I have spoken before about my foray into the world of book groups. With two ‘To-Read’ stacks, consisting of 30 books still awaiting consumption, I am hesitant to place further demands on my already hectic reading schedule. But I recently stumbled upon a new group that seems to cater exactly to my tastes – the London-based ‘Books I Should Have Read’. First read: the thus far-neglected classic, Catch-22. With further excellent reads impending (giving me the excuse for a re-read of George Orwell’s amazing 1984 and an exploration of Salman Rushdie’s work), there is little doubt that this is the book group for me. For now, however, I offer up my review of the first selection – Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
“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. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he would have to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.
‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed.”
Catch-22 tells the story of World War II bombardier, Yossarian. Labelled a hero after a reckless, yet successful, bombing mission, Yossarian begins to question the purpose of the war and the sanity of the bureaucracy that wage it. As his superiors, led by the deluded and self-involved Colonel Cathcart, continue to increase the number of missions required for completion of service, Yossarian rebels and refuses to fly. But the shadow of Catch-22 follows him. While he attempts to battle his demons and escape the war, the novel follows others caught up in the demands of combat. From the haunted and perverted Hungry Joe to the ruthlessly entrepreneurial Milo Minderbinder, the war offers a space in which the extremities of conflict blur the lines between rationality and insanity, reason and madness.
” ‘They’re trying to kill me,’ Yossarian told him calmly.
‘No one’s trying to kill you,’ Clevinger cried.
‘Then why are they shooting at me?’ Yossarian asked.
‘They’re shooting at everyone,’ Clevinger answered. ‘They’re trying to kill everyone.’
‘And what difference does that make?’
Clevinger was already on the way, half out of the chair with emotion, his eyes moist and his lips quivering and pale. As always occurred when he quarrelled over principles in which he believed passionately, he would end up gasping furiously for air and blinking back bitter tears of conviction. There were many principles in which Clevinger believed passionately. He was crazy.
‘Who’s they?’ he wanted to know. ‘Who, specifically, do you think is trying to murder you?’
‘Every one of them,’ Yossarian told him.”
Catch-22 is a novel of undeniable power. In many respects reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5, Heller’s fiction offers a satirical exploration of the contradictions inherent in war. Paradoxes abound – from the circularity of Catch-22, to the novel’s more discreet character descriptions (“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him.”) Catch-22 is hailed as a modern classic, and much of its brilliance undoubtedly lies in the way that Heller uses absurdity to tap into the experience of war. In war, as Heller perceives it, the enemy is everywhere – the bureaucracy, the chain of command, the comrades, and the opposition. There is, in this novel, no clear delineation of right and wrong. Rather, everything is defined by the paradoxes implicit in the whys and hows of waging war.
“What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”
Beyond the cleverly constructed satire, Catch-22 is also a fantastic demonstration of Heller’s narrative skill. He executes the broader message and tale of Yossarian’s battle for escape, within the context of numerous, complex subplots. While it would be easy to get lost in the confusion (particularly due to the non-chronological structure that Heller pursues), the author does an excellent job of ensuring that no loose ends are left open for the reader. It would be wrong of me not to admit that the novel required a good amount of concentration as a result of its non-sequential structure. I do, however, believe that this level of focus was well worth the effort. The structure advances Heller’s purpose in many respects, not least in reinforcing the lack of reason and logic that characterises the war’s conduct.
One could read Catch-22 for its prose alone. The novel abounds with exquisite and evocative descriptions:
“Hungry Joe was a jumpy, emaciated wretch with a fleshless face of dingy skin and bone and twitching veins squirming subcutaneously in the blackened hollows behind his eyes like severed sections of snake. It was a desolate, cratered face, sooty with care like an abandoned mining town.”
Catch-22 is hailed as one of the greatest American novels. It is easy to understand why this is the case. This is not a novel to be read, but is rather one to be experienced. Utterly unique and in many ways incomparable, Catch-22 is undoubtedly one of the most powerful works to emerge out of the travesties of World War II.