#11 Catch-22, Joseph Heller
The satirical Catch-22 is a historical novel by the American author Joseph Heller. Riddled with the themes of absolute power of bureaucracy, loss of religious faith, the impotence of language, and the inevitability of death, it is frequently cited as one of the great literary works of the twentieth century. He commenced writing it in 1953, and saw it first published in 1961. Although Heller always had a desire to be an author from an early age, his own experiences as a bombardier during World War II strongly influenced Catch-22. Heller later said, however, that he “never had a bad officer”. There was a time when reading Joseph Heller’s classic satire on the murderous insanity of war was nothing less than a rite of passage. Echoes of Yossarian, the wise-ass bombardier who was too smart to die but not smart enough to find a way out of his predicament, could be heard throughout the counterculture. As a result, it’s impossible not to consider Catch-22 to be something of a period piece. But 40 years on, the novel’s undiminished strength is its looking-glass logic. Again and again, Heller’s characters demonstrate that what is commonly held to be good, is bad; what is sensible, is nonsense.
The novel is set during World War II in 1943. It follows Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Force B-25 bombardier, and a number of other characters. Most events occur while the Airmen of the fictional 256th squadron are based on the island of Pianosa, in the Mediterranean Sea west of Italy. While a few characters are most prominent, notably Yossarian and the Chaplain, the majority of named characters are described in a typical extent, with fully fleshed out or multidimensional personas, to the extent that there are few if any “minor characters”. The narrator presents an air of being omniscient, seeing and knowing all things and forges characters and events in a humorous, satirical light while seeming to have real sympathy for some of them as well. It is narrated in the third person, focusing mostly on what Yossarian does and what Yossarian thinks and feels. Ridiculous behavior and illogical arguments are presented in a flatly satirical tone, never stating outright that matters are funny, but always making the reader aware of how outrageously bizarre the characters and situations are.
Yossarian and his friends endure a nightmarish, absurd existence defined by bureaucracy and violence: they are inhuman resources in the eyes of their blindly ambitious superior officers. The squadron is thrown thoughtlessly into brutal combat situations and bombing runs in which it is more important for the squadron members to capture good aerial photographs of explosions than to destroy their targets. Their colonels continually raise the number of missions that they are required to fly before being sent home, so that no one is ever sent home. Still, no one but Yossarian seems to realize that there is a war going on; everyone thinks he is crazy when he insists that millions of people are trying to kill him.
Yossarian’s story forms the core of the novel, so most events are refracted through his point of view. He takes the whole war personally: unswayed by national ideals or abstract principles, and is furious that his life is in constant danger through no fault of his own. He has a strong desire to live and is determined to be immortal or die trying. As a result, he spends a great deal of his time in the hospital, faking various illnesses in order to avoid the war. As the novel progresses through its loosely connected series of recurring stories and anecdotes, Yossarian is continually troubled by his memory of Snowden, a soldier who died in his arms on a mission when Yossarian lost all desire to participate in the war. Yossarian is placed in ridiculous, absurd, desperate, and tragic circumstances—he sees friends die and disappear, his squadron get bombed by its own mess officer, and colonels and generals volunteer their men for the most perilous battle in order to enhance their own reputations.
“Catch-22” is a law defined in various ways throughout the novel. First, Yossarian discovers that it is possible to be discharged from military service because of insanity. Always looking for a way out, Yossarian claims that he is insane, only to find out that by claiming that he is insane he has proved that he is obviously sane—since any sane person would claim that he or she is insane in order to avoid flying bombing missions. Elsewhere, “Catch-22” is defined as a law that is illegal to read. Ironically, the place where it is written that it is illegal is in “Catch-22” itself. It is yet again defined as the law that the enemy is allowed to do anything that one can’t keep him from doing. In short, then, “Catch-22” is any paradoxical, circular reasoning that catches its victim in its illogic and serves those who have made the law. “Catch-22” can be found in the novel not only where it is explicitly defined but also throughout the characters’ stories, which are full of catches and instances of circular reasoning that trap unwitting bystanders in their snares—for instance, the ability of the powerful mess officer Milo Minderbinder to make great sums of money by trading among the companies that he himself owns.
Yossarian comes to realize that “Catch-22” does not actually exist, but because the powers that be claim it does, and the world believes it does, “Catch-22” and the belief of its existence, nevertheless, have potent effects. Indeed, because it does not exist, there is no way it can be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. The combination of force with specious and spurious legalistic justification is one of the book’s primary motifs. The way it’s written offers a satirical viewpoint of the absurdity of conflict.
Catch-22 possesses a distinctive non-chronological style that appears to be haphazard, where events are described from different characters’ points of view and out of sequence so that the time line develops along with the plot. It is well-noted for its circular, non-linear structure, with flashbacks within flashbacks and no clear distinction of “real-time events.” Certain episodes, particularly one dealing with the death of a young tail-gunner, Snowden, are repeated several times throughout the novel, gaining greater detail with each repetition. The seemingly random non-chronological structure to the novel is misleading, though, as Catch 22 is actually highly structured. It is, however, a structure of free association, where ideas run into one another through seemingly random connections. For example, Chapter 1 entitled “The Texan” ends with “everybody but the CID man, who had caught cold from the fighter captain and come down with pneumonia.”Chapter 2, entitled “Clevinger”, begins with “In a way the CID man was pretty lucky, because outside the hospital the war was still going on.” The CID man connects the two chapters like a free association bridge and eventually Chapter 2 flows from the CID man to Clevinger through more free association links.
Many events in the book are repeatedly described from differing points of view, so the reader learns more about each event from each iteration, with the new information often completing a joke, the punch line of which was told several chapters previously. The narrative often describes events out of sequence, but events are referred to as if the reader is already familiar with them, so that the reader must ultimately piece together a timeline of events. Specific words, phrases, and questions are also repeated frequently, generally to comic effect.
Much of Heller’s prose in Catch-22 is circular and repetitive, exemplifying in its form the structure of a “Catch-22″. Heller revels in paradox, for example: ” In three days no one could stand him”, and “The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.” This atmosphere of apparent logical irrationality pervades the whole book.
Among other things, Catch-22 is a general critique of bureaucratic operation and reasoning. Resulting from its specific use in the book, the phrase “Catch-22” is common idiomatic usage meaning “a no-win situation” or “a double bind” of any type. Within the book, “Catch-22” is a military rule, the self-contradictory circular logic that, for example, prevents anyone from avoiding combat missions. In Heller’s own words:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s 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 were 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.” (Chapter 5, page 46)
Other forms of “Catch-22” are invoked throughout the novel to justify various bureaucratic actions. At one point, victims of harassment by military police quote the MPs’ explanation of one of “Catch-22’s provisions”: “Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating.” Another character explains: “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” The theme of a bureaucracy marginalizing the individual in an absurd way is similar to the world of Kafka’s The Trial, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The concept of “doublethink” has definite echoes in Heller’s work.
In 1998, some critics raised the possibility that Heller’s book had questionable similarities to Louis Falstein’s 1950 novel, Face of a Hero. However, Falstein himself never raised the issue between Catch-22′s publication and his death in 1995, and Heller claimed never to have been aware of the obscure novel. Instead, Heller stated that the novel had been influenced by Céline, Waugh and Nabokov. Many of the similarities have been stated to be attributable to the two authors’ similar experiences; both served in the U.S. Air Force on bombing crews in Italy in World War II. Their general themes and styles are quite different.
I found the novel to be a pure delight to read. While it was a little disorienting getting accustom to the format, I likened the layout to the conversation with a new friend who is describing a situation and has to backtrack to fill in the support information. Often, I found myself chuckling out loud or shaking my head after reading a passage, completely taken in by the responses to the absurd situations that the characters found themselves in. I felt great sympathy for the ones caught up in the bureaucracy of superiors who were only concerned with elevating their own careers at the expense of those under them. It happens way too often, but unlike the civilian world, it can cost a Soldier his life in the military realm.
The motif of bureaucratic absurdity is further explored in 1994’s Closing Time, Heller’s sequel to Catch-22. This darker, slower-paced, apocalyptic novel explores the pre- and post-war lives of some of the major characters in Catch-22, with particular emphasis on the relationship between Yossarian and tailgunner Sammy Singer. It may be one that I have to add to the list.