Monday, October 20, 2008


Joseph Heller, 562 pp.

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, that 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 had to fly them. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of the clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle."

Although the last two novels I read were both outstandingly successful, Catch-22 is the most highly acclaimed work I have had the pleasure of experiencing. With such prestigious acknowledgements as #11 on BBC's Big Read, I had high expectations -- which were immediately blown away. If the published acknowledgements weren't enough, I also empirically observed a lot of positive recognition of the novel. Three times on the bus commuting to class I was approached because I had said book in my hand, and two of the proponents of the novel indicated that they had read it twice. But, I digress.

The foremost thing to be said is that
Catch-22 need not be compared with other novels, it is in a league of its own. The first unique aspect of this work is the setting; an island off the coast of Italy called 'Pianosa', which exists but is fictional in the sense that it was not used in World War II. One could classify this novel as historical fiction (although I really think it claims its own genre) , and subsequently the setting is crucial. The majority of the story takes place in Pianosa and Rome, at the end of World War II. The intricate plot deals with the trials and tribulations of a group of verifiably insane American Bombardiers currently stationed in Pianosa. While the progression of the story is not always completely linear, Heller gracefully portrays the seemingly constant struggle of Captain Yossarian to be relieved of his duties.

On one hand, this novel is absolutely hilarious. During
Catch-22, you will frequently find yourself re-reading the last sentence, merely based on its abject absurdity. Heller introduces characters that are very strange, as well as characters with very strange names (usually both). Early on in the novel you will become acquainted with Major Major Major, who is as strange as his name, and is fittingly promoted to the rank of Major. If you haven't made the connection already, this unfortunate character is the namesake of one of this blog's contributors. Milo Minderbinder and Colonel Korn also soon join the cast, and the reader will be introduced to personages simply referred to as 'The Chaplain', 'Nately's whore', and 'Nately's whore's kid sister'. An important note is that while these names and characters are doubtlessly ridiculous, they do not detract from the intensity of the story at all.

On the other hand, this novel is extremely serious and emotionally capturing. One of
Yossarian's overarching qualms is the 'dead man in [his] tent'. This 'dead man' is not physically dead in the tent, but rather had just entered the encampment and had been killed in a flight so immediately that he was not registered. Subsequently, his belongings remained in Yossarian's tent, and to Yossarian that was having a dead man in his tent. Such neuroses are common to the colorful characters of the novel, and the angst that Heller creates will feel very real. Joseph Heller's ability to descend from the extreme of riotous hilarity to utter depression abruptly, yet gracefully, is an art form which I had not experienced until I came across Catch-22.

One thing to note about Catch-22 is that it is not acceptable for all audiences. To say that the Bombardiers at Pianosa are lewd is an understatement. Yossarian and his comrades are very promiscuous and he samples quite a range of girls, from one of his nurses (that tends to him during his excessively long hospital stays) to the prostitutes he finds in Rome on leave. While the sexuality present in this novel is at times raunchy, Heller's excellent characterization would be incomplete without it. Irregardless of the circular conversations that illustrate the apparent insanity of the personages  in the novel, some may find that the story takes a while to take shape. If the insanity of the early dialogues frustrates you, this may not be the book for you, although you are in the minority. As indicated on lists such as Big Read and personal testimonials you will hear, Heller's ability to infuse meaning into a humorous and ridiculous story is enjoyable to say the least.

As addressed earlier, even though this work is set in World War II, I wouldn't read it under the presumption that it is a World War II novel. While Heller vividly describes the internal aspects of a bomber plane, the battle content is limited. The story more centrally features the psychological and behavioral implications of the combat in addition to the physical ailments (both real and feigned) that the increasing number of missions bestow upon the men stationed at Pianosa. An interesting aspect of the story is observing the increasing number of missions required from both the enforcers and the victims. The thought processes of Colonel Catchcart as he perpetuates Yossarian's continuous struggle are made evident by his self-reassuring conversations with Colonel Korn. 

In summary, Catch-22 really holds all the cards. Although the circular conversations and nonsensical behaviors may deceive you, this book will be a profound read. Most likely, you will see characteristics of those around you in the characters of this story, but hopefully they are less exaggerated in your own life. In conclusion, if Catch-22 doesn't appeal to you, I think you would be crazy enough to be sent home from Pianosa without flying your 80 missions.