Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 combines dark humor, exaggerated absurdity, poignant surrealism, despairing melancholy, and infinite revelations about the horrors and strangeness of modern society. The prose at times is exquisite. The characters are memorable, funny, and over-the-top. I found myself laughing out loud at the sheer stupidity of the characters and the craziness of the world, which often reminded me in a disturbing way of people I know in real life.

Everyone thinks Yossarian is crazy. He continually shares his belief that random strangers are trying to kill him. As a bombardier during World War II, Yossarian wants nothing more than to survive in the face of a most certain death. His only problem is that Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions necessary to complete a tour of duty. Every time he gets close, the number of missions necessary to be grounded and go home is raised. When he tries to prove his incompetence to fly, he is trapped by Catch-22, the insane rule formulated by the military bureaucracy: a man is insane if he would willingly fly dangerous combat missions and can, therefore, request to be taken off duty as being unfit to fly a plane, but the moment he makes the formal request to be relieved of flying anymore missions, the very act of making such a request proves that he is sane and, therefore, can no longer be relieved due to insanity. Although Yossarian is the focal point of the story, the novel shifts through a vast panoply of diverse characters sporting a wide range of personalities and personality defects, offering nothing less than an exaggerated, but accurate and sickly portrait of modern life itself.

Should Catch-22 be considered an anti-War novel? When compared to Erich Maria Remarque’sAll Quiet on the Western Front or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five who also could arguably fit in that genre, one notices some important and distinct differences in approach. Vonnegut’s work revels in the brutality and the sheer misery of war. Remarque’s work gains its power from its realism. Catch-22, on the other hand, makes for a poor anti-War novel when taken on the same terms as those novels. The first half of the book lacks the graphic depictions of degradation that are a staple of Vonnegut’s Slaughter-house. The characters of Heller are too over-the-top, too exaggerated, too unbelievable, and too unrealistic for it to work successfully as an accurate portrait of average American soldiers and the kind of realistic military life found in Remarque. I found myself imagining what my grandfathers, both of whom fought in WWII, would have thought of Yossarian’s experiences in relation to their own. Clearly the answer is that my grandfathers’ experiences were nothing like Yossarian’s, and the goal of this book was not to achieve a realistic depiction of war, at least on the surface. In a way, though, it offers extremely powerful insights on war. Its method rejects realism for exaggeration and sensationalism; it strives for grotesque, eccentric, and burlesque portraits of human beings over realistic characters. Yet, as I already noted, it captures real human personalites with disturbing accuracy and believability.

It takes a madman to know a madman. Throughout the novel, many of the characters accuse Yossarian of being crazy, yet he offers some of the most accurate and brutal insights about the world. Yossarian questions the idea of nation and country, wondering what sort of insanity ever made us swear loyalty to some artificial borders created by men. Although his belief that everyone is trying to kill him comes off as genuinely paranoid, it also functions as an effective critique of what war actually is (a bunch of random strangers trying to kill each other):

“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?”
[. . .]
Clevinger really thought he was right, but Yossarian had proof, because strangers he didn’t know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, and it wasn’t funny at all.”

In much madness there is wisdom. Yossarian captures perfectly the (il)logic of war. There is a touch of insanity in the idea that a thousand random strangers will try to kill you for the sake of some artificial boundary that we call country.

However, it would be a mistake to say the work condemns war in a completely uncomplicated way. For all his critiques about the irrational nature of war, Yossarian seems hesitant to denounce World War II outright. Throughout he accepts the fact that it will be a good turn of events if America wins the war and the Germans do not. Even at the end of the novel when Major Danby lectures him Yossarian seems to accept the implicit merits behind fighting this war.

“This is not World War One. You must never forget that we’re at war with aggressors who would not let either one of us live if they won.”

He accepts that it will be better if his country wins, but wonders why he must be the one to sacrifice his life for it. I think there is a real reason that Yossarian never directly condemns the necessity of this particular war, while still condemning the illogic of the ideas that perpetuate wars. It is the ultimate Catch-22 of the novel: how can one recognize that there may be legitimate moral reasons to fight a war (another country being an aggressor, a holocaust, and other genocides), while also understanding that engaging and fighting a war is an immoral action? The novel does not seem to have an easy answer to this question.

Less ambiguous is the novels critique of modern bureaucracy. The novel opens with a scathing look at bureaucratic institutions; in the first chapter, we find firemen who would prefer to have a fire than lives saved, doctors and nurses who perform their duties like robots without showing any genuine concern for the sick individuals themselves. It is a world where the individual gets sucked up in a machine of opportunism.

In the hospital Yossarian censors letters, erasing signatures and content out of sheer boredom to pass the time. No one cares how he manipulates the content of the letters, but the moment he censors the outer envelopes the military bureaucracy involves itself. Anyone who has ever worked for a bureaucracy or had a bureaucratic style boss understands how nitty-gritty and obsessed they can be with the proper rules and regulations: it doesn’t matter if you come in from 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM every day, I only expect you to be here from 9 AM to 3PM, and you’re late today by one minute. It doesn’t matter that you can’t see the clock under the pull-out screen and cannot use it to tell time, that’s where the clock is supposed to go according to the floor plan. It doesn’t matter if the clothes we tell you to wear is not optimal for these weather conditions, it says right here in the handbook that you must wear this style of clothes under regulation 672.  This incident with the mail also has symbolic importance suggesting bureaucrats do not care about substance, only outer appearance, a theme that will play throughout the rest of the novel. Most importantly, the bureaucratic obsession with rules almost always comes at the expense of efficiency. After all, it would have been far more efficient for Colonel Cathcart to simply rotate in fresh troops for his squadrons instead of requiring more missions from his men.

Colonel Cathcart is the ultimate toady, a completely incompetent person who sucks up to his superiors and inferiors when he needs their help, always with the view of advancing his career and helping himself rise another peg on the bureaucratic chain.  Morality or human lives do not matter to the bureaucrats, but only appearances, how well they look in front of their superiors, as Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn continually demonstrate with their complete disregard for the lives of the men under their command.

In bureaucracy truth is not what actually occurred, but simply what the paperwork says happened, how it can be spun to one’s advantage. We see this in the ludicrous trial of the Chaplain who is accused of forging his signature on documents. Even though he writes his signature right before the eyes of his accusers, they brandish another document he supposedly wrote earlier signed with his name–really forged by Yossarian at the beginning of the novel–and claim that the most recent signature cannot be his because it is different from this first signature, and that he must be lying, despite all evidence and logic to the contrary. The novel reiterates this sad fact about reinventing the truth at the end in a discussion between Major Danby and Yossarian.

“The hell they will! Don’t lie to me, Danby. They wouldn’t even try [to court martial me].”
“But why wouldn’t they?” inquired Major Danby, blinking with astonishment.
“Because I’ve really got them over a barrel now. There’s an official report that says I was stabbed by a Nazi assassin trying to kill them. They’d certainly look silly trying to court-martial me after that.”
But, Yossarian!” Major Danby exclaimed. “There’s another official report that says you were stabbed by an innocent girl in the course of extensive black-market operations involving acts of sabotage and the sale of military secrets to the enemy.”
Yossarian was taken back severely with surprise and disappointment. “Another official report?”
“Yossarian, they can prepare as many official reports as they want and choose whichever ones they need on any given occasion. Didn’t you know that?”

Too much of this reminds me of modern political discourse found across the scores of blogs and newspapers and talk radio shows. The bureaucrats manipulate the truth. The truth can be whatever they want it to be and whatever best suits their needs at the time. Perhaps the best example of this in the novel is when Doc Deneeka ends up dead, even when he is actually alive. Doc Deneeka forges his name on flight logs so that he can collect his flight pay without actually having to fly. When one of the ships he is supposed to be on goes down the bureaucrats of the novel decide to simply claim he died instead of dealing with the mess of him forging his name and collecting flight pay. It would cause too much bureaucratic paperwork to explain why he was not on the ship. People start treating him like a ghost, as if he really had died, even though he is still alive and talking. It gets to the point where the pentagon informs his wife that he is dead, and she begins collecting life insurance, despite knowing he is alive from letters he sends her. Unfortunately it is not only government bureaucrats who engage in this unseemly behavior, but politicians, militaries, academics, bloggers, and even newspapers as well. The novel suggests that there is no such thing as the truth anymore, only manipulated interpretations of the truth, especially once bureaucrats and opportunists take control.

In contrast to the cold superficial disregard of individual life as represented by the bureacracy, the other main theme of the novel seems to be the preciousness of life itself that comes with the painful recognition of the inevitability of death. The novel consistently reminds us that we all will one day die. The secret of Snowden points to this fact. Snowden who dies before the action of the novel even begins is constantly referenced, but it is only at the end of the book that we learn the truth of the incident. Yossarian tries to patch up the dying Snowden, bandaging wound after wound after their plane takes damage, certain that the gunner will live after all, until Yossarian opens his vest to find one wound he missed. All of Snowden’s precious organs spill out onto the floor; the man was dead all along, despite Yossarian’s efforts to save him. All the other wounds he patched up did not matter, and in fact, a waste of time because this one wound was fatal.

“It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret.”

The novel takes the idea of human materiality and fragility to its ultimate conclusion. It pokes fun at all our ideas, our politics, our ideals, our stupidities, our hopes, dreams, and aspirations because it suggests that none of it really matters. We are all going to die like so much dead matter, like so much garbage. Don’t take life too seriously, you’ll never make it out alive. The best we can hope for is to have some fun and happiness before we die. The novel does not necessarily take an atheist position and say G-d does not exist; after all, in the character of Corporal Whitcomb who is an atheist it has a lot of fun at the expense of atheism. The point is not that we should abandon all our ideals and beliefs for nihilism. The point seems to be to not take your ideas too seriously, especially at the expense of your own happiness, which is different from outright abandonment of them.

Yossarian keeps his ideals, but also finds space to have a little fun and happiness at the end, even though it is the harder decision. Similarly, another major turning point in the novel occurs when the old Italian man engages in a discussion about America with one of the characters, Nately, in the bordello. The old man is the ultimate pragmatist, telling Nately that he praised Mussolini when he was in charge, the Germans when they took over, and America as liberators when they defeated the Germans in Italy. He continually reminds him that he is over a hundred years old, and if Nately takes his advice and stop putting so much stock in patriotism he might make it to ripe old age too. What the old man is implying is that abstractions like country, government, and “-isms” are not worth anything, only your life. He punctuates this point by pointing out his age and enjoying himself with two young whores right after discussion with Nately. America will disappear in time, he suggests to an irate Nately; even the planet earth will be gobbled up by the sun. Everything is in a state of dying, so you might as well try your best to enjoy life and live as long as possible.

The novel ends with a thread of hope. Yossarian flees for Switzerland after discovering from the Chaplain that his friend, Orr, has survived a plane crash in the sea that occurred earlier in the novel. It turns out it was an elaborate plan to escape the insanity of war and bureaucracy. Skillful, resourceful, and useful Orr who stands in opposition to everything that useless talentless bureaucrats represent, manages to pull a fast one on them. Yossarian finds in this escape a method in which he can refuse to further risk his life by flying anymore missions and also refuse to sell-out his squadron and principles by taking Colonel Cathcart’s and Korn’s deal that would send him home and give them positive publicity. Instead he chooses to run away and join his friend Orr, maintaining both his principles and his life. So Heller balances his theme of pragmatism and life with this final moment in which Yossarian refuses to sell out his ideals.

Still, the most memorable part of this novel is not the themes, but the characters. There are so many great and memorable characters in this novel: sadistic Captain Black relishing in the suffering of others in hopes that he can watch them eat their livers, Nately’s whore with her misplaced anger that leads her to blame the wrong person for Nately’s death, Nately with his patriotic idealism who rebels against his father’s wealth and privilege by chasing after a lowly Italian whore only to reify his privileged upbringing by becoming a patriarchal tyrant once he gets the girl, Dobbs who conspires to murder Colonel Cathcart, Corporal Whitcomb the moody thin-skinned atheist who dislikes religious people so much that he is willing to encourage dogmatism and religious fervor just to prove his superiority as a non-believer, Major —- de Coverly with his haunting eye-patch and whose only useful skill is selecting great apartments for the soldiers to use on leave, Hungry Joe with his tortured nightmares only find relief when Colonel Cathcard extends the missions each time to complete a tour of duty, friendless Major Major Major Major who reminds us that some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them, Doc Deneeka whose problems are always more serious than everyone else’s, Harvard graduate Clevinger who knows everything about literature except how to enjoy it, Milo the emblematic capitalist who is worshipped across the world as mayor, king, duke, and even a god for his wealth and ingenuity at making money. Each of these characters corresponds to the features, personalities, and institutions found in modern society.

In truth, I could probably write post after post, essay after essay, without having made a dent into the depth of this novel. Every page, every chapter, every character bursts with meaning and sub-text. You’ll laugh, you’ll get choked up with anger, and you’ll savor every moment of this complex novel.

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2 thoughts on “Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

  1. Wow…a very thorough review. I feel quite the simpleton for my own. I served in the Air Force myself (entirely different circumstances), but still found at least a little to relate to. It reminds me a bit of M*A*S*H*.

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