Friday, August 17, 2012

Catch-22, a Review

Joseph Heller first published Catch-22 in 1961.  The book is a modern classic that has received universal praise.  The book directly created the eponymous “catch-22” phrase that has entered into the vernacular.  Catch-22 has been on my TBR since high school, always on the shelf to get to one day.  Thanks to the 2012 Manifesto, that day has come.

It is hard to pin down exactly what Catch-22 is all about.  On the surface it’s a biting satire of war and disillusioned life in the mid-19th century.  Yossarian, the twenty-something chief protagonist, is a captain in the U.S. Air Force serving in the 256th Squadron in the Mediterranean during World War II.  He’s hilarious and honest and completely against flying any more missions.  Again, superficially, this is the main dilemma of the book.  Colonel Cathcart wants to impress his superior officers and so he keeps increasing the number of missions the men have to fly. 

It doesn’t take much to see that Catch-22 is really something else altogether.  Absurdity abounds, often to the confusion of the characters within the pages and to the Reader without.  I scratched my head a few times trying to understand what had just happened.  It doesn’t help that Heller uses a third-person rotating POV omniscient voice, as well as a proclivity to disregard chronology periodically.  The book reminded me a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

I struggled at first with this book, wondering whether or not to abandon it.  There start is somewhat slow, and getting used to Yossarian’s (or whoever’s) mind takes some time.  But once I had the tone established my enjoyment level dramatically increased.  The characters were funny, but I was more drawn to discovering their true motivations.  Heller paints a picture of utter confusion and absolute chaos in the leadership ranks for the military, one that required a constant suspension of disbelief and several groans.  This was another struggle I had, and I can easily see how some could take issue with plausibility.  In fact, practically every character is irrational to varying degrees, which conveniently fits nicely into a major theme of Catch-22.

So what exactly is the catch?  Heller writes,
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. (p. 56, ch. 5)
This review really doesn’t give an in depth understanding of this novel.  Heller’s constant rotation of POVs is jarring but fitting.  Heller’s wit is perfect.  There is a rather bleak and fatalist view of things, but it’s World War II and that’s understandable.  The characterization (especially Major Major Major Major and the Chaplain) is brilliant.  There is much to write about with the book, but finding the appropriate words are difficult.

Ultimately I very much recommend Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.  It offers a fascinating glimpse of war and sanity.  It is an adult book with some coarse language and wanton sexuality, but comparatively it’s much more vanilla than contemporary mediums.  If you’ve never read Catch-22 and you’re looking for something bizarre and thought provoking, then I strongly recommend you try this book.  It’s worth its many accolades. 


Marie said...

I need to read this. I've been meaning to pick it up for ages. I love the new edition and just need to take the plunge already.

Carl V. said...

Thanks for the review, Logan. This is one of those books that I have been aware of for years, including that the saying was tied to it, but had no clue at all what it was about. I like to pick up classic and/or lauded books sometimes but can't say that anything about this one really grabs me. Never say never, though. :)

Diz said...

I bought this book years ago, and it's in my gigantic "To Be Read" pile that took a hiatus for five years.

I'm a little relieved it's not a book I do not already own, as after your reviews, I battle whether I should purchase it or not, and start scouring used book stores :)

So happy you enjoy your new job and that your beautiful family is prospering.

logankstewart said...

@Marie: Same boat here. Glad I did finally get around to it.

@Carl: It's quite absurd and somewhat bleak. Not sure if you'd really fancy it too much, honestly. But that's based on the things that I know you've read and enjoyed. Still, a fun little book. Indeed, never say never.

@Diz: The library is your friend. A very good friend, too. :)

Diz said...

My current library book is the second in the series of Locke Lamora - the one you recommended a while back:)