Catch-22 by Joseph Heller was one of the books on this list that I’d never read nor heard about even though I’ve known the expression for quite some time. I don’t think I need to explain to English speakers what it means but for those who don’t know it, it’s what we refer to as circular reasoning in French or rather the snake eating its own tail. You know it’s like when you need a job to open a bank account but you can’t have a job without a bank account. Ever had to go through that one? I did. I’ve got white hair to prove it 😛 .
The catch in the book is that bombardier fighters who are crazy shouldn’t fly the plane. But to be grounded they need to ask; and if they ask it means they’re concerned for their safety, which infers that they’re sane enough and so must fly. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
We’re introduced to a number of multi-dimensional complex characters and even if Captain Yossarian is the main one, it’s arguably one of the strongest casts I’ve seen in a book so far: not one secondary character is lacking in volume and texture. They all feel real, whether they’re despicable, pitiable, relatable or not at all.
In Catch-22, we follow the airmen of the 256th squadron stationed in Italy and tasked with various dangerous missions that most pilots are trying to avoid because well… they’d like to stay alive.
The crazy thing is that the entire book is constructed around that circular process of Catch-22 and the contradiction within. The characters – to a certain point – the plot and everything in between. In many ways, even the last chapter is somewhat reminiscent of the first.
That leaves the reader at times sort of baffled and confused. Because sometimes it truly feels like you’re reading the same thing over and over. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who says “I’m right because no one’s proven me wrong yet”? You can’t ever win and it feels like you’re running in circle. That’s one feeling you get from that book. It’s both hilarious, and yet it could make you cry.
Which is another element of Catch-22: it’s at once an extremely funny and caustic book and a tragic one.
The attempts of the pilots to avoid combat are comical to the point of ridiculous: at one point one of them moves the ‘line of fight’ on a map so that they don’t fly out on a mission that’s doomed to be a failure. They put soap in the food so they get sick and are grounded.
The characters are both comical and sad; their stories and background have an amusing and tragic element. And somehow the funny is actually at the core of the sad. Not sure if that makes sense.
Paradoxes are ever so present: when introducing to us ‘the Texan’, Heller writes “The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him” (Catch-22, chapter I, p.7). My favourite scene for its complete irrationality must be Clevinger’s trial. The entire thing is just mind boggling. The paradox is also in the plot, because we know there’s a war going on (in the penultimate chapter Colonel Cathcart asks of Yossarian ‘does he know there’s a war going on?’ to which Lt. Colonel Korn answers ‘I’m pretty sure he does.’) but we don’t see it for a long time.
Indeed for most of the book, we’re sheltered from the events that make the pilots try and avoid combat. The entire process is funny until you’re brought face to face with the horror of what’s happening. It starts with a massacre, and it culminates with the rape and murder of a young woman who somehow seems to represent innocence lost. And they’re not charged for it.
Throughout the book it seems obvious the pilots think of their superior officers as their enemies more than the German/Italian could be. From the safety of their office, the colonels and generals volunteered their squadron for dangerous missions, which makes Yossarian (and some other pilots) think they’re out to get him. Or they make them march for nothing. The pointless, useless missions and duties seem merely a way to make pilots miserable or kill them. And sometimes, they truly seem like morons who shouldn’t be in a place to command people. They’re in it for their own ambition and several time you read “what’s good for ______ is good for the country.”
The amalgam between serving such person and serving one’s country is used a lot and you can tell it’s being heavily criticized but sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I guess that’s the one thing about this book; you feel like you’re on a swing. One moment certain the next completely frazzled. One moment shaking your head at the baffling situation, the next thinking ‘what the hell?’.
It’s unsettling and fascinating and frustrating and absolutely brilliant. And not easy. When the violence of the war is thrown at you, it is in all its gory and horrid details. The men I laughed and cried with/for in the beginning were no longer relatable in some ways even if I could somewhat grasp that war changes people. They still were the same but I hadn’t seen them in the context of battle. That makes you question yourself. Another catch-22 for the reader.
I can see how this book may become a manifest against war.
It’s definitely a book to read. And it most certainly belongs on the list of 100 books to read before you die. Be prepared to be shaken up, a real rollercoaster: but it’s worth it.
Have you read the book?
What did you think of it?