With Toby Ash at The Browser, Boyd discussed five books and authors that inspired him, including:
Catch 22Read about another book that inspired Boyd.
by Joseph Heller
Let’s start on your book selection. Why this classic from Joseph Heller?
A lot of the books you read when you are young are the ones that stay with you and haunt you. I remember vividly reading this book, which is a war novel, when I was about 18 or 19. I read it on a flight from London to Lagos. I was still at school and was going out to Africa where I lived. I read it in one of those panting, rapt, engaged reads that last 12 hours. At the time, I thought it was the most wonderful novel ever written, partly because of its absurdist sense of humour and the way it looked at war and warfare. Funnily enough I was flying into a war zone then, the Nigerian civil war, and that made Joseph Heller’s war seem almost tame in comparison. It seemed to me to have complete bearing on the craziness that I was witnessing in Nigeria. It was timely, eye-opening and funny as well.
Can you tell us a little more about the book’s story?
Interestingly, I started to read it again about three years ago and I abandoned it almost immediately. I wasn’t enjoying it and I didn’t want to destroy my whole experience of it. It’s the story of a man who has been a member of an air crew, a bomber squadron, in Italy in 1944, a man called Yossarian. He and his colleagues go on bombing missions over Germany and northern Italy. The catch-22 of the title is that Yossarian thinks war is crazy and wants to get out. But that’s a very rational point of view, so nobody would take him at his word.
Anybody who thinks that war is an absurd, ghastly, farcical misadventure is in fact incredibly sane, and only the insane would be allowed out of a war zone. So Yossarian’s war is an attempt to prove that he’s insane, when in fact he’s the sanest man on the air base. It’s essentially about Yossarian’s attempt to extricate himself from this utterly ghastly black and deadly farce that he’s involved in. It is a very anti-war novel but written with tremendously skillful, tongue-in-cheek aplomb. It’s not banging an anti-war drum, it’s just showing the inherent lunacy of warfare. It is a great novel. It’s just that I read it at exactly the right time and should stick with those memories and not try to recreate them today.
The book’s publication coincided with the start of US involvement in Vietnam. Heller really caught the imagination of the growing anti-war movement, didn’t he?
It caught the mood of the 1960s counterculture even though he was talking about a war that took place 20 years earlier. Heller was in that war and I don’t think the book is an oblique look at Vietnam. I think it was an attempt to write up his experiences. Others did it too, but there was something about Heller’s tone of voice – that comic, absurdist view of the conflict – that chimed with this time particularly well.
Particularly his portrayal of the government and bureaucracy being more dangerous than the enemy.
Yes, exactly. Every time he went to the doctor saying “get me out of this”, the doctor would say he couldn’t because he was clearly not insane. This is the bind he finds himself in. It’s a very modern, almost a cool take on warfare, where an American tone of voice seems to get the business of warfare and its inherent and deadly craziness extremely well. That’s my memory of it. The reason I chose it was because it had an enormous effect on me when I was dreaming about being a writer. I did write a war novel in my twenties based on my experience in Nigeria which I’m sure was heavily inspired by Heller, but it wasn’t good enough to show to anybody.
Catch-22 is among Jim Lehrer's 6 favorite 20th century novels, Charles Glass's five books on Americans abroad, Avi Steinberg's six books every prison should stock, Patrick Hennessey's six books to take to war, Jasper Fforde's five most important books, Thomas E. Ricks' top ten books about U.S. military history, and Antony Beevor's five best works of fiction about World War II. While it disappointed Nick Hornby upon rereading, it made Cracked magazine's "Wit Lit 101: Five Classic Novels That Bring the Funny."