The cover of this edition boldly proclaims, “He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt.” This quotation is from fairly early in Catch-22, yet I understand what it was chosen as representative of the book as a whole. The novel’s title has become synonymous with an absurd, recursive paradox—because that’s exactly what Joseph Heller depicts in this satirical World War II story.
When I was younger, Catch-22 defeated me, in that I had to put it aside. I’m not bothered by this; plenty of books defeat me, usually because they are terrible. I refused to think that Catch-22 was terrible, however, given its iconic status. It was always possible that the book simply wasn’t to my tastes, but I don’t think I gave it a fair hearing the first time. So it has lingered on my list for years now, waiting for a second chance.
Probably the defining feature of Catch-22, and what made it so difficult for young!me to enjoy, is the spiralling style of its narrative. Seldom have I encountered a novel so relentlessly character-driven, as demonstrated by the fact that the majority of its chapter titles are character names. Heller prosecutes the action from an oblique angle, jumping back and revisiting events that we have already seen recounted, only to embellish them in further unlikely ways. I can see why some critics call the book repetitive. But this repetition is a deliberate part of the book’s structure. Catch-22 isn’t so much a conventional narrative as it is a winding, looping tour of a squadron camp during the last few months of World War II.
This time the unique structure appealed to me. Though I read it on occasion, war fiction is not my usual cup of tea. So Heller’s unconventional style was refreshing. It allowed me to push away the typical shorthand that seems to settle over most war fiction (especially from World War II) and focus more on the characters and their interaction. Heller helps in this quest by taking the emphasis off the battles and the missions, placing it instead on life back at camp. Yossarian’s shenanigans with Milo, Nately, et al are far more important than the aerial manoeuvres or death-defying stunts that they might pull on their missions; these only intrude when they are relevant to the point Heller is trying to make.
Catch-22 has much in common with Slaughterhouse-Five. Both are novels set in World War II, about war, but not aggressively filled with war per se. Both are modest, self-deprecating stories that rely on subtle (or, in Catch-22’s case, not-so-subtle) absurdism to highlight the folly of war. The eponymous regulation that apparently prevents Yossarian and other pilots from being taken off active duty or shipped home is similar to the non-linear existence that curtails Billy Pilgrim’s free will: it’s hard to imagine Yossarian doing anything other than what he does, because what choice does he have?
Yossarian is an interesting protagonist. We first meet him in a hospital, signing fake names to letters he censors for the military. This sets off a chain reaction of investigations culminating, towards the end of the book, in serious consequences for the poor squadron chaplain. Initially, the Washington Irving scandal seems funny in a wry sort of way—oh, those hilarious, incompetent CID men! Yet it’s actually the first in a frequent series of events that demonstrate how Yossarian’s disregard for the consequences of his own actions gets other people in trouble. Throughout, other characters meet unfortunate ends as a result of Yossarian’s decisions. When he steals through camp at night to move the bomb line on the map above Bologna, he inadvertently sends Major —— de Coverley to his death.
Major —— de Coverley, by the way, is my favourite. He’s a badass of the classical camp, so indefatigable that no one knows his first name or even what he’s supposed to be doing, so he just pitches horseshoes and goes around arranging apartments for the soliders’ leave. I loved him from the first time he shows up, and I was overjoyed when I reached the chapter Heller dedicates to him. When Yossarian’s cowardice results in his death, I soured towards Yossarian considerably.
I loved Catch-22 so much that I’m having trouble doing justice to it. All novels, all good stories, are ultimately about people, and Catch-22 is certainly that. It is entirely about the characters—it has a vast cast, but they are fleshed out, their pasts and presents and futures explored in detail. From the sleazy Colonel Cathcart to the amorally capitalist Milo Minderbinder, Heller conjures up more than his fair share of unforgettable people to populate this incredible tale of wanting to go home.
If you approach this novel with anything remotely resembling sincerity, you’ll be disappointed. Catch-22 is absurd, because this allows Heller to show the irrationality of war. Even the best people in this book suffer, because bad things happen indiscriminately. The regulations that prevent Yossarian from going home also certify that Doc Daneeka is dead, when he isn’t, and that Captain Shipman can be accused of stealing Colonel Cathcart’s tomato. So, you need your tongue firmly in cheek for this one.
I’ve never been in war, and hopefully I never will be. So take this with a grain of salt, but even with all the nonsense and absurdity, I’d still take Heller’s depiction over the real thing. And maybe that’s the point.