Author: Joseph Heller
Publishing Date: 1994
Number of Pages: 519 pages
Genre: War Novel, Satirical Novel
At the heart of Catch-22 resides the incomparable, malingering bombardier, Yossarian, a hero endlessly inventive in his schemes to save his skin from the horrible chances of war.
His problem is Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions that he’s committed to flying, he’s trapped by the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, the bureaucratic rule from which the book takes its title: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes the necessary formal request to be relieved of such missions, the very act of making the request proves that he’s sane and therefore, ineligible to be relieved.
Since I started doing list challenges, one of the most popular books that keep on popping up on these lists is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Moreover, I keep that it is one of the best novels of the 20th century. There is a drawdown, unfortunately, it is a war novel. If there are three genres that I am averse of, it would be young adult fiction, war novels and scientific fiction. However, I am a fair reader and when majority says that it is a great read, I’ll take time to read. This is the reason why I included the book in my 2018 Top 20 Reading List.
But first, what does catch-22 mean? As per the dictionary, it is a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions. It is in this situation that Yossarian, the book’s main character, found himself him. The 28-year old Yossarian is a captain and B-25 bombardier in the 256th Bombardment Squadron of the Army Air Corps during the Second World War. He wanted to complete his missions in order to return home. However, different events keep interceding and in the end, his stay kept getting extended. The book related Yossarian and his unit’s experiences during the Second World War while they were stationed on the island of Pianosa in the Italian front.
“Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.” ~ Joseph Heller, Catch-22
I really wasn’t sure how I was going to approach this review because, honestly, I found the narrative a bit confusing and a little underwhelming. Heller’s narrative went around and around, like loops, many of them, especially in the first half of the book. He would start a chapter with a new character and then starts a new chapter again with a new character and a different storyline. Just when I thought I got my grip on the story, suddenly I begun losing my train of thought. I was diffident on pointing this out, especially after reading the countless paeans the book has received over the years. However, I wasn’t the only reader who felt the same.
To gain an understanding of the story, I researched more about the book. I rarely research about the books I read before reading them. My research helped in putting all the broken pieces together, at least in a coherent line, thus, assuaging my confusion of the narrative. The circular loops that Heller used in conveying his story is actually a part of its overall ingenuity. It is what makes the story more interesting. My post-reading research made me appreciate this modern classic.
Basically, Catch-22 is an anti-war novel written by Heller, who once served as a bombardier during the Second World War, to serve as his memoir. He did this by writing a narrative that goes around in loops, stirring a confusion mixed with a humor that is uniquely Heller’s. The war itself is an absurd situation that everyone wants to steer clear off. We all want to get it over with. However, the different interests involved in wars make everything a little challenging.
“I’m not running away from my responsibilities. I’m running to them. There’s nothing negative about running away to save my life.” ~ Joseph Heller, Catch-22
In several passages, the primary characters, especially Yossarian, satirized the ongoing war. The story was critical of the power-hungry mongers, especially amongst the ranks of the military. Whilst the lower ranks want to finish their missions in order to go home, the upper ranks keep raising their quotas for their own personal interests. In the midst of the tumult are light moments as the bombardiers realize the absurdity of their situation. But these situations don’t only apply to those who are in the war; similar situations have become ubiquitous. We always get caught up in catch-22s.
The easiest way to escape a bombardier’s fate is to prove to a doctor that one is insane. However, wanting to prove that one is insane is in itself a proof that one is sane. One iteration of this intensely absurd situation should have been enough but it got repeated all throughout the narrative. These repetitions impaired my appreciation of the novel, adding more salt to my initial confusion. Moreover, it didn’t help that most of the interactions felt contrived. Honestly, I missed out on most of the humor parts.
Apart from the distinct writing process, what made the story more interesting is the set of characters. Yossarian was indeed the life of the party. His paranoia and cantankerous personality made the narrative lighter. However, most characters were one-dimensional. They were either black or white. Moreover, the way they reacted to the different situations were, most of the time, whimsical. But perhaps this is Heller’s way of demonstrating the confusion that wars evoke.
“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity trust upon them.” ~ Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Overall, I neither hated nor loved the book. I was looking forward to this book so much but in the end, I wasn’t as riveted of the story as I hoped I would be. I understand the satire but I guess I possess a dry humor because I felt the book mostly contrived. Nevertheless, I commend Heller for the way he wrote the story; it was unique. I just had problems unraveling the story. I guess war novels are just not my cup of tea. However, I want to reread the book in the future; perhaps then my perspective would change. For now, I am giving it a very lukewarm rating.
Recommended for readers who enjoy reading war novels, for anti-war propagandists, readers who enjoy satirical and critical works, readers who like classic fiction and avid book readers.
Not recommended for readers like me, and readers who dislike war novels.
About the Author
Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923 in Brooklyn, New York.
When he was just 19 years old, he joined the US Army Air Corps. In 1944, he was sent to the Italian Front where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier. Post war, he attended the colleges of New York University and Columbia University and then Oxford, the last on a Fullbright scholarship. For two years, he taught at Pennsylvania State University. He then returned to New York, beginning a successful career in the advertising departments of different magazines like Time, Look, and McCall’s. While working in the advertising industry, he had the idea for Catch-22, working on it in spare moments and evenings at home. In 1961, the novel was finally published.
He followed his success with Catch-22 by publishing his second novel, Something Happened (1974). His other works include Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984), and Closing Time (1994). He is also the author of the play We Bombed in New Haven. He also wrote short stories, screenplays and his autobiographies (No Laughing Matter in 1986 and Now and Then in 1998).
Joseph Heller passed away in December 12, 1999.