Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“I don’t want to wear a uniform any more.”

Catch 22 is a savagely funny, bitter, and terrifying novel. How can such diametrically opposed terms be applied to the same book? The answer is simple: Catch 22 is brilliant. The novel appears on many ‘top novels’ lists, and justifiably so. This anti-war satire is set in WWII and the story gravitates around Yossarian, a bombardier stationed in Europe and subjected to an ever-extended number of bombing missions. The more missions he flies, the more missions he is ordered to fly. Yossarian realizes that he will never go home, and thanks to the “spinning reasonableness” of Catch 22, he can’t escape.

Surrounded by an insane military complex, with two rival generals and competing, glory-seeking colonels who “never hesitated to volunteer” the bombardiers for endless missions, Yossarian concludes, “the enemy is anyone who’s going to get you killed.” Behind the battles and the air strikes, there’s the shadowy war profiteering system known as the Syndicate engineered by the ultra-capitalist Milo. The Syndicate places the bombing missions in as much danger as the German anti-aircraft weapons. Frozen eclairs are smuggled in by the French underground, but parachutes and morphine are missing at crucial moments. In a war bureaucracy designed to “elevate mediocre people to positions of authority” the good, the decent, the young and the powerless die, and the officers who command them award medals to the dead, and send meaningless letters of condolence home to the survivors.

In spite of the subject matter–which is just about as depressing as it gets–most of the humour in the novel comes from the decent characters’ attempts to deal with the circular logic and insane, meaningless orders hurtled down from the upper ranks. There are some marvelous characters here–Colonel Cathcart, Colonel Korn, Orr, the arch rivals General Peckem and General Dreedle and the generous Nurse Duckett. Yossarian is one of the greatest antiheros of all time, and he’s one of those rare fictional characters who remain long after the book’s conclusion. I grew particularly fond of Yossarian’s friend, the Chaplain who struggles to keep his faith while realising “immoral logic seemed to be confounding him at every turn.” He tries to stick up for the men, but he is soon involved in accusations that he is the mysterious letter censor, Washington Irving.

If you haven’t read Catch 22, I urge you to do so. It’s one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century–not a particularly easy read for many reasons–but brilliant nonetheless. The author never loses control of the prevailing sense of insanity, and while I laughed at some of the craziness here, the book carries a powerful, timeless message.

2 Comments

Filed under Heller, Joseph

2 responses to “Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

  1. I love this novel, it’s actually in my all time top ten list (or would be, had I an all time top ten list, which I don’t).

    What’s interesting too is how the novel is structured. There’s an incident Yossarian won’t think about, on one of the bombing runs, something terrible. His mind shys away from it whenever it gets close.

    Structurally, chapters jump back and forth in time, oscillating around the time that run took place, so that just as Yossarian’s mind won’t go there but goes everywhere else instead the book structurally won’t go to that time but goes before and after it instead.

    It’s part of what lends the book its power I think, the novel’s structure reflects Yossarian’s desire not to remember, and just as he won’t, we can’t.

    It’s clever stuff, a brilliant novel as you say.

  2. Guy A. Savage

    Another novel it took me far too long to get around to. I think for some reason, the novel was linked in my mind to that MASH television series (the Catch-22 business), and so I avoided the book for years.

    Yossarian is one of those unforgettable, iconic characters in literature.

    While I loved the entire novel, I think my favourite part was when he was a censor.

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