goes” that degrades the importance of life and death, but it’s a theme that finds expression in the everyday moments of Billy’s life such as when his daughter, Barbra, treats him like a senile old man or when the military officer sharing a hospital room with him after the plane crash finds him repugnant because of his brain damage and thinks they should put the “vegetable” out of his misery, or even the fact that he ends up in a zoo on an alien planet. It is worth noting that the Nazis not only considered Jews undesirable, but also the disabled and even the elderly in certain cases. The justification for the firebombing of Dresden is that Nazism had to be defeated at any cost, but as Vonnegut goes on to show with these everyday examples of dehumanization, Nazism lives on nonetheless.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 combines dark humor, exaggerated absurdity, poignant surrealism, despairing melancholy, and infinite revelations about the horrors and strangeness of modern society. The prose at times is exquisite. The characters are memorable, funny, and over-the-top. I found myself laughing out loud at the sheer stupidity of the characters and the craziness of the world, which often reminded me in a disturbing way of people I know in real life.

Everyone thinks Yossarian is crazy. He continually shares his belief that random strangers are trying to kill him. As a bombardier during World War II, Yossarian wants nothing more than to survive in the face of a most certain death. His only problem is that Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions necessary to complete a tour of duty. Every time he gets close, the number of missions necessary to be grounded and go home is raised. When he tries to prove his incompetence to fly, he is trapped by Catch-22, the insane rule formulated by the military bureaucracy: a man is insane if he would willingly fly dangerous combat missions and can, therefore, request to be taken off duty as being unfit to fly a plane, but the moment he makes the formal request to be relieved of flying anymore missions, the very act of making such a request proves that he is sane and, therefore, can no longer be relieved due to insanity. Although Yossarian is the focal point of the story, the novel shifts through a vast panoply of diverse characters sporting a wide range of personalities and personality defects, offering nothing less than an exaggerated, but accurate and sickly portrait of modern life itself.

Should Catch-22 be considered an anti-War novel? When compared to Erich Maria Remarque’sAll Quiet on the Western Front or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five who also could arguably fit in that genre, one notices some important and distinct differences in approach. Vonnegut’s work revels in the brutality and the sheer misery of war. Remarque’s work gains its power from its realism. Catch-22, on the other hand, makes for a poor anti-War novel when taken on the same terms as those novels. The first half of the book lacks the graphic depictions of degradation that are a staple of Vonnegut’s Slaughter-house. The characters of Heller are too over-the-top, too exaggerated, too unbelievable, and too unrealistic for it to work successfully as an accurate portrait of average American soldiers and the kind of realistic military life found in Remarque. I found myself imagining what my grandfathers, both of whom fought in WWII, would have thought of Yossarian’s experiences in relation to their own. Clearly the answer is that my grandfathers’ experiences were nothing like Yossarian’s, and the goal of this book was not to achieve a realistic depiction of war, at least on the surface. In a way, though, it offers extremely powerful insights on war. Its method rejects realism for exaggeration and sensationalism; it strives for grotesque, eccentric, and burlesque portraits of human beings over realistic characters. Yet, as I already noted, it captures real human personalites with disturbing accuracy and believability.

It takes a madman to know a madman. Throughout the novel, many of the characters accuse Yossarian of being crazy, yet he offers some of the most accurate and brutal insights about the world. Yossarian questions the idea of nation and country, wondering what sort of insanity ever made us swear loyalty to some artificial borders created by men. Although his belief that everyone is trying to kill him comes off as genuinely paranoid, it also functions as an effective critique of what war actually is (a bunch of random strangers trying to kill each other):

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”
[. . .]
Clevinger really thought he was right, but Yossarian had proof, because strangers he didn’t know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, and it wasn’t funny at all.”

In much madness there is wisdom. Yossarian captures perfectly the (il)logic of war. There is a touch of insanity in the idea that a thousand random strangers will try to kill you for the sake of some artificial boundary that we call country.

However, it would be a mistake to say the work condemns war in a completely uncomplicated way. For all his critiques about the irrational nature of war, Yossarian seems hesitant to denounce World War II outright. Throughout he accepts the fact that it will be a good turn of events if America wins the war and the Germans do not. Even at the end of the novel when Major Danby lectures him Yossarian seems to accept the implicit merits behind fighting this war.

“This is not World War One. You must never forget that we’re at war with aggressors who would not let either one of us live if they won.”

He accepts that it will be better if his country wins, but wonders why he must be the one to sacrifice his life for it. I think there is a real reason that Yossarian never directly condemns the necessity of this particular war, while still condemning the illogic of the ideas that perpetuate wars. It is the ultimate Catch-22 of the novel: how can one recognize that there may be legitimate moral reasons to fight a war (another country being an aggressor, a holocaust, and other genocides), while also understanding that engaging and fighting a war is an immoral action? The novel does not seem to have an easy answer to this question.

Less ambiguous is the novels critique of modern bureaucracy. The novel opens with a scathing look at bureaucratic institutions; in the first chapter, we find firemen who would prefer to have a fire than lives saved, doctors and nurses who perform their duties like robots without showing any genuine concern for the sick individuals themselves. It is a world where the individual gets sucked up in a machine of opportunism.

In the hospital Yossarian censors letters, erasing signatures and content out of sheer boredom to pass the time. No one cares how he manipulates the content of the letters, but the moment he censors the outer envelopes the military bureaucracy involves itself. Anyone who has ever worked for a bureaucracy or had a bureaucratic style boss understands how nitty-gritty and obsessed they can be with the proper rules and regulations: it doesn’t matter if you come in from 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM every day, I only expect you to be here from 9 AM to 3PM, and you’re late today by one minute. It doesn’t matter that you can’t see the clock under the pull-out screen and cannot use it to tell time, that’s where the clock is supposed to go according to the floor plan. It doesn’t matter if the clothes we tell you to wear is not optimal for these weather conditions, it says right here in the handbook that you must wear this style of clothes under regulation 672.  This incident with the mail also has symbolic importance suggesting bureaucrats do not care about substance, only outer appearance, a theme that will play throughout the rest of the novel. Most importantly, the bureaucratic obsession with rules almost always comes at the expense of efficiency. After all, it would have been far more efficient for Colonel Cathcart to simply rotate in fresh troops for his squadrons instead of requiring more missions from his men.

Colonel Cathcart is the ultimate toady, a completely incompetent person who sucks up to his superiors and inferiors when he needs their help, always with the view of advancing his career and helping himself rise another peg on the bureaucratic chain.  Morality or human lives do not matter to the bureaucrats, but only appearances, how well they look in front of their superiors, as Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn continually demonstrate with their complete disregard for the lives of the men under their command.

In bureaucracy truth is not what actually occurred, but simply what the paperwork says happened, how it can be spun to one’s advantage. We see this in the ludicrous trial of the Chaplain who is accused of forging his signature on documents. Even though he writes his signature right before the eyes of his accusers, they brandish another document he supposedly wrote earlier signed with his name–really forged by Yossarian at the beginning of the novel–and claim that the most recent signature cannot be his because it is different from this first signature, and that he must be lying, despite all evidence and logic to the contrary. The novel reiterates this sad fact about reinventing the truth at the end in a discussion between Major Danby and Yossarian.

“The hell they will! Don’t lie to me, Danby. They wouldn’t even try [to court martial me].”
“But why wouldn’t they?” inquired Major Danby, blinking with astonishment.
“Because I’ve really got them over a barrel now. There’s an official report that says I was stabbed by a Nazi assassin trying to kill them. They’d certainly look silly trying to court-martial me after that.”
But, Yossarian!” Major Danby exclaimed. “There’s another official report that says you were stabbed by an innocent girl in the course of extensive black-market operations involving acts of sabotage and the sale of military secrets to the enemy.”
Yossarian was taken back severely with surprise and disappointment. “Another official report?”
“Yossarian, they can prepare as many official reports as they want and choose whichever ones they need on any given occasion. Didn’t you know that?”

Too much of this reminds me of modern political discourse found across the scores of blogs and newspapers and talk radio shows. The bureaucrats manipulate the truth. The truth can be whatever they want it to be and whatever best suits their needs at the time. Perhaps the best example of this in the novel is when Doc Deneeka ends up dead, even when he is actually alive. Doc Deneeka forges his name on flight logs so that he can collect his flight pay without actually having to fly. When one of the ships he is supposed to be on goes down the bureaucrats of the novel decide to simply claim he died instead of dealing with the mess of him forging his name and collecting flight pay. It would cause too much bureaucratic paperwork to explain why he was not on the ship. People start treating him like a ghost, as if he really had died, even though he is still alive and talking. It gets to the point where the pentagon informs his wife that he is dead, and she begins collecting life insurance, despite knowing he is alive from letters he sends her. Unfortunately it is not only government bureaucrats who engage in this unseemly behavior, but politicians, militaries, academics, bloggers, and even newspapers as well. The novel suggests that there is no such thing as the truth anymore, only manipulated interpretations of the truth, especially once bureaucrats and opportunists take control.

In contrast to the cold superficial disregard of individual life as represented by the bureacracy, the other main theme of the novel seems to be the preciousness of life itself that comes with the painful recognition of the inevitability of death. The novel consistently reminds us that we all will one day die. The secret of Snowden points to this fact. Snowden who dies before the action of the novel even begins is constantly referenced, but it is only at the end of the book that we learn the truth of the incident. Yossarian tries to patch up the dying Snowden, bandaging wound after wound after their plane takes damage, certain that the gunner will live after all, until Yossarian opens his vest to find one wound he missed. All of Snowden’s precious organs spill out onto the floor; the man was dead all along, despite Yossarian’s efforts to save him. All the other wounds he patched up did not matter, and in fact, a waste of time because this one wound was fatal.

“It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret.”

The novel takes the idea of human materiality and fragility to its ultimate conclusion. It pokes fun at all our ideas, our politics, our ideals, our stupidities, our hopes, dreams, and aspirations because it suggests that none of it really matters. We are all going to die like so much dead matter, like so much garbage. Don’t take life too seriously, you’ll never make it out alive. The best we can hope for is to have some fun and happiness before we die. The novel does not necessarily take an atheist position and say G-d does not exist; after all, in the character of Corporal Whitcomb who is an atheist it has a lot of fun at the expense of atheism. The point is not that we should abandon all our ideals and beliefs for nihilism. The point seems to be to not take your ideas too seriously, especially at the expense of your own happiness, which is different from outright abandonment of them.

Yossarian keeps his ideals, but also finds space to have a little fun and happiness at the end, even though it is the harder decision. Similarly, another major turning point in the novel occurs when the old Italian man engages in a discussion about America with one of the characters, Nately, in the bordello. The old man is the ultimate pragmatist, telling Nately that he praised Mussolini when he was in charge, the Germans when they took over, and America as liberators when they defeated the Germans in Italy. He continually reminds him that he is over a hundred years old, and if Nately takes his advice and stop putting so much stock in patriotism he might make it to ripe old age too. What the old man is implying is that abstractions like country, government, and “-isms” are not worth anything, only your life. He punctuates this point by pointing out his age and enjoying himself with two young whores right after discussion with Nately. America will disappear in time, he suggests to an irate Nately; even the planet earth will be gobbled up by the sun. Everything is in a state of dying, so you might as well try your best to enjoy life and live as long as possible.

The novel ends with a thread of hope. Yossarian flees for Switzerland after discovering from the Chaplain that his friend, Orr, has survived a plane crash in the sea that occurred earlier in the novel. It turns out it was an elaborate plan to escape the insanity of war and bureaucracy. Skillful, resourceful, and useful Orr who stands in opposition to everything that useless talentless bureaucrats represent, manages to pull a fast one on them. Yossarian finds in this escape a method in which he can refuse to further risk his life by flying anymore missions and also refuse to sell-out his squadron and principles by taking Colonel Cathcart’s and Korn’s deal that would send him home and give them positive publicity. Instead he chooses to run away and join his friend Orr, maintaining both his principles and his life. So Heller balances his theme of pragmatism and life with this final moment in which Yossarian refuses to sell out his ideals.

Still, the most memorable part of this novel is not the themes, but the characters. There are so many great and memorable characters in this novel: sadistic Captain Black relishing in the suffering of others in hopes that he can watch them eat their livers, Nately’s whore with her misplaced anger that leads her to blame the wrong person for Nately’s death, Nately with his patriotic idealism who rebels against his father’s wealth and privilege by chasing after a lowly Italian whore only to reify his privileged upbringing by becoming a patriarchal tyrant once he gets the girl, Dobbs who conspires to murder Colonel Cathcart, Corporal Whitcomb the moody thin-skinned atheist who dislikes religious people so much that he is willing to encourage dogmatism and religious fervor just to prove his superiority as a non-believer, Major —- de Coverly with his haunting eye-patch and whose only useful skill is selecting great apartments for the soldiers to use on leave, Hungry Joe with his tortured nightmares only find relief when Colonel Cathcard extends the missions each time to complete a tour of duty, friendless Major Major Major Major who reminds us that some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them, Doc Deneeka whose problems are always more serious than everyone else’s, Harvard graduate Clevinger who knows everything about literature except how to enjoy it, Milo the emblematic capitalist who is worshipped across the world as mayor, king, duke, and even a god for his wealth and ingenuity at making money. Each of these characters corresponds to the features, personalities, and institutions found in modern society.

In truth, I could probably write post after post, essay after essay, without having made a dent into the depth of this novel. Every page, every chapter, every character bursts with meaning and sub-text. You’ll laugh, you’ll get choked up with anger, and you’ll savor every moment of this complex novel.