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.

Month in Review: January 2020 at the Reliquary

Greetings, fabled followers, craven cultists, grimoire gnomes and blog butterflies! The first twelfth of 2020 is behind us and the eternal question must be asked: What the heck happened last month?

Here, at the Reliquary, not too much. Books were read, old posts revisited, humans hunted for spo–don’t know where that came from, to tell you right. Let’s see wot’s wot!

I read the best Fantasy Release of January 2020…

Even though I read none of the other releases of the month, I have to say, the Shadow Saint proved brilliant every step of the way. Hanrahan’s Black Iron Gods series has been a revelation, a celebration of the imagination, a wonderful journey into the dark and the macabre. Fascinating characters, deep lore, yet more impressive worldbuilding and truly one of the best character arcs I’ve come across in recent years. You owe it to yourself to read Gareth’s work. But if you’re still on the fence, you can take a glance at my review!

…And Caught up on one of the Finest Debuts of 2019!

Alix E. Harrow sure writes pretty. So pretty in fact that it’s easy to forget to come up with full sentences – The Ten Thousand Doors of January will leave you grasping for breath with the sheer beauty of its prose. It emulates a female bildungsroman; January’s ‘stream-of-consciousness’ offers a wonderful vessel to tell this most unusual story, with its great respect for words and stories and the Doors between worlds. Breathtaking.

My review awaits you here.

I Looked at Characters, and Found them Lacking, thanks to…

I am counting down the days – and books – until I have the chance to dig back into Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. A fascinating work, which does some very interesting things to the notion of character. I’ve spoken more about it here.

I Finished Catch-22!

With Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five behind me in 2019, I thought it was a good time to read the other great Post-WW2 anti-war classic, Catch-22. I have neither scored it, nor reviewed it yet but I was shook, you guys.I haven’t laughed at something this dark since Erikson and Abercrombie; the same sort of excellent gallows’ humour, mixed in with high stakes and a message at once fatalistic and hopeful.

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
And what difference does that make?”

I Finally Got some K. J. Parker Into My System with Prosper’s Demon!

And what remarkable style he has. An excellent novella, I highly recommend it.

What’s Next?

Good question! There’s some Star Wars nonsense at work, presently – I’ll be writing a review on the audiobook of Ahsoka, which is nothing short of a real fun space journey with one of the most lovable characters of the Star Wars universe!

I’m also considering whether to post the notes I take on my study of “The Theory of the Novel” by McKeon – a massive side-project I’m undertaking as part of my bachelor’s. Not necessarily the most interesting reading for people uninterested in the in-depth study of literature but there you have it.

I’ve also got to work on a bunch of SPFBO content for Booknest.eu! I’ll be posting my review of A Sea of Broken Glass over there in just a few days; after, I’ve got interviews to prepare for all the finalists willing to chat with me about their books!

There’s yet more to come!