The story came around to kick me in the face. At one point I laughed out loud. At another point I was asked, “Are you okay?” after a character had died. Yes, I truly enjoyed this classic from 1961.
But I had a tough time writing about this book. At first I wanted to discuss the humor, but that seemed too limited, especially after the humor faded. I was going to talk about the unlikable main character, but the character seemed narrow compared to the rest of the story. Then I tried to figure out the structure of the narrative, yet that didn’t hold up well for this article by itself. Not until I wrote this piece six times did I figure out what all three aspects have in common—everything about this book worked from contradiction, contrast, and contradistinction.
The author deftly controlled my experience from beginning to end and connected me to the story through a strange feeling of manipulation. The author dropped me into the middle of an inside joke where I had to piece together the context as I read. The main character was a big horny bully who faked basic ailments to get out of fighting the glorious war. Multiple points-of-view jumped around so much I wasn’t sure who the story followed. The timeline shifted between past and present with half the chapters devoted to wandering, overly descriptive histories of side characters. For those alone I believe the cliché applies; this classic couldn’t get published today.
Building the Humor: Contradiction
Yes, the multiple POVs seemed to get into the weeds, but afterward I realized that the author had built a rich world of personalities specifically for the main character to destroy. Without the long backgrounds revealing people under stress, their personal vulnerabilities in war, and superiority egos unchecked, motivations of ancillary characters would’ve come across as random and pointless. In this space the sarcasm and irony contradicted other characters’ words and actions illustrating the absurdity of the situation. People would call each other crazy in casual conversation over pedestrian issues, yet everyone behaved in ways that would otherwise be considered insanely criminal if the actions took place outside a war zone.
The style of humor started off irreverently funny… and then it kept going. It wore on me. I looked at the other inch of the book and groaned. If the humor continued much longer I was going to throw the book against the wall.
But it didn’t.
Here’s the mastery of the author. After about two hundred pages the disjointed back-stories started falling into place. Humor gave way to plot. The personalities that lent themselves to ridicule by the main character revealed the hopelessness of his situation. All of the character flaws and petty motivations exposed an overall existential struggle. It wasn’t so much a comedy as it was nearly a tragedy.
The Awful Main Character: Contrast
The main character wasn’t just unlikable, he was repulsive. It’s a war story, but this guy refuses his duty. He gangs up to belittle and degrade vulnerable people. Every other chapter he’s sexually harassing nurses or banging prostitutes. At one point he reflects on how much he loves the nurse while banging a random prostitute.
So how is the story built around such an unlikable character?
Slowly. Over the course of the book the contrasts revealed themselves. Yes, the main character is awful, but he’s going to die because of other people’s egos. The people he degrades are those who buy into the insanity. And he expresses his deepest love for the now unobtainable nurse in a poignant moment of transformation while doing what he’s always done. As the personalities fall apart around him, this repulsive guy transforms into the stable moral center of the story. We know exactly what he’s all about. The ancillary characters are bad examples of what the main character will become if he continues doing what he’s supposed to do. And as the ancillary characters drop off the main character tilts toward sympathetic. Over the course of four hundred pages I finally found myself rooting for this guy to somehow win.
The Structure Held It Together: Contradistinction
Nothing started like it should’ve and only one thing ended like it started. Everything in between was a gradual march toward the opposite where each step passed unnoticed until the story became right-side up. The story didn’t strictly follow the classic three act structure or the Hero’s Journey. The main character’s world was distinguished through contrasts (contradistinction) in the superfluous POVs and flashbacks. The narrative followed his reactions to chaos imposed on him from random sources rather than a single evil antagonist. At the beginning, the main character’s choices seemed enormous, like he was in total command of his destiny, yet as the story progressed he was revealed to be in control of nothing. From the reader’s perspective the protagonist’s confidence slowly rotted from the inside until only a hollow impression of a strong character lashing out from desperation remained at the end. This was a beautiful manipulation of a character’s arc.
Contrast, Contradiction, Contradistinction
The main character seemed the smartest person from the start. The guy who saw through official nonsense, had a quick wit and could talk to the ladies, but at the end, he was the last character who understood. And when he realized this, all aspects of the story came together.
There were sections where I had no idea what was going on, but it’s a war story, plus the sarcasm and irony kept me engaged. Those parts felt a little disconnected, but their eventual disintegration isolated options and forced the story’s ignoble conclusion as the only possible satisfactory ending.
I sought a humorous novel because I wanted to study how to write funny in long form. With this book I got more than I’d expected. I got an entire world that exploited comedic principles to deal with material that was itself deadly serious. And therein lies the power of comedy. To express issues that would otherwise be too painful to deal with directly.
Next time you’re reading a good book—hell, even a bad book—pay attention to the contrasting elements. I’ll bet the better ones draw greater distinction in the characters, plots, and endings.