Tuesday, 19 October 1999
Joseph Heller: Closing Time (1994)
Review number: 367
Almost thirty five years after finally finding a publisher for Catch 22, Heller wrote a sequel. Through this period, every book he has produced has suffered from comparison with his first novel. He has never managed to combine the elements of farce and tragedy so well as was made possible by his theme of helplessness in the face of official stupidity.
Many elements from Catch 22 are present, transformed, in Closing Time. In Pianosa, the characters were terrified of being killed in the war. Back in the States fifty years later, they are terrified of dying of cancer. Sudden death from illness replaces sudden death from warfare as the driving force in the background. This is a fear which it is easier for most readers today to identify with, I suspect.
Using these characters from the past makes Closing Time an unusual novel in at least one respect. Few novels have all the main characters in their sixties and seventies; adolescence is probably the most common age for a protagonist.
There is a different emphasis, too, in the attitude towards official stupidity and duplicity. The anger of Catch 22 is replaced with resignation. "This is how the world is, and nothing we can do will change it" is a viewpoint more appropriate for the seventy year old. There is less energy in Closing Time; it does not grab you in the same way that Catch 22 does.
One result of this is that you read three quarters of the book feeling that it is not as good as Catch 22. Then Heller suddenly pulls out the rug from under your feet, and its then a rollercoaster ride to the end. You are too gripped to distance yourself from the book, even just far enough to consider its quality. But, after finishing it, I was not convinced that it was up to Catch 22's standard. The tragic is not so tragic - the death or nearness to death of a seventy year old is difficult to make so affecting as that of the same character at twenty - and the comic is not so comic - this is the lack of energy again. Perhaps the best thing Heller has written since Catch 22 (though I have an affection for God Knows, because I like the idea behind it), Closing Time is not quite its equal.