I am a man of two minds when it comes to Charles Dickens. On the one hand, I see why the word “journalistic” is used often in critiques of his work. He has an eye for detail and does a nice job of laying out the political, economic and social justice issues of the day. He has a knack for undercutting corruption and outing false, self-important people. There is a straightforward quality to his work that is to be admired. And there is no doubt about the importance of his novels and their relationship to the Victorian Period.
However … I might argue that all of those terrific things don’t necessarily make Dickens a great writer of fiction. I know, heresy. But let’s think about this … If Darth Vader had virtually disappeared after A New Hope and not even shown up at the end of Return of the Jedi, would anyone care about the Star Wars series? If Voldemort had dropped out sight pretty much after The Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter had fought Crabbe and Goyle at the end of Deathly Hallows instead, J.K. Rowling would be a significantly less wealthy woman. Imagine a Big Lebowski where Walter damn near quits showing up after his run-in with “the Jesus” and the Dude is left to battle the nihilists and bury Donnie alone.
Maybe I’m stretching it with the last one, but you get my point. Miss Havisham is the interesting personality in Great Expectations. Not Pip, who the novel is about. Not Estella, who gets less interesting the more the novel progresses and eventually just fizzles out. Certainly not Joe, the people of the town or London, even the notorious lawyer, Mr. Jaggers. And most of those characters stick it out through the end of Great Expectations. But Havisham is outed as the fraud mentor at the end of the first third of the book and is relegated to minor character status for the rest of the novel. Easily the most interesting personality in the novel, Havisham is gone well before the end. The second two-thirds of Dickens’ fairy tale drag without her presence. And for some reason, both Dickens and Great Expectations are celebrated for it.
No similar problem plagues Catch-22. It’s madmen wall to wall: Yossarian, Doc Daneeka, Captain Black, Major Major Major Major and, of course, Milo Mindbender, who I may be elevating to my personal great literary characters pantheon. Each character – great and small – has their way of contributing to the madness of Joseph Heller’s WWII bombing unit. And despite each character’s unique foibles, each in his own way is locked into the catch-22 that plagues all of them. Every time you think Heller can’t take it any farther, he does. It takes a focused mindset to pull that off, almost an author’s form of method acting. To consistently immerse yourself and your work in the same logical fallacy and find new, more extreme ways of expressing it as the novel unfolds … it’s astounding. I couldn’t recommend this novel enough.