Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Joseph Heller forever gifted humanity a slightly deeper understanding of human nature and the utter folly pervasive in war when he published the eternally-current Catch-22. The novel, drawing in part on Heller’s experiences as a bombardier, follows the story of Captain John Yossarian and his mates who experience the incongruous insanity of the Second World War as they fly their missions over Italy.
Table of contents
Joseph Heller Describes a Satirical War
War is something mankind has unfortunately known since ancient times, and probably even earlier if we count our ancestors who were too primitive to lead records. With thousands of years of hindsight and historical knowledge we’ve paradoxically only grown worse, capable of dishing out death on unprecedented scales. Throughout all those epochs, one idea seemed to unite all wars: their utter absurdity. This is the core of Joseph Heller‘s unforgettable classic, Catch-22.
Though the name of the book is certainly held in high regard, having even managed to become part of the English lexicon, it is increasingly becoming the type of modern classic work more people know about than have actually read it.
In my humble opinion, it’s a sad state of affairs which we would benefit from reversing for one simple reason: it holds the sort of truth capable of making us think and changing us on a core level, and there are very few books I could attribute such a characteristic to.
Anyhow, the story follows Captain John Yossarian, an American bombardier flying missions over Italy as the war draws closer and closer to its end. However, his experience of war is quite different to how he imagined it. The number of combat missions he needs to fly is constantly increasing, and soon enough his own army proves to be more troublesome than any enemy in the field.
What’s perhaps even worse, he keeps running face-first and smashing his nose into the unbreakable wall of war-time bureaucracy as it finds reasons time and time again to refuse him the simple pleasure of going home. His comrades are no better off, and together they make a place for themselves in a world gone completely mad, all while the reality of war seldom ceases to show itself.
Comrades in Irrationality in Catch-22
There are far too many things to say about the novel to condense it into a review, likely meriting another book matching its own size for an in-depth study. Nevertheless, I will do my best to shine the spotlight on the elements which caught my attention and stuck with me after I had finished it.
While Captain John Yossarian is indeed the protagonist of the story, he often takes a back-seat to his army comrades, many even having entire chapters dedicated to them, and let me assure you, they are all equally fascinating to read about. Each one seems to be facing his own personal difficulties or realizing his own ambitions in the war, showcasing the many ways it can affect people.
It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.― Joseph Heller, Catch-22
In most books, these characters would be fairly sombre and dealing largely with tragedy, but this is where Catch-22, one of the bestsellers of the 60s, sets itself apart from the fold. Heller writes with a sharp sense of sarcasm and imbues the stories of these men with healthy doses of humour, often stemming from the ridiculous lengths they are willing to go to accomplish their goals.
While it is obviously normal to have your favourites among them, as we see more and more of them while the story unfolds I think it’s inevitable for us to develop a certain kinship with them, or at least a sense of understanding. While at the onset they might have seemed utterly insane, slowly they turn into regular boys trying to make the best of an impossible situation, in a world they haven’t even had the time to properly know yet.
It’s not all fun and games though, as there very much is a war going on, one they are forced to participate in to kill people they’ve never met for reasons they cannot understand. Tragedy does befall them again and again, and when it does all the humour preceding it makes it powerful, impactful, and to me at least, unforgettable.
Reality Behind the Mask of Senselessness
Looking at them literally, on a surface level, many of the situations, actions, rules, thoughts and decisions presented in the novel feel completely senseless, as if the author’s desire was to create a situation as absurd as possible for the mere sake of a thought experiment. While this is definitely be something many modern authors are pulled towards, this isn’t Joseph Heller‘s way in the slightest.
It is very important to note Heller himself was a bombardier for the United States Air Force and flew sixty combat missions during his service. He does describe most of them as being “Milk Runs” (missions where minimal enemy resistance is expected), but it nevertheless gave him some invaluable insight most of us are fortunate enough not to acquire through first-hand experience.
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.― Joseph Heller, Catch-22
All the absurd twists and turns of the story are often meant to mirror the real world, even if in a rather general sense. As these elements accumulate without any intention of stopping, the large picture forms more and more clearly, spelling out the overarching idea hiding beneath the veneer of satirical comedy: war is completely insane in all of its aspects.
While Heller isn’t the first person to ever express this idea, I’ve personally yet to get my hands on a book which portrayed it as convincingly, lightly, and yet still poignantly enough to cut deep when true tragedy begins to seep in. He never beats you over the head with it, instead expressing the motif naturally through the extremely varied and entertaining stories of Yossarian and his many friends.
|544||Simon & Schuster||April 5 2011||978-1451621174|
As entertaining as the novel might be, to me it feels more like a cry to the entire world, to realize the senselessness in our conflicts and the way we handle them, to lay down our weapons and take a moment to think about the future we’re erecting for our children. This is, perhaps, its great value in literature: it has the real capacity to make the reader think, especially if they don’t feel like it.
The Final Verdict
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is an incomparable work of dark humour set in the Second World War, one which does it all, from laughter-inducing sequences, to profoundly emotional and tragic ones, ending all the way at the station of thought-provoking satire.
I believe it’s a unique, one-of-a-kind work which doesn’t lend itself to any comparisons and could stand to be treated more like a priceless relic. If you enjoy war-time satire and want to see what the absolute height of the genre has to offer, then I strongly urge you to get this book. It’s the kind you’ll keep getting more and more out of as you reread it over the years.
(May 1, 1923 – December 12, 1999)
Joseph Heller was an American author who wrote novels, screenplays, regular plays, and short stories. His best-known work is by far Catch-22, a poignant satire on war whose title became a term the English jargon to describe absurd and contradictory situations. His other well-known works include Something Happened, God Knows and Picture This.