Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I love, love, love this book. There’s just something about the way it’s written that’s so appealing, it’s witty but at the same time the sentences almost seem to go round in circles, tripping over each other on the way. At first I thought it was silly (although obviously great fun), but the more I read of it, the more I realised that it was actually a really clever, well-thought through style, and it works so effectively alongside the storyline itself.

Catch-22 focuses around Yossarian, an American bombardier in the Second World War, and his attempts to try and avoid flying any more missions while the number of missions he has to have completed to be able to go home are continuously rising. He can’t go home until he’s completed the required number of missions (which always seems to rise as soon as he gets close), but if he flies any more missions there’s a reasonable chance that he’ll be killed. It’s in trying to avoid these missions that we are introduced to the concept of the ‘Catch-22’ (which has since become a common term). It’s a bit tricky to explain, but it’s essentially based around contradictions. The only way for Yossarian to get away with not flying missions is to be formally grounded on the basis of his mental health. Basically, he can only be grounded if he’s thought to be insane, but not wanting to risk his life flying missions is completely logical and therefore actually proves his sanity. The insane bombardiers are the ones who DO want to fly their missions (because it’s illogical), and so will never ask to be grounded because they want to fly, which means that no one is ever grounded. The ultimate ‘Catch-22’ is the fact that the clause ‘Catch-22’ does not actually exist, but therefore cannot be repealed because it never existed in the first place, and so has to be followed even though it doesn’t exist. It’s hard to explain but it makes more sense in the book, and the theme of the ‘Catch-22’ exists throughout the books in a whole wealth of contradictory statements and events. (Just try not to think about it too much, or it’ll make your head hurt).

In a way it’s all very comical, the characters and situations are farcical, but at the same time it’s desperately sad. Yossarian’s friends are dying all around him, and he’s absolutely terrified that he’s going to be killed next. It’s an inescapable situation, and the book gradually gets darker and darker while still retaining a level of black comedy. Yossarian fakes a variety of illnesses to buy stays in hospital, and is at one point made to impersonate an Italian (who in reality had already died) so that his family can say goodbye, and they fail to notice that he’s not their son, even though he has a different name and makes very little attempt to convince them. Hungry Joe, who always completes the required number of missions and has flown more than anyone, eventually dies in his sleep when Huple’s cat sits on his face and suffocates him.

At times I did find it a bit hard to distinguish between different characters, because there are simply so many of them and they’re surrounded by so many contradictions that everything gets a bit twisted. They each have their individual quirks and idiosyncrasies, such as Major Major Major Major who will only let people into his office to see him when he’s not actually there, and Orr who’s unable to complete a mission without crash landing in the sea and acts like an adorable halfwit, only to turn out to be the most intelligent, forward thinking person in the whole squadron. Milo Minderbinder, who’s in charge of organising the mess supplies, buys things cheaply and sells them at a loss, trading them for all kinds of other goods along the way, working for both the Germans and the Americans depending on the needs of his business and at one point persuading the Germans to bomb his own American camp in an attempt to up the share values, or something else capitalistic and businessy that I was too appalled about to fully understand. Doc Daneeka  was declared dead despite being very much alive because his name was written on the flight list of a plane which crashed. Even though he was never actually in the plane, the rest of the squadron refused to acknowledge the fact that he was still alive, even while holding conversations with him. In a slightly similar turn of events, Yossarian and Orr were forced to share their tent with a dead man who had been killed on a mission straight after arriving in the camp, before the paperwork was sorted which acknowledged his arrival, and so it was decided that he never arrived even though all of his possessions were in Yossarian’s tent. In a way, it just highlights the triviality of the individual in war, where lives and deaths are just statistics on forms. But it’s the death of Snowden and Yossarian’s powerlessness to help which is the most moving part of the book, when all Yossarian can do is try to reassure Snowden by saying “there there” over and over.

At first glance, Catch-22 might seem like a bit of a silly book, a humorous but basically indulging read full of nonsensical people and nonsensical situations, but the inescapability of Yossarian’s situation and the individual feelings of hopelessness and despair actually make it a very powerful read. It might seem like a light-hearted take on what is essentially a very serious situation, and one which is obviously still very resonant and painful for a lot of people today, but it really is a lot more than that. It’s about people doing their best to survive what is really an awful ordeal, and basically trying to make the best of a bad situation, while not being ashamed to admit to the fact that, actually, being shot at by the enemy is really bloody terrifying, and I really don’t want to do it, thanks very much. The overwhelming (and rightly so) feeling towards anyone who fought in the war, for whichever side, is that they were incredibly brave, and of course they were. Waking up every morning and knowing that you might not make it through to the evening and, if you were lucky enough to survive, doing the same thing day after day after day is inconceivably brave, and not something that I would ever be capable of doing, I’m sure. But that doesn’t mean that they felt they were brave. The thing that really sticks out about Catch-22 (and will have been heavily based on Heller’s own experiences as a bombardier) is the unashamed portrayal that these men were really very frightened. The very real likelihood that they could be killed that day was terrifying, and yet they went off to do their bit anyway, even though it was the last thing in the world that they wanted to do, and it makes it so much more real. Yossarian thinks of himself as cowardly, when his response is really a very sane and rational desire for self-preservation, and that’s what makes the characters so much more human and the book so powerful and so moving, even when it makes you want to laugh. This is one of those books that make me feel like I’ve never really put it down because it’s so memorable that I think it’ll always stay with me. It’s a really clever and very entertaining read, but with a real sense of humanity to it, and I can definitely see why this is such a well-loved book by so many.

See My Culture Mission or read previous Book Review, featuring Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.

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5 thoughts on “Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

  1. Pingback: My Culture Mission: Books | The Steel Review

  2. I love this one, too. it’s amazing how he got humour out of such a situation. I recently listened to a BBC book club podcast about this, with Joseph Heller – very good, I’d recommend a listen to that if you haven’t already

  3. Pingback: Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie | The Steel Review

  4. Pingback: The Steel Review Roll Call of Honour! | The Steel Review

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