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Lost Book Club: 'Catch-22'

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Jen Chaney and Liz Kelly
washingtonpost.com Staff
Friday, November 14, 2008; 2:00 PM

When Naomi parachuted onto the "Lost" island during the show's third season, she had a copy of one book in her backpack: "Catch-22" by Joseph Heller. Even though the text was in Portugese, the "Lost" writers clearly wanted to connect the Oceanic 815 drama with Heller's satire of wartime bureaucracy, a fact further emphasized by the title of the episode in question: "Catch-22." But what's the connection?

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Join "Lost" bloggers Jen Chaney, Liz Kelly and members of our online "Lost"-loving community Friday, Nov. 7 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss Heller's novel, the November selection in our "Lost" Book Club, and its relevance to the "Lost" universe.

Submit your questions, comments and convoluted theories either before or during the discussion.

For more "Lost," visit post.com's "Lost" Hub for show-by-show analyses,"Lost" Madness results and to review last year's book club selections.

Liz Kelly's day job is as Celebritology blogger, while Jen Chaney presides as Movies editrix. Both consider "Lost"-watching a passion.

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Jen Chaney: Good afternoon. I have been "Lost"-ing myself to death this week. First, came the big announcement that the show resumes Jan. 21, which is earlier than I thought. (Joy!)

Then I got to hang with the dudes from the band Previously on Lost. (See

video of their nutty genius here

.)

And Liz and I started our call for help with the

"Lost" iMix we'd like to create

. (By the way, please add comments to the article or pipe in to the chat with some song suggestions.)

But today we are here to talk "Catch-22," which I am *almost* done with, but not quite. (I read it in college, does that count?) The main question on my mind: how does the "Catch-22" dilemma relate to the island?

Liz, what do you think?

Liz Kelly: I'm particularly keen to learn what significance Heller's book might have for our little show because, I'll tell you, I wasn't a fan -- and being such a huge fan of "Lost," I wonder how the two intersect.

_______________________

Hanso Fundation: Jen/Liz

Hi, In the end of season three, there was hope some would get off the Island. But others felt no need to leave the island. So in "Catch 22" some felt the need to return home but others felt the (need?) duty to stay. So what best represent the peeps on the island and "Catch 22"?

False dilemma

Irony

No-win situation

All the above

Thanks

Jen Chaney: Well, let's think about this. The novel first shows up on the island in Naomi's backpack. Which is the first signal to the Losties that they might actually be able to go home immediately, right?

So I feel like Jack's dilemma at the end of season three might be a catch-22 situation. To get everyone off the island, he has to ignore Ben's warnings. Yet by ignoring them, he actually is not really saving everyone. It's not a straight-up catch-22 conundrum, but it's in the ballpark.

Liz Kelly: I'm going to go with "all of the above" -- and I would argue that a catch-22 kind of encompasses all those qualities anyhow.

_______________________

Postponed!: Ack. So I missed that it was postponed and thought I had missed the chat...but still didn't finish. Oh well can I still say that Yossarin lives....just like Jin lives?

Liz Kelly: Sure, go for it. And thanks for waiting an extra week for the discussion. Last week's big event was a little distracting for all of us.

Jen Chaney: I forgot how challenging "Catch-22" is. Of course, in my case, it didn't help that I only had time to read right before bed and was always falling asleep after a few pages. This is less a reflection on Joseph Heller than it is on the chaos my life has become.

I do plan to finish, though. I'm pretty close to the end. And there were a lot of things about it I enjoyed, the wry humor and critique of bureacracy chief among them. Could the appearance of the book on "Lost" be a signal that Dharma and The Others are also totally dysfunctional organizations?

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Ilium, N.Y.: My apologies, I'm a slow reader and only recently finished "Slaughterhouse 5." Hope you don't mind if we revisit the last "Lost" Book Club pick.

I was struck by how multi-dimensional (so to speak) Billy Pilgrim was and how different aspects of his character seemed to be incorporated into different characters on "Lost."

On the one hand, Billy appears to be a victim of circumstances, an innocent bystander amidst the chaos of war and the slippage of time. In that respect he reminds me of Desmond whose fate seems to be beyond his control.

Then there's Billy the opportunist who marries the bosses daughter even though he's not in love with her, and who eventually exploits his experiences on Trafalmadore and become a cult figure. Reminds me of Locke and his moves to take command of the Others and protect the Island that has made him whole again.

There's also a bit of Billy in Sawyer. That mischievous, devil-may-care aspect of Billy's character, the one that doesn't care if he looks a fool in his silver boots and toga as long as he's comfortable. And the lover of Montana Wildhack and father of her child...

I'm still working on "Catch-22." I'll probably chime in on that in December!

Liz Kelly: There's probably a bit of Billy in all of us if you look hard enough. To me he really represented one's interior life. We all live inside our heads and have no one there with us.

I think he also represented the idea that one is somewhat buffeted by fate (for lack of a better word) -- and that also plays in to the drama unfolding on "Lost."

Jen Chaney: Yeah, I hear what you're saying. For some reason, I mostly saw Desmond. Maybe I've watched "The Constant" episode a few too many times, but all the time shifting made me really visualize Des as Billy. But you're right, there are elements of his character that certainly apply to other characters.

I also think that's a function of us seeing him at different stages in his life. At differnt moments in time, we are all different people, right? I for one hope we are. If I'm still exactly like I was at the age of 12, I have a whole lot of Duran Duran pin-ups to plaster around my house after work tonight.

(Um, wait. The Duran reference might actually prove that I haven't changed at all...)

Liz Kelly: It always comes back to Duran Duran, doesn't it, Jen?

Jen Chaney: It really does. It's extraordinary how that works.

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dre7861: I love to read and I've participated in every book discussion of the "Lost" Book Club but I have to say this month's selection was a first - I read just 100 pages of "Catch-22" and realized that I was hating the book so much that there were better things I would rather be reading. I've always wanted to read this book but I have to say it was one of the worst I've ever read. Even after 100 pages I couldn't tell you what the story was about except that it was random vignettes. But hey, I could have dealt with a bunch of "short stories" but Heller committed the ultimate creative writing sin -- show me don't tell. If Heller had written last season's finale of "Lost," he would have had Jack telling someone that he broke into a funeral, met a bad guy and will have to steal a body of this guy named Locke in order to get back to a mysterious island. That's not very dramatic or pleasing when you compare it to the show we saw. This book was a mish-mash and rarely did it involve me emotionally. Sorry, I guess there has to be one in every crowd.

Liz Kelly: Dre, I'm with you. I have been wracked with guilt for the past few weeks because I found every page of this book excruciating to get through. And, ultimately, I didn't get anywhere near finishing it. So I'm looking forward to what Jen and the others who made it further gleaned from Heller's text.

And please, hang in there with us -- we're planning a much lighter (hopefully) read for the coming month.

Jen Chaney: I understand why you feel this way. I feel like the last half has been much better than the first.

I think you touched on a valid reason why the book is tough to dig into -- it doesn't have a strong sense of place. At least, for me it didn't. As I was reading, I didn't find myself visualizing the action so much as appreciating the humor behind the wordplay. Which is fine, but to really engage with a book I need to really see the world we are inhabiting and for much of the novel, I didn't.

I will say that Heller has better success with that at later points, especially the scene where a certain character (don't want to give away to those still reading) gets sliced in half on the beach. And Mike Nichols made a movie of the thing, so clearly it can be a visual story. Just isn't written that way for long stretches.

Go ahead, tell me I'm full of beans. I can take it.

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Crazy Town: Don't the two of you think it was a little dangerous to assign "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Catch-22" as two books to read in a row? DURING ELECTION SEASON!?

I decided to read them back-to-back while watching Hardball as an experiment with my own (questionable) sanity. Chris Matthews is crazy, too.

A simple answer to "Catch-22." The book is Hurley; Insanity with a spine.

Jen Chaney: Insanity With a Spine. I like that. I understand that was Driveshaft's original name.

The notion of who is really crazy and who isn't definitely reminded me of Hurley, too, no question.

And for the record, I don't think you should read anything during "Hardball." It's too distracting. And we promise our next book will be lighter and easier. Everyone here likes "Where the Wild Things Are," right?

(Kidding!)

Liz Kelly: Speaking of Charlie, look for Dominic Monaghan on NBC's "Chuck" -- playing an English rock star. Good thing he's not typecast. It would totally be horrible if he could only get cast as a hobbit.

Fact: "Chuck" stars Zach Levi and Josh Gomez are huge "Lost" fans. How do I know? Because they swapped "Lost" theories with Jen and me at Comic-Con.

Jen Chaney: That Zach Levi is a stallion. He does love the "Lost," Liz speaks truth.

I have been missing "Chuck" pretty much all season. I must check out Monaghan, though, that is brilliant.

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Catch 22! : Is my all-time favorite novel.

Its time-shifting structure, where you don't find out what part of the story you're in until you're halfway through a chapter, is very Lostian.

Also, Yossarian's determination to escape Pianosa (while others are happy to stay) is similar to Jack. The final image of the film Catch-22, though not in the book, has Yossarian frantically paddling away in an inflatable raft. Great image.

Jen Chaney: Yes, the time-shifting was hard for me to appreciate fully because I was reading in short busts over a long period of time. I really think it's best to read this novel in as concentrated a time period as possible. Otherwise all the references are -- sorry, don't mean the pun -- lost.

The fact that they occupy an island is also a clear connection, absolutely.

_______________________

Seattle, Lost by the Fremont Troll: While some situations in Catch-22 do seem similar, especially that bizarre feeling of malaise and the lack of positive reinforcement for actions, I've always felt, however, that it's more that the people on the Island are Lost themselves, and it's more a place than a situation.

Can they leave their Catch-22 existence if they haven't resolved the inner conflicts which consigned them to the purgatory they're in?

Jen Chaney: Ah, purgatory. Must be mentioned at least once per "Lost" chat.

I think the people -- at least some of them -- on the "Catch-22" island are lost more because of the situation they are in, though, whereas the Losties were lost individuals before they arrived on the island. If that makes sense.

I also was thinking this morning that, in some ways, season one of "Lost" sort of has the feeling of a war novel or film. There's been a disaster, people are in shock, there is a doctor doing triage on the beach. Yossarian has to live alongside a dead body in the novel and the Losties are living alongside the dead in a way, since not everyone survived the crash. (RIP, Greg Grunberg.) I don't know, maybe I'm stretching...

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Boonsboro, Md.: If any of you had actually been in the armed services (I am ex-Navy), "Catch-22" makes perfect sense, and is hystercially funny.

Liz Kelly: Ah, well then. I was only an Army brat for 23 years, so I guess I can only relate to "The General's Daughter."

Jen Chaney: I definitely think much of it is very funny, as I said earlier. And I don't think you have to have been in the military, although I am sure that adds another layer to appreciate.

To me the dysfunction described could (and does) apply to many organizations, from the Army to a company to homeowners' associations. Really, the world is filled with nonsense at all turns, and Heller does a great job of pointing that out.

The chapter about Doc Daneeka's "death," for example, is pretty brilliant.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Stopped watching "Lost" awhile ago because it ceased to be good, but curious to know if you saw any parallels to the extraordinary character of Milo Minderbinder, who Heller used to lampoon the idea of "what's good for GM is good for the country" or "shareholder democracy" or even capitalism itself.

Liz Kelly: Objection. "Lost" is so still good. It had a shaky month or so in the middle of season 3, but it was back in tip top form for most of season 4. I suggest getting the DVDs and catching up.

Jen Chaney: I second Liz's objection on the grounds already stated.

Milo was a fascinating character. He created a whole huge industry -- the idea that he was a mayor somewhere is beautifully absurd -- out of what should have been a piddly job.

Who on "Lost" is like him? I don't know. I didn't see any direct comparisons, but readers can chime in if they did.

_______________________

Chicago, Ill.: I must admit I didn't like the book much either and didn't finish it. The only thing I could think of that paralleled "Lost" was the crazy/sane thing. In the book if they said they were crazy so they didn't have to fly any more missions, that meant they were really sane because only a crazy person would want to fly more missions. Is there something there with Jack? It it crazy or sane to want to go back to the island?

Liz Kelly: Well, taken on its own, I think it is utterly sane for Jack to want to return to the island. It was also sane, though, for him to want to leave in the first place. He had no way of really knowing -- despite Locke's warnings -- what would happen if they left.

And if we're going to talk about relative sanity, Hurley -- the only member of the Oceanic 6 actually committed to an insane asylum -- needs to be part of the conversation. In the bit of the book I did get through, Yossarian kept reminding me of Hurley -- despite the obvious differences, they were both guys who chose -- at least for a time -- to shut down rather than deal with reality.

Jen Chaney: True on Yossarian. But he also tried to confront reality and got nowhere. Again, his situation made him into an almost nuts, lost soul. I mean, if people kept telling you the corpse in your tent wasn't there, you'd go a little cuckoo too, right?

Re: Jack. That is a great question. I don't think I know how to answer that yet. It's sane, on one hand, because he wants to save all those people. (And yet also a little crazy, because Jack can't shake his "I must be the saviour" syndrome.) I've also gotten the sense that -- in addition to the saving thing -- Jack realizes that he was a better man on the island, that it "healed" him, albeit in a less obvious way, in the same way it did Locke and Rose.

I actually think that might be true of all of them.

Wow, this is a weird personal observation, but I just remembered that I wrote a short story in 8th grade about being stranded on an island where there was no concrete sense of time. I am not making this up. Liz, I gotta dig that thing out. I am psychic!

Liz Kelly: Okay, you TOTALLY have to find that. Coincidentally, I wrote a story in eighth grade about running away with Simon LeBon. What are the odds?

Jen Chaney: Um, you totally copied that story from my saga about running away with John Taylor. Lame!

I do need to find that. It creeps me out a little that I did that. I knew even back then that I'd spend half -- okay, three-fourths -- of my time thinking about "Lost."

_______________________

Wilmington, Del.: I love in "Catch-22" that you don't really know what's going on until you get to the final few chapters, when suddenly a bunch of things come together, and small decisions that seemed insignificant end up being a deciding factor. Like, Yossarian's escapade with the prostitute in Morocco (?) before he's sent to Italy.

Jen Chaney: Exactly, which is why as a reader, it's worth it to hang in there. But you have to get over the hump first.

Liz Kelly: Maybe I'll give it another try someday. Maybe after my stint in the Navy.

Jen Chaney: Right. You need to serve before you can read, Liz.

_______________________

Milo Minderbender: You asked which "Lost" character Milo Minderbender most resembles -- the answer is obvious: "What's good for Ben is good humanity."

And I would bet that Ben would be perfectly capable of organizing and directing an enemy bombing raid on his own base as part of a deal, just like Milo did.

Jen Chaney: I don't know, Ben seems more diabolical than Milo. And Milo strikes me as more entrepreneurial and greedy, whereas Ben cares more specifically about power.

But I see your more general point, definitely.

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Major Major Major Major: One interesting parallel that struck me was Snowden in "Catch-22" and the Marshal in Season 1 of "Lost." Both characters are introduced to us already mortally wounded (and both by massive abdominal wounds) and seem to exist for the primary purpose of immediately forcing the main characters to deal with suffering and mortality by looking it in the face.

Yossarian tries to comfort Snowden in the nose of their bomber, but he undoes Snowden's jacket and Snowden's "secret" comes spilling out. This incident is constantly revisited and seems to be what triggered Yossarian's psychic crisis.

For the Losties, Jack and gang tried to first save, then to at least comfort the Marshal, until finally Sawyer botched the job of putting the Marshal out of his misery. This was the Losties first, most emotionally, psychically, and morally intense experience with suffering and mortality. However, later adventures on the island soon pushed it out of their minds.

And for your "Lost" iMix, I recommend "Happy Together" by the Turtles. It can be thought of literally (Desmond and Penny), tragically (Charlie and Claire, Sayid and Nadya/Shannon), or ironically (Ben and, well, anyone). The music is also a lot more dark and creepy-sounding than a lot of people seem to realize.

Jen Chaney: Oh, that Turtles song can totally be heard as an ode written by a stalker. Thanks for the suggestion.

And that's a really great observation about Snowden. It's amazing how many really significant things have happened to the Lost characters in a short period of time, and have been totally forgotten. Obviously that's for the sake of pushing the narrative forward. But a TON of people have died amongst them within a pretty short period. Kate's been nearly tortured twice, and so has Sawyer. Sawyer also almost died That has to take a toll and yet they just keep on trucking along.

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Liz Kelly: Okay, thanks for joining us today and meet us back here next month for a discussion of our next selection, which is right behind door number 2. Miss Cheney?

Jen Chaney: Liz, don't be spelling my name like Dick Cheney. I thought that era was finally over!

(I am teasing, I know Liz knows how to spell my name. "Catch-22" and a long week have probably messed with her space-time continuum.)

We will reconvene here on Dec. 12 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss ... "The Mysterious Island" by Jules Verne. In the meantime, please add recommendations to our "Lost" playlist, which we will be unveiling soon. And stay tuned for other potentially exciting developments (like a DVD review of season four, for starters.)

Thanks for so many great insights into Joseph Heller and "Lost." See you next time.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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