- Tilting at Mortality: Narrative Strategies in Joseph Heller’s Fiction
David Craig’s Tilting at Mortality is an impressive addition to the critical literature on Joseph Heller and contemporary American fiction. Writing [End Page 1008] in the aftermath of other extensive studies of Heller (books by myself, David Seed, Sanford Pinsker, Judith Ruderman, and Stephen Potts, as well as four anthologies of criticism edited by James Nagel and others), Craig nonetheless manages to add to our understanding of everything he addresses, especially Heller’s unpublished short stories and most recent novel, Closing Time. Craig incorporates the best insights of others while adding many excellent points about his two principal concerns, mortality as Heller’s major subject and the narrative techniques employed in developing this subject. Craig’s book is also distinguished by its deft use of a broad range of critics who specialize in narrative theory—Seymour Chatman, Peter Rabinowitz, James Phelan, Ian Watt, Robert Polhemus, Tony Tanner, J. Hillis Miller, Wayne Booth, and Peter Brooks. A few references to Lacan and Bakhtin notwithstanding, this fine book is that rarest of contemporary texts, a single-author critical study that deals with individual novels at great length while making succinct but telling use of the somewhat traditional narrative theorists cited above.
As he illuminates each of Heller’s six novels in highly detailed, chapter-length discussions, Craig is especially good at explaining the connections between Heller’s early short stories (including 17 unpublished stories) and several of the later novels, discussing Heller’s fondness for what Craig calls “retrospective narration” (wherein narrative events are only understood by characters and readers alike after they have occurred, sometimes many years after); explicating Heller’s literary allusions (such as those to Dickens in Good as Gold and those to Mann, Dante, and Wagner in Closing Time); illustrating Heller’s almost obsessive use of “the story of a child dying young”; pointing out and exploring Heller’s tendency to write about writers or artists; and offering the most detailed psychological studies of Heller’s protagonists yet published. I was especially impressed by the readings of Heller’s later novels, God Knows, Picture This, and Closing Time. With each of these books, Craig’s analysis of the primary characters is no less detailed and persuasive than that provided for Bob Slocum, the notorious protagonist of Heller’s second novel, Something Happened. In each case the reading is the most thorough yet done, and the cumulative result is that Craig’s book surpasses all previous studies, so far as coverage and depth are concerned. Whether tracing Heller’s use of his World War II flying missions from his earliest stories to his personal essay “‘Catch-22’ Revisited” [End Page 1009] (written many years after Catch-22), pointing to the Jewish themes in the unpublished stories which anticipate Heller’s concerns in Good as Gold and God Knows, or providing sympathetic but not uncritical readings of each novel’s narrative struggle with the theme of human mortality, Craig is always clear, interesting, and completely informed.
Inevitably, I liked some chapters better than others. Craig is at his best in developing the psychological portraits in Heller’s more “realistic” novels (Something Happened, Good as Gold, God Knows), but the same methodology applied to Catch-22 and what Craig calls “Yossarian’s initiation” seems to me less persuasive. Craig leaves the impression that Catch-22 is structured as an initiation story in which the tale of Yossarian’s “growth” dictates the novel’s famous structural oddities, but he achieves this effect by treating Yossarian at length and slighting the many characters Heller turns to when Yossarian is not on stage. Indeed, I found Craig’s chapter on Catch-22 the least successful in his book (though I should note that I am one of the critics he is “correcting” in his reading). I also think there is a slight tendency to introduce and illustrate major topics without quite explaining the point Heller wants to make about them. Examples would be the metafictional strain in Good as...