“Anything worth dying for…is certainly worth living for.”
-Joseph Heller, Catch-22
I am not a fan of war novels or those involving the armies since I am not a fan of explosive scenes in books, and the numerous military jargons make me unable to appreciate the story involved (if there are any stories at all). I suppose you can say that I am afraid that military strategies and serious political affairs might permeate the plot in war novels. Basically, a war novel is not my thing, but Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is not it.
Catch-22 tells about Yossarian, a 28-year-old captain of the 256th squadron of the twenty-seventh United States Army Air Force stationed in the small island of Pianosa. Yossarian, despite being part of the ongoing World War II, despises the war since he believes that strangers from everywhere are trying to kill him. Not only are the people from outside of his nation’s army are trying to kill him, but he believes that everyone attempts to take his life, even those from his own squadron, namely Colonel Cathcart, a a superior constantly increasing the number of missions required for the men to be discharged from combat. As a result, Yossarian flies his bomber plane in fear, and wishes to avoid going into war missions altogether. With a number of his friends, a story about one’s fear, absurdity, and sanity will be told.
That might not provide you with anything in regards to how the plot progresses, but that’s fine, since Catch-22 is basically about numerous things. The main story is still Yossarian’s fear and his attempt to avoid flying, but there are a number of stories told, too, such as Major Major Major Major’s (yes, that’s a legitimate name) reasons in avoiding everyone wishing to meet up, saying that they can only see him when he is not in his office. There is also Nately, one of Yossarian’s friends, and his attempt to obtain the love of a prostitute working in Rome; the Chaplain’s struggle against the absurd military force and his own faith; Milo Minderbinder’s quest for corporate wealth, as well as numerous others. There is a primary plot, which is Yossarian’s attempt to free himself from life-threatening conditions, but that main plot is supported by a number of side-stories, and some of those side-stories are not even related to the main plot at all; a number of the chapters are there to provide further background information on the characters, and some of them contain a few paragraphs of crucial events, but digress into nonsensical interactions for comedic or satirical purposes.
Speaking of satires, the novel is considered as one of the greatest satirical works in the twentieth century, ridiculing military bureaucracy or even the situation of the society as a whole. Satirical works are often told in an absurdist kind of perspective, and Catch-22 is filled with absurdity to the brim. Those absurdities make sense from time to time, but sometimes, the characters are so dumb that it doesn’t make sense at all in real-life, but since this is a satire, such absurdities are delightful to see. Often, the book utilizes plays of logic to emphasize the conflict or for the sake of humor. Perhaps the most well-known instance of this is Doc Daneeka’s introducing the term Catch-22 to Yossarian. Catch-22 is one of the unwritten rules stating that those with mental problems can be grounded and sent home, avoiding combat. However, the soldiers have to ask themselves to be grounded, acknowledging that they are insane in the process. Still, if they ask themselves to be grounded, that means they want to avoid putting their life at risk, which means it is a rational thought, and thus, they are not crazy. If they decide to fly the missions, putting their life on the line, they have to be crazy, so they can be grounded, but they are unable to ask for such thing since asking it would mean they are rational. Such contradictory rules are stated as Catch-22, a term from the book which has even been included in the dictionary!
The novel might seem to be a nonsensical, jumbled mess for those reading it (from the first page until its very end), especially when the some of the characters are so dumb that the story is unrealistic, and the story is told with constant flashbacks and a disorganized time frame. The first chapter is when most of the major missions have been flown, but the next chapter takes you back to before the first chapter. Then, the story takes place after the first chapter, then back to before the second chapter’s flashbacks, and so on. Things are messy, making the temporal setting of the chapters exhausting to be understood. A feeling of dread and frustration might arise within the readers during the first few chapters, a feeling probably felt by Yossarian being situated inside the perilous, chaotic setting of war. After a few chapters, however, I begin not to puzzle things too much, and indeed, that decision to ignore the confusions paid off in the end, since as I read, things gradually made sense, at least in terms of the time; the events without any context are eventually explained, although readers would have to bear with the confusion for a while and piece together the puzzle on their own later on if they wish to.
Despite being largely casual in the beginning, relying on absurd interactions for comedic purposes, as well as unraveling background information of the characters irregularly, as the novel progresses, the story becomes darker. Catch-22 is a war novel, but it only emanates the sense hopelessness and the graveness of wartime in the concluding chapters of the novel, which increases the effectiveness of the sudden, cruel portrayal of war; you can be all happy, oblivious to dangers, or even lie to yourself all you want, but death is looming very closely.
Although the overt presentation of the story is about war, the book does not feel like a war novel to me; the element of war, although relevant, is only the blanket disguising the satirical messages towards various societal values. To me, it is a pessimistic perception towards the society, and the scary thing is, such extreme viewpoint might contain more than a few realistic, relatable aspects. It is a story of war, political games, entrepreneurial wickedness, friendship, mourning, romance, and the fragility of one’s life. The admirable thing is, all the serious stuff is portrayed through humorous, unique interactions that make it not boring at all for those not minding absurdities here and there. Moreover, the fact that most of the characters are generic (some do not even talk until a few hundred pages) makes the book’s accomplishment in making the book memorable all the more commendable.
There might be a huge number of difficult adjectives scattered throughout the book (at least they are difficult for me), but I believe the primary reason behind readers’ avoiding the book is due to the messy narrative mostly devoid of any sense of time, although there are indications such as the number of missions Colonel Cathcart has raised to assist in keeping track of it. Also, the sense that nothing big or exciting is happening until the first few hundred pages might discourage readers from continuing it. I happen to be a fan of absurd narratives and satires, so I find Catch-22 one of the more engaging reads I have read so far, to the extent that I finished the large book in two weeks! I can’t even finish the 200-page Heidi in two months.
I understand that this book might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is a reason behind its popularity. For those loving black humor and absurd reads, as well as not minding the messy storytelling, you’ll love Catch-22. For those wanting to read it because of the fame it has generated, please do give it a chance. The society that we are living in is by no means blissful, and Joseph Heller has portrayed that situation perfectly with lots of laughs.
It is messy, yet neat at the same time. It is unrealistic, yet realistic. It is nonsensical, yet it makes sense. It is strange, but not strange at all. You’ll understand if you pick it up 😀 .
Rating from me: 4.5/5
Have you read Catch-22? If yes, what are your thoughts about it? If no, do you plan to?