Joseph Heller’s ‘Closing Time’
VTR Date: September 16, 1994
Guest: Heller, Joseph
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Joseph Heller
Title: ”Closing Time”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I have the strong impression now that far and wide everyone feels the most intense, subjective need to comment in a very personal way on Joseph Heller and his new Simon & Schuster novel, Closing Time, which just may be because 30 years ago and more, his now classic Catch-22 was such an intensely personal experience for so many of us. And now, 10 million copies of Catch-22 later, I suspect that Closing Time, his, mine, and maybe yours, will be equally evocative for the survivors of my generation and his, as well as for thoughtful people of all other ages. I suppose I ought to begin now by asking Mr. Heller what makes him so doggone good at reading my mind, knowing my life experiences, and being able to write so well about them. And, indeed, Mr. Heller, there are so many points in Closing Time when it’s not just a matter of our being in the same generation that I think you’re a mind-reader.
Heller: (Laughter) I don’t have any magical powers. I do find, in all the navels I’ve written, that if I draw on my own instincts, impulses, dreams, secretes, and present them competently in a literary form, they often coincide with the feelings, the observations, insights, the reactions of many other people, people who tend to feel the way I do about everything that’s going on, from the very personal to the very political and universal. It’s dumb luck.
Heffner: Nah. Come on. It’s not dumb luck. You know, Lord Morley said about Theodore Roosevelt, that he had “the psychology of the mutt”. And I couldn’t help but think about that in noting the many times there were words, sentences, paragraphs, that were mine.
Heller: Well, all I can say is I have a similar reaction to yours to Russell Baker. So often Russell Baker will do a column, it could be on Proust, it could be on this 11-year-old kid in Chicago, the hit boy, and I feel he is reading my mind. And I often think I am Russell Baker or Russell Baker is I or is me.
Heffner: Fair enough. Now, that makes you almost a journalist, reporting on the human condition.
Heller: I don’t think journalists report on the human condition. I don’t think that. (Laughter)
Heffner: You don’t?
Heller: No. I think journalists report on what is going on that day. Even drawing the distinction between journalists and columnists, I don’t think either one normally feels an obligation to record the human condition as such. I think they work on a day-to-day basis. I think the word “journalism” probably comes from the French “jour”, which is to deal with the events of that day. Whereas I, as a novelist, who normally takes between four and 11 or 12 years to do a novel, can’t be concerned with the events of the day, because by the time I put it down it’s already far in the past.
Heffner: What are you concerned with then?
Heller: I am concerned primarily with myself, and my progress and my career and success as a novelist. If you’re asking me what I think about, I do think about things beyond myself. I do tend, in my novels, to utilize – without a conscious plan, my creative imagination works that way – I do tend to utilize events in my surroundings as the content of my novels. I will have characters. The characters will be, usually, fictional, and they will have their own journeys to make from the beginning to the end. But generally they’re travelling through what I think of would be current events. They’d be political, they’d be economical, they’d be social, they’d be sexual. And more often than not, they’ll reflect my reactions to those events. Now, the characters are different in a novel, except for the distinction between those who are clowns and villains and fools, all of the sympathetic characters have very much in common. And what they have in common are the good aspects of me.
Heffner: That’s fair enough. How then, 40 years later, does Closing Time differ from Catch-22?
Heller: It differs from Catch-22 esthetically it’s a completely different fictional form. Here and there in Closing Time I do go back and rely on some of the techniques in Catch-22. And usually I rely on those when I’m dealing with the narrative concerning the characters from Catch-22. The novel does not begin with Yosarian. I think anybody reading this book will know from the first sentence or the first paragraph that Closing Time is a very different novel than Catch-22.
Heffner: I wasn’t really referring to technique, or even to storyline content that way. I was referring to Heller. How is it…
Heller: Oh, it’s Heller looking at the world 40 years or almost 50 years after the Heller that wrote a novel looking at the world in Catch-22.
Heffner: And the difference?
Heller: The difference is I’m older, the country’s older, the army’s older, you’re older, and there have been vast, vast changes in attitudes and in institutions and in moods between the end of World War II and the present day.
Heffner: Yeah, but I’m interested in your mood. I’m interested I those changes. What are they? What are people going to see as different?
Heller: What they’re going to see is different here is a realization of the human condition presented in novelistic form. Now, “human condition” is a very broad term. Certain things are constants. Certain changes are constants. And that’s inevitable. We do grow old. I am old. Everybody who was in World War II is approximately my age, unless he’s dead. Everybody in World War II who survived would be between 69 and 80 years old now. And I was well into this novel when they had the D-Day celebrations.. And watching on television, reading it in the magazine, I felt once again, because I’m a slow writer, my timing was going to be exceptionally fortunate. Closing Time was going to come out at a time when most of us have been reminded that World War II took place and ended almost 50 years ago. All of us who were affected by it or participated in it are now my age or close to it. We look at things differently now.
Heffner: Yes, but 10 million copies of Catch-22. Those 10 million copies, unless you’re going to tell me otherwise now, I can’t imagine were read simply by people who were your age when…
Heller: No, no.
Heffner: Okay. So it had a universal appeal; and this will, too.
Heller: Yes, indeed, they each will. But what is your question?
Heffner: Question is: How has that appeal reflected a difference in Heller then and now? Or maybe there isn’t any. Maybe the cynicism…
Heller: There is no difference. It’s the same Heller that wrote Catch-22 is the same Heller that’s in Closing Time. The milieu has changed. The same cynicism there, the same irony, the same improbabilities, the same exaggerations, the same surprises, the same reckless risks I take in certain parts of this novel I took in Catch-22.
Heffner: What do you mean, “Improbabilities”?
Heller: There are things in Catch-22 which could not happen literally, and there are aspects of closing Time, there are narrative lines which the reader knows are not to be taken as literally so. We have a wedding at the bus terminal here. And from the opening line description of that wedding, the reader knows that I am exaggerating, I am satirizing, I am impugning, I am criticizing, and I am being funny in doing it.
Heffner: You know, but you called these “improbabilities”. And I must say, in reading Catch-22 years ago, and in reading Closing Time now, I don’t find Heller’s improbabilities improbable.
Heller: That’s because of Heller’s talent. The ability to take what is not so, what is not literally true, and to make it credible and make it convincing is part of my talent. I may be sounding immodest, but I feel if I talk about Catch-22 it’s so far in the distance that I don’t think it’s mine. I will still meet people, and they can be 18 years old or 80, and in this country and in Europe, and they will come up to me and say, “Catch-22 was the funniest novel I ever read”. But more importantly, they will say, “Catch-22 changed my life”. I am shrewd enough and cunning enough not to inquire how it changed their life because I’m not sure they could tell me. I don’t think, I’m not sure Closing Time will produce that same effect. I think it will produce a much different effect.
Heffner: All right. You say you wouldn’t ask anyone, “How did it change your life”?
Heffner: How do you think it did change their lives?
Heller: I don’t know. I know how it changed my life.
Heller: (Laughter) It made me a novelist. It made it possible for me to leave the succession of occupations I had, jobs I had while writing Catch-22, and leave it with the confidence that I could earn a living writing another novel. The next novel took 13 years to write. Something happened. But by the end of that 13 years I was financially secure, and I was established a literary presence. And I never, never had to think of taking an office job or a salaried position again. So, there are other ways…
Heffner: That’s a plus, I must admit.
Heller: Of course it is. I have said this before. Some of the advantages, of being a successful novelist, in my case, is I never have to do work I don’t want to do, and I never have to work with people I don’t like. And there are very, very few others in this society of ours who can have those satisfactions. I’m not sure it’s true of you. I know it’s not true of the Governor of New York State. It’s not true of the President of the United States. I don’t have to work with anybody I dislike.
Heffner: So this is true not just of the novelist though.
Heller: No, a successful novelist.
Heffner: Not just of the successful…
Heller: Well there may be…
Heffner: The artist.
Heffner: The creative artist.
Heller: Well the creative artist…
Heffner: Successful creative artist.
Heller: Or the man who inherits a fortune, I suppose, is in the same position. He never has to do any work he doesn’t want to do. And he possibly never has to associate with anybody he doesn’t like. But we’re wandering farther afield. Let’s get back to those 10 million copies of Catch-22. It’s more than 10 million by now. I mean, they just don’t want to change the figure on the cover of the book. (Laughter)
Heffner: That’s a pretty good figure, you’ll admit.
Heffner: And your thought about what the impact was upon those people?
Heller: Well, the impact is tremendous, in two areas. Again, I sound conceited, but it’s a conceit based on, I think, based on pragmatic reports. And that is, the impact is a work of literature, highly original, possibly unlike any other novel that I knew of before, and unlike novels that other people had read before. There is that impact, to me. And to others, it opened the possibilities of what could be done forcefully and successfully in the form of fiction. And that was my primary objective. It was written as an avocation. I had time to write Catch-22 because I was working at my advertising and promotion job. And I also knew three or four years before it was finished that it would be published. I had a contract of publication on the first 200 pages. So, in developing Catch-22 there was no hurry to complete it. And there was a feeling that this may be my only novel, and I wanted to express in the form of fiction everything I think that’s possible for me, and that’s worth expressing.
Heffner: Did you?
Heller: I think I did. I reread Catch-22 before I started Closing Time, since Closing Time is not a sequel, it’s a successor novel to it, and I was amazed at how much there is in Catch-22 that I like.
Heffner: You know, you talked about Russell Baker before, when I said, you talked about journalists talking about the human condition, you said, “Journalists don’t do that; novelists do”.
Heller: They do it.
Heffner: Okay. I come back again to the contrast, if there is any, the differences between the comments on the human condition in Catch-22 and in Closing Time.
Heffner: If you say there’s none that’s fine.
Heller: What, the contrasts?
Heffner: Yeah, the differences.
Heller: There are, in Closing Time, one, two, three, four, maybe five different levels of narration involving different characters who have only an occasional contact with each other or reference to each other. Two of the narrative lines deal with someone like myself and his friends who were born and brought up in Coney Island of working-class parents, Jewish, who have lived their lives, normal lives, in a way that normally is not dealt with in motion pictures or in novels, not even in Catch-22. They went through the war. One went to college; one didn’t. They married fairly early. They had children. The children grew up. They grew older. They went through the normal processes of life as I know it, and as you probably know it. And eventually one wife dies and one man dies, and at an advanced age. And that is done deliberately in a fictional form in stark contrast to the story of Yosarian and Milo, the surrealistic story of George C. of Steeplechase Park, and the scenes in the White House, which are done with extravagance.
Heffner: They’re done with politics.
Heller: With politics, yes. And it’s done, again, consciously and conscientiously for contrasts. So that the stories are very touching. I know they’re very touching, the Coney Island stories, because enough people have commented about them to me, are almost all done in retrospect. They are done in the first person, and these people are telling the reader what has happened in the intervals between their chapters. The other stories are done in the third person. Then here and there there’s a chapter done from what in classroom were called the omniscient narrator, in short chapters he can comment on all of them. I hesitate to say this, because it’s going to scare readers off. I don’t know music. I love music, listening to good jazz and classical music. In this novel I often thought I was working in the fugue form, and I was working with counterpoint. The difference in the tone, and literary tone, between Sam Singer of Coney Island and Lou Rabinowitz of Coney Island and Yosarian at 68 years old then 70, making money, trying to help Milo sell the play, which is so, it goes faster than light and makes no sound, it might not even exist, while in the White House a new president who does not know what the job is about is in office doing things that will affect everybody. And there are similarities in Yosarian’s life and in Sam Singer’s life. So much so that I’m trying to suggest they not only shared the same experience between World War II and the present, but they may even be the same person, presented with a different melodic form.
Heffner: Why do you say, to preface those comments, that you might scare people away because of the musical metaphor?
Heller: Well, because there are many people who don’t like counterpoint and don’t like the fugue form. (Laughter) And if they want to hear music, they’ll put on their CD players instead of reading the novel. But this description that I gave you was often in the back of my mind as I was plotting Closing Time.
Heffner: What does “Closing Time” mean? What are you referring to?
Heller: (Laughter) You know what it means. It means…
Heffner: I want you to tell me.
Heller: Well, it means several things. It could mean time is closing in on us. It could mean that it’s time to get out. If you’re in a pub in England, it used to be, “Hurry up please, it’s time”. It also means that we’re nearing the end. The characters are nearing the end. Halfway through the book I introduce the narrative line from Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, Dammerung Von Gott. And at one point I defined it. It does mean “twilight”. And it’s nearing the end. It was nearing the end for the gods in Wagner; it’s nearing the end for many of our institutions; it’s nearing the end of this century; and my characters, all of my characters, even Yosarian, are happy, and they’ve lived happy lives.
Heffner: Now, did you say…
Heffner: …”Nearing the end for many of our institutions”?
Heller: Yes. Oh, yes.
Heffner: Now, tell me about that.
Heller: Oh, I think there’s been a national loss of respect for federal politics and the people in federal politics. I don’t think it’s just I who observe this. I think there has been a decline and a degeneration in political ethics between the end of World War II and the present, and I see no hope of that being reversed.
Heffner: Now, what would you say to the commentators who would say, ‘Hey, among the things that has led to that was a novel, Catch-22”.
Heller: I would laugh in their face. I would say, “You can’t find a specific cause. You can’t find a specific person who does it”. Well into this book I use the line that “History is autonomous, and proceeds independently of those who make it”. Now, there are no villains in Closing Time, unlike Catch-22. Almost everybody is likeable, and the marriages are almost all happy.
Heffner: Yes, but when you say there are no villains as there are in Catch-22, I ask you the question…
Heller: Your question is, “What would i say to somebody who says Catch-22 is responsible…”
Heffner: No, I don’t mean is responsible…
Heller: …for the deterioration of incompetence and ethics in the White House?
Heffner: No, no, no, come on. Give me a chance. Give me a chance.
Heller: No, I’m not going to give you a chance. (Laughter)
Heffner: Let me ask the question I want to ask.
Heller: That’s what I would say to somebody who asked. I wouldn’t let him follow it up.
Heffner: But I’m going to ask you. Catch-22 left so many people I know in the disbelieving mode. Everything is a Catch-22.
Heffner: That when you talk about the decline of our institutions…
Heffner: …and you talk about the shift, the change, the downgrading of our institutions…
Heffner: …wasn’t the impact of Catch-22, in part…
Heller: It doesn’t work that way.
Heffner: What do you mean, “It doesn’t work that way”?
Heller: I’ll tell you it doesn’t work that way because I don’t think novels…
Heffner: Have influence?
Heller: I don’t think they have influence. They certainly don’t’ have influence as propaganda. I think if there’s a skepticism…
Heffner: Do you mean that?
Heller: Oh yes, of course I do. If you responded to Catch-22 because in your own mind there are factors at work that led you do appreciate.
Heffner: Sure. Absolutely. But to say that a novel or a play, whether it’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or a film like birth of a Nation, or Gone with the Wind as a novel, that these…
Heller: are you saying that the childhood…
Heffner: That you have more power than you thought.
Heller: No. Are you saying that the child who says the emperor has no clothes is responsible for the fact that the emperor is not wearing clothes?
Heffner: Not at all.
Heller: So if say, in Catch-22, that personal ambition, the personal ambition of people in authority exceeds any of their desire to do good, are you saying my saying it forms them, forms their ambitions?
Heffner: I’m saying that you, Catch-22, lent itself to a growing cynicism, which you, a few minutes ago, said sure, that’s what informs, the present novel and Catch-22 equally.
Heller: The cynicism that I’m talking about is not in my books. The cynicism I complained about is in business, is in public relations, is in the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and is, exists and motivates and propels and defines almost every elected official in public office that I know about.
Heller: and if I say to them, “Don’t believe them. Pay no attention to what Clinton says or Bush says or Reagan says, it’s all bull. They may say the same thing tomorrow”, you’re going to say I’m the one who’s cynical?
Heffner: I’m going to say that you’re just like the journalists, the newspaper people and the filmmakers and all the others who sit where you’re sitting today, who come on this program and say, “Nobody in here but us chickens. We didn’t have the power. Our creations, our films, or films, or books, our reportage, couldn’t have done this. We were just reflecting”.
Heller: I can’t believe that you have people who say that, who make motion pictures, who are newspaper columnists…
Heffner: Or novelists?
Heller: And even novelists.
Heffner: But here you are!
Heller: I’m saying I can’t believe others would say it.
Heller: Because most of them, I believe, tend to be more egotistical than they should be, and to overestimate the power of the printed word. Catch-22 took seven years to write and one year to be published.
Heller: If I was writing that book to transform public opinion, influence public opinion, it’s one of the weakest methods to do it.
Heffner: Oh, Hell’s bells. I’m not talking about what your intentions were. I’m talking about what the impact of that extraordinary novel was.
Heller: Did that impact improve the honesty and credibility of Lyndon Johnson after he won the election, in whatever year he won it?
Heffner: Nothing could.
Heller: Well all right. So it would have no effect on it. And yet, if my novel was then used and quoted and used to deride and decry and complain about the travesty of the Vietnam War, you’re going to say that Catch-22 is at fault and…
Heffner: Not at fault. Where do you get this business, “at fault”? What I’m saying is that you…
Heller: I will take any criticism. I don’t want the blame for making Lyndon Johnson what he was, and John Kennedy was, and Carter and Bush and Reagan.
Heffner: Why do you think – and I really have to laugh at that – why do you think…
Heller: I have to laugh too. (Laughter)
Heffner: …why do you think that it’s criticism, or negative criticism? It is a tribute to the ability of a novelist, namely you, to have set a pattern of set a picture or set a backdrop against which so many younger Americans could say, “Sure, now I understand what went on in the assassination and with Lyndon Johnson, because I read about it in Catch-22”.
Heller: That’s a lot different from the way you introduced this area of discussion, in which you asked what I would say to the person who says Catch-22 is responsible for the deplorable condition or decay in…
Heffner: You heard too much. When I go home I’ll watch what we did.
Heller: Rerun the videotape. I’ll show you. (Laughter)
Heffner: Not at this moment, because we have about 45 seconds left.
Heller: I can’t finish in 45 seconds. (Laughter)
Heffner: Well, we’re going to have to. Look, final words are yours. Do you think that Catch-22 and Closing Time can help set a frame of reference, a way of thinking?
Heller: It certainly can if one is interested in the literature and if one is interested in Joseph Heller. You have my beginning with Catch-22, you have what may be my last work as a novel with Closing Time. One can look at those two and see 50 years, see, as you said, a depiction of experience that mature people have gone through without even realizing it. Find your own thoughts there. Find your own history there.
Heffner: It’s nice to find a guy my age who is so creative still.
Heffner: Thanks so much for joining me today, Joseph Heller. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”