Catch-22: A Novel by Joseph Heller (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996; originally published in 1955. 544 pp)
Born in Brooklyn, Joseph Heller joined the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. After the war, Heller studied English at USC and NYU before earning an M.A. at Columbia University. Later, he studied at Oxford University as a Fulbright Scholar. Famous for Catch-22, Heller became a world renowned author and satirist. He died in 1999.
That’s it for Me!
George Costanza never spoke more truth than the day he decided to follow Jerry Seinfeld’s advice and leave on a high note. Whenever he enraptured a room with an exceptional joke, he immediately left.
While reading Joseph Heller’s groundbreaking Catch-22, I am reminded of this classic Seinfeld episode. Simply, Catch-22 functions pristinely as a short story, but it suffers from its page length. Heller should have left on a high note.
But There Was a Catch
In irreverent and absurd terms, Catch-22 highlights the struggles of Captain John Yossarian, an Air Force bombardier, as he copes with war in the 256th squadron. The narrative in Catch-22 is complex. Heller, to a certain extent writes the same story over and over again through the lens of different characters comprising the 256th squadron. The main thrust of the story, however, denotes the horrors of war and the sheer lunacy of soldiers who continue to fight in the face of near certain death.
The reader, then, connects with Yossarian. He wants nothing more than survival; he would rather not fly missions; it would be ideal to remain sick-but-safe in the hospital rather than healthy-but-in-imminent-danger on the front. When Yossarian flies a mission, he tries his best to convince the pilot to return to base or he will engage in evasive maneuvers at the expense of completing his mission. Yossarian desires to be grounded and promptly returned to his home in the United States.
But there was a catch.
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions” (55).
This catch defines the absurdity seen throughout this non-chronological novel. If a soldier—like Yossarian—desires to save his life, he is rational. If he is crazy, he can go home. But the crazy ones have no regard for their lives and would never desire to be grounded. Everything exists in paradox. Heller drives the reader insane with a flip-flopping narrative.
Seemingly, every section of dialogue holds intentionally humorous contradiction.
For example, consider this piece of dialogue:
“’Sure, that’s what I mean,’ Doc Daneeka said. ‘A little grease is what makes the world go round. One hand washes the other. Know what I mean? You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’
Yossarian knew what he meant.
‘That’s not what I meant,’ Doc Daneeka said as Yossarian began scratching his back. ‘I’m talking about cooperation. Favors. You do a favor for me, I’ll do one for you. Get it?’
‘Do one for me,’ Yossarian requested.
‘Not a chance,’ Doc Daneeka answered” (43).
Sentence by sentence, Heller deconstructs and reconstructs meaning. In one sentence, Doc Daneeka asks Yossarian to scratch his back. When Yossarian takes the request literally, the Doc switches to the idea of exchanging favors. Yet in the next sentence, he refuses to give Yossarian a favor.
While humorous, it also affirms the paradoxical nature of the entire story. Everything shifts; nothing remains resolute.
Even in the Grim Moments
Despite this hilarious absurdity, Catch-22 possesses moments of paroxysmal despair. Yossarian’s friends, lovers, and enemies come and go throughout the narrative and—true to war—many don’t survive. In these grim moments, Heller writes with impressive aplomb.
“Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all” (450).
Describing the grisly death of a member of Yossarian’s flight crew, passages such as these contribute to the catch-22-nature of the book. One moment a character makes ridiculous decisions around camp, the next moment, the character is dead. Catch-22 is equally humorous and devastating.
Leaving on a High Note
Yet, Catch-22 felt overwrought. Even though I understand its purpose, I can’t say I enjoyed reading the book. Since Catch-22 is a non-chronological narrative, it often repeats narratives from the perspective of different characters. While these repetitions introduce new shades to the storyline, I struggled reading them. To me, I quickly understood Heller’s direction. I followed the paradoxical concept of catch 22 and I connected that concept to overarching narrative. To me, Catch-22 would work much better as a novella.
Perhaps Heller could’ve taken a page from George Costanza and exited the room after 100 pages. He would have left on a high note.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 5
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