© 1961 Joseph Heller
“That crazy bastard might be the only sane one left on this base!” Captain John Yossarian, said C.B., is convinced that everyone is out to kill him. The Germans certainly are, at least when they aren’t being hired by the mess officer to cook for the men. The American army certainly is — not only do they keep telling him to bomb places where they know good and well there are Germans with guns, but one officer delights in death because it means he gets to use more of his revolutionary new form letters. And that crazy broad who keeps appearing out of nowhere, trying to stab him with a knife, a fork, or other kitchen implements certainly is. Is there any wonder he just wants to go home?
But he can’t go home, because there’s a war on. With a premise drawn from World War 2, and a spirit derived from Vietnam, Catch-22 is a dark comedy about…well, take your pick. War, bureaucracy, greed, the nature of man and the cosmos? Okay, the last one is more of a a stretch. Catch-22 defies easy summation because it doesn’t progress as a linear story. It moves between years and scenes in the blink of an eye, and this can be seem like so much chaos. I’ve tried reading this novel three times since high school, two of those times in the last few years, and it wasn’t until this fourth attempt that I stuck with it long enough for the chaos to start making sense.
I would liken Catch-22 to a carousel, one of the larger and complicated ones that has tracks within tracks. If the reader stands too close, it’s a confusing mess of color and movement; standing back, however, brings the realization that all of the action is just circular. At first, seemingly major things being introduced and then disappearing without much comment bothered me, because I felt like I’d missed something and would read chapters looking for the rest. After a while, I realized that it’s circular: every character and event of consequence is revisited multiple times, and often the reader doesn’t realize it. A scene named after one character will suddenly make what happens to another character make more sense . Revisiting the carousel, the reader will catch a glimpse of a story element, lose it, then see it again when trying to focus on something else. Confusion turns to excitement with perspective.
That early confusion is worth soldiering through, however, because this truly is an absurd novel, filled with ludicrous characters who lampoon regulation-quoting bureaucrats, careerists, and even honest-minded mess sergeants who just want to make a buck. There are sympathetic characters, too, like the poor Chaplain who is abused by everyone and suspects he’s going crazy. Although set in World War 2, Heller is more obviously inspired by Cold War militarization and paranoia, at one point having a general praise Hitler for his work in destroying Un-American activities. The loyalty oaths and tribunals where the accused are guilty purely on the basis of their accusal are reminiscent of McCarthy. Heller’s writing can alternate between evocative narration that communicates the tedium, isolation, and horrors endured in combat, as well as absolute absurd dialogue at times.
Catch-22 has surprised me several times in reading it — first for the bad, and eventually for the good. I began it with fatalistic gloom, preparing to read it purely to finish it for the Classics Club challenge. Perhaps that was just the right mood to read a novel about an airman trapped within the wheels of bureacrazy (I’m leaving that typo in) and the war machine. Although Yossarian is no hero, his story is unforgettable.