Book review: Catch-22

Catch 22

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!

About R.J. Southworth

Hi there. I've been blogging since January 2014, and I like to talk about all sorts of things: book reviews, film reviews, writing, science, history, or sometimes just sharing miscellaneous thoughts. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you!
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9 Responses to Book review: Catch-22

  1. Love this, it’s such an amazing book! Thank you for sharing! If you’re ever in need of some other great book reviews, give me a follow! Thanks!!!!


  2. smilingldsgirl says:

    Just too cynical for my personal taste but I can see what you are saying. I wish Heller had used the women more for comedic effect. All of them are either nurses or prostitutes and I wish there was a better contrast to Yossarian, someone who took the war very seriously and wasn’t jaded. That would make the humor pop more and the story more compelling.
    That said, it’s definitely one that should be read as it has a unique style and personality which has heavily influenced the modern novel. With this the era of the anti-hero maybe it is time to make a new Catch 22 movie or TV series? That could be really interesting.
    Thanks for the book review. I love movies but I am trying to read a little more again too (since the demise of my book club I’ve had a hard time finding something good).


    • I don’t usually go for such cynical material either – and it did bother me at times when I was reading it – but I still enjoyed it overall because of how well put together it was.

      Have you ever been on Goodreads? You might find something there to point you to a book you’d like.

      Liked by 1 person

      • smilingldsgirl says:

        I know what you mean. Heller is very good at what he does. I am on Goodreads but it’s been a while since went on there. Good suggestion


  3. alexraphael says:

    Really laughed when I was read it. So many hilarious scenes. So cynical.


  4. Elle says:

    Its not a book i would normally read. I don’t read books about war but I might give this one a go


  5. Henry says:

    I felt that CATCH 22 captured the emotions of wartime in any country, whether relatively modern like this novel takes place, or from hundreds/thousands of years. It shows that soldiers, fighting for whoever may feel invaluable, no matter what their position in the ranks. The character Yossarian is an example of one who is willing to make sacrifices for the betterment of the people around him.

    Liked by 1 person

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