“The rest of the officers fled toward the two exits in panic and jammed up the doorways like a dense, howling dam of human flesh as they shrank from going farther. . . Tents and trees were in flames, and Milo’s planes kept coming around interminably with their blinking white landing lights on and their bomb bay doors open.” –Catch-22
With Obama and Romney preparing to storm each other’s beaches at tonight’s foreign policy debate, I find myself reconsidering Milo Minderbinder, the war profiteer par excellence in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Milo is either a repulsive, treasonous f-wad who murders his fellow American soldiers, or a business and PR genius who has winning in his blood.
And I find myself wondering: Who are the Milos of 2012, and, since neither candidate is much of a dove, who are they voting for?
And eventually I find myself not caring because this isn’t a post about politics, it’s a post about writing.
“Charles Ruas: The first time you mention Milo bombing the squadron it comes as such a shock, and then you move on.
Joseph Heller: If I were going to do that with a straight narrative form, it would not be believable.” –Conversations With American Writers
There’s a really huge block quote right before this where Heller discusses how he prefers to reveal that a huge or shocking event happened, and only much later describe it actually happening. (As opposed to the “straight narrative form” where everything is chronological.) This technique sneaks credibility into what might have otherwise been incredible–it’s already somewhere in our consciousness when we get to the gory details, so in our minds it’s already “happened”.
This is an essential tool in the belt of someone like Joseph Heller, the maestro of wacky situations that may be implausible but tell us everything about everything.
And I think it’s a good one for all writers to get comfortable with, especially those of us who write to sell or otherwise convince the reader. Get the big claim or promise up front, and don’t be in too much of a hurry to break it down to its elements. By the end break it down thoroughly–describe each bomb falling, each tree flying out of the ground, each corpse burning, but don’t show your hand too soon. Your audience might just run away.
I’d be heartened if Mitt and Barack read this post as they get ready to brawl in a couple of hours, so they can land their blows on Benghazi, bankruptcy, and binders with maximum impact.