Monday, April 5, 2010

#8 - "Catch-22" by Joseph Heller

Well, it’s been a month, and I’ve finished Catch-22. I’m not sure if Catch-22 is meant to be a critical look at war or the military or bureaucracy. Or, if it’s supposed to be a satirical look at these same things. Or, is it just supposed to be a novel about war that adds a lot of comedy to a couple of serious themes? I guess there’s no need to read so much into it and instead just say it’s a funny book set on a tiny island in the Mediterranean during World War II, written by Joseph Heller.

Capt. Yossarian, a bombardier in the 256th Squadron is tired of flying bombing missions. Not only that, he doesn’t want to be involved with the war at all anymore, he just wants to go home. His main motivation of course is to live. Who wants to die? And of course remaining in Italy makes staying alive much more difficult.

It is then that Yossarian decides to go crazy, or at least appear that he’s gone crazy, in order to be relieved of his duties. But after establishing several odd habits, and getting people to start thinking he might actually be crazy, Yossarian encounters one of the biggest problems with military protocol; Catch-22. 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 said mission, the very act of making the request proves that he is sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved. “That’s some catch!” Yossarian notes. “The best there is,” the doctor tells him.

The book not only follows Yossarian, but also the many other members of his squadron, who often find themselves in equally ridiculous situations. Almost every chapter of the book is about another character. There’s Milo Minderbinder, who runs the black market syndicate and Hungry Joe who spends the war trying, unsuccessfully, to photograph women naked. Nearly every character is a parody of a different ideology or belief or institution. And nearly every character runs into the infamous Catch-22 at some point in their military career. Heller’s description of the different characters creates such a realistic portrait, even if that character could at best be described as a wildly outrageous caricature of a real person. Maj. Major Major Major, is an unfortunately named officer, recently promoted from Private to Major, who isn’t interested in fulfilling his duties as a Major, but also someone any reader sympathizes with and can understand. Heller makes him seem so real, even though his name alone is so ridiculous, the character could be nothing but pure fiction. A real Catch-22 if you ask me.

While Heller’s excellent imagery gives the setting and the characters life, the brilliance and the comedy in Catch-22 is found in the dialogue between the characters. Often reading like the script of a Vaudeville play, the exchanges between Yossarian and his fellow soldiers are brilliant. Usually involving circular logic, contradictions, or outlandish ideas, it is the dialogue between the soldiers that made me laugh, and was ultimately what I enjoyed so much about this novel.

“I’m afraid,” said Yossarian.
“That’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Major Major counselled him kindly.
“I’m not ashamed,” Yossarian said. “I’m afraid.”

Time Magazine’s original review from October 27th, 1961 can be found here:,9171,873518-1,00.html

I’m not sure what book I’m going to read next, so I think I’ll head to the library and see what I can find.

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