Catch-22 by Joseph Heller—Book Review

I finished Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 many months ago — I’ve kept pushing the review further and further off because this is one of the classics, it’s loved by many, disliked by some, downright hated by a chosen few. I find myself decidedly in the camp of the first, as this novel illustrated the absurdism of war through examples that will have you either grasping at your sides with laughter or blinking slowly, trying to comprehend what the hell just happened.

It is a difficult book to penetrate, at first. Heller thinks little of chronology, the structure of his chapters a mess that is at once brilliant and confounding; the opening begins in media res, with Yossarian pretending to be both sick and crazy for who-knows-which time. Unafraid to hop from one character’s circumstances to another, Heller uses an omniscient narrator to sketch out the daily life of the soldiers of the U.S. Air Army. He does so in a way that extends to far more than just these characters, encompassing the entirety of the army, of any army, even of every army. The objections to war, after all, should not be examined in a case-by-case basis.

Once you become acquainted with the military and its maddening mechanisms, Heller’s thesis statement begins to fall into place:

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 was 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.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Ironic, isn’t it? This circularity is the bread and butter of so much of Heller’s seminal work, and though other examples of this never failed to garner a laugh, chortle or chuckle from me, these became ever more histeric as I continued my sixteen-hour journey across a text that is increasingly pessimistic about the nature of modern society in all its paradoxic, violent and capitalistic glory.

There is something of a postmodernist precursor to this book, something that so well captures the pulse of a movement that was just beginning to arise in the sixties (Catch-22 was published in 1961) that you can’t help but applaud Heller for taking the measure of so much of the postmodernist essence:

It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.

This codifies so much of my experience with postmodernism!…And the distance from this to Angela Carter isn’t that much of a stretch, is it?

I listened to Catch-22 as narrated by Trevor White whose reading brought the characters to life and made the dialogue jump off the page. I recommend you give that particular audiobook a listen — it’s well-worth the Audible credit!

And, before I close this review off, may I say that Milo Minderbinder is one of the most brilliant characters used to satirize capitalism and the notion of free market, ever? The Mess Officer of the Air Force base that most of the book is set up at, is the beating heart of a pyramid scheme that puts all others to shame; Milo is a hell of a guy, and he’s almost as funny as he is scary.

I could write about Catch-22‘s insane cast for days, but alas, I’ve got plenty of other reviews to write. This is one I’ll be coming back to, reading and rereading, and something tells me no two reads will be the same. Just writing this review is enough to fill me with excitement over the possibility of experiencing the narrative Joseph Heller constructed with such impeccable care. If you’ve heard that this is one of the finest novels of the 20th century…well, you’ve heard right.

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