Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
It was an interesting experience, reading Catch-22. I found reading it both enjoyable and irritating at the same time. It’s not so much a story as a series of things that happen, the timeline skips all over the place, and most of the side characters are infuriating to some degree. Yet it is a really brilliant book and one I would read again.
Catch-22 takes place mostly on the Italian island of Pianosa during World War 2, and our protagonist is Yossarian, a bombardier with the US military. If there’s any central plot, it’s following Yossarian as he does everything he can to get out of any more dangerous flying and preferably be sent home altogether – his main problem being in this regard that his superior officer, Colonel Cathcart, keeps increasing the number of missions his men have to fly. Mostly, however, the book is a series of situations involving Yossarian and the slightly insane characters he shares his base with. It’s not a fully linear story – a character that apparently died in one chapter may reappear in a later one, or there may be references to upcoming missions that we’ve actually already seen – but this only causes occasional confusion thanks to the overall structure.
This book is a black comedy, and has so much absurdity that it sometimes feels like Alice In Wonderland. A theme throughout is characters either exploiting technicalities in the system, or sticking to the system even when it clearly makes no sense. When the titular Catch-22 is introduced, it’s presented as the idea that a man who wants to keep flying missions must be insane and can therefore be sent home – but only if he asks, and if he does ask, he must be sane and therefore can’t go home. There’s also the major who only ever lets people into his office to see him when he’s not actually there, and said major’s father making more money from the government for not growing alfalfa than if he actually tried to grow alfalfa. At one point, we are introduced to an old Italian man who describes how he survives by switching sides whenever necessary; yet I still warmed to him because at least his argument that Italy’s lack of capability in war actually helps the country overall does have some logic in this sea of nonsense.
And yet, when reading this, you never quite feel that this is totally disconnected from reality. The characters have exaggerated qualities, particularly the senior officers, but they still feel human: Heller often goes into quite a lot of gritty detail about how they see the world. Perhaps the real genius is setting this kind of absurdist story in the middle of a war, where normal rules don’t apply anyway.
I found the whole thing extremely compelling: I read more than half of it on a train to and from Edinburgh and kept finding it difficult to stop. The cast of characters was really fascinating and by the time I was a good way in, I was eager to see what nonsensical incidents would occur next. As well as all this, Catch-22 never forgets that it’s a war novel, and it goes to some dark places to show you the hellishness of the setting: in the scenes where Yossarian’s actually in his bomber being shot at, you feel like you’re stuck there with him. When Yossarian decides he doesn’t want to fly any more missions, it’s certainly not because he’s bored.
Catch-22 is a really unique, strange and well-constructed book, and I’m very glad that I read it. It’s often found on “best books of all time” lists, and it deserves to be: not everybody will enjoy it, but everybody who likes to read should at least give it a try. Rating: 5/5!