Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
“Catch-22” is like no other novel. It is one of the funniest books ever written, a keystone work in American literature, and even added a new term to the dictionary. At the heart of “Catch-22” resides the incomparable, malingering bombardier, Yossarian, a hero endlessly inventive in his schemes to save his skin from the horrible chances of war. His efforts are perfectly understandable because as he furiously scrambles, thousands of people he hasn’t even met are trying to kill him. His problem is Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions that he is committed to flying, he is trapped by the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, the hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule from which the book takes its title: 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 such missions, the very act of making the request proves that he is sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved.
“Catch-22” is a microcosm of the twentieth-century world as it might look to some one dangerously sane — a masterpiece of our time.
There aren’t many books, particularly written as recently as 1961, that have contributed a phrase so thoroughly to the English language as this one. Describing inherently paradoxical traps as a catch-22 is now common slang; this is where it started.
“Because he’s crazy,” Doc Daneeka said. “He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”
“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”
“That’s all. Let him ask me.”
“And then you can ground him?” Yossarian asked.
“No. Then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
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 had 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 is a novel about the absurdity and self-perpetuating insanity of bureaucracies, particularly military bureaucracies. It’s a comedic attack on the rules that such organizations make and self-centered people who make them. It’s also a surprisingly poignant and powerful anti-war novel, one that questions the foundations of patriotism and obedience that lead soldiers to fight. It does this set, not in Korea or another unpopular war, but in the heart of World War II.
Yossarian is a bombadier based in Italy in the closing days of the war, the (mostly) sane touchpoint for the reader in a squadron of bizarre and often humorous characters. There is, for instance, Major Major Major Major who simply can’t have any other rank and who therefore got command of a squadron because otherwise the military structure would have an extraneous major, but who is so terrified of his men that he spends the war trying to hide from them. There’s a hypochondriac doctor who spends the book avoiding flying and pointing out how he has it worse than anyone who’s complaining to him. Orr, as mentioned above, attracts disaster; every mission he flies, he gets shot down, suffers mechanical trouble, or nearly crashes. The mess officer turns into a biting satire of a war profiteer, at one point being paid to both attack and defend a city at the same time and another time bombing their own camp to get out of debt. And, of course, there’s Colonel Cathcart, the one who waits until enough pilots have finished their required missions and concluded their tour that he’s having a hard time staffing missions and then raises the required number of missions before their transfer orders arrive.
Grounding fliers for insanity isn’t the only application of catch-22. It shows up throughout the book, as do many other paradoxes. Most of Heller’s humor comes from logic circles, impossible juxtapositions, and cognitive dissonance. He takes situations that make no inherent sense, or characters who are too outlandish to possibly be real, and then plays them straight and explores their implications until you can almost believe in them and understand how the war drove them to that attitude. On one hand, the cast is a slapstick group of distorted characters, entertaining the reader with pratfalls, ridiculous stories, and clashes over impossible trivia. On the other hand, the war is always lurking just under the cover of every comic scene; their antics betray a frantic desire to escape, ignore, cope with, or make unreal the ever-present threat of death. Catch-22doesn’t overwhelm the reader with constant vivid descriptions of the reality of war; instead, Heller shows a constantly unreal and apparently light-hearted comedy that casts the rare moment of terror or horrible death in even sharper relief.
The war acts in this book like a force of nature. Nearly everyone just accepts that it’s happening and tries to ignore it, or revels in fighting it, without really thinking about it. It’s only Yossarian, normally trying to maintain a long-suffering sarcasm, who occasionally can’t help but tell the blunt truth.
Yossarian says, “You’re talking about winning the war, and I am talking about winning the war and keeping alive.”
“Exactly,” Clevinger snapped smugly. “And which do you think is more important?”
“To whom?” Yossarian shot back. “It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.”
“I can’t think of another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy.”
“The enemy,” retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, “is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on.”
This book isn’t without its frustrations. Due in part to the way that Heller stresses paradoxes and insoluable conflict, the writing can be quite repetitive and a bit circular. The same jokes repeat to the point where Catch-22 feels like it only has a few notes. Often when I’d started getting bored, one of the passages like the ones quoted above would show up without warning and knock me over, but while that makes the book well worth reading for the gems, it doesn’t make the monotonous stretches any less monotonous. Also not helping is Heller’s circling non-linear ordering of the story, which requires that the reader pay close attention to maintain the order of events that spawn flashbacks and reorient chronologically with very little notice. Heller provides as a clue the linearly increasing number of missions the airmen had to fly before theoretically being allowed to rotate home, but ordering can still be frustrating. It does lead to an effective juxtaposition at the climax of the book, but for most of the story the indirection feels unnecessary.
Catch-22 didn’t entirely succeed for me as a comedy. The huge ensemble cast was mostly too unbelievable and exaggerated for me to find funny, and some of the scenes (particularly around the love lives of the soldiers) were more painful and sordid than amusing. Some readers find the book hilarious; I found it worthy of a laugh in places, but not compelling enough to read solely for humor. Catch-22 worked for me when the frustration and rage at the petty vicious nonsense of the world shines through, where the humor suddenly crashes into real evil hiding behind and enabled by paradoxical nonsense. This is a war novel in which the supposed enemy never appears on camera, where none of the combat is taken particularly seriously, where the reader is not given maps or objectives, and with a cast that’s patently unbelievable; but in those moments where reality sharply intrudes, the exhausted, helpless frustration of the characters feels as realistic as anything I’ve read.
This novel is frequently included in lists of the best novels of all time, and despite the problems I had with the writing and tone in places, I’ll agree with that. It’s important not just because of the word it added to the English language or its satire of bureaucracy but also because it takes dead aim at several of the basic principles of war. Despite being written before the heart of the Vietnam era, those passages feel just as powerful and pointed today. I wish the bits between those passages held my interest more, but if that’s the background Heller needed to make a few passages this effective, I’ll take the whole package.
Followed many years later by Closing Time, but Catch-22 is self-contained and doesn’t rely on the sequel.