Joseph Heller’s black satire, Catch-22, is widely regarded as one of the best war novels to come out of World War II. Heller’s style is impressive, displaying a near-constant string of juxtapositions and contradictions. Through these contradictions, Heller creates humor, but also creates a complexity in his characters that might not be possible otherwise. These contradictions start off humorously (“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous, and likable. In three days, no one could stand him.”), but as the book progresses, these seemingly innocuous conflicts become a matter of desperate frustration, as we view the world through the eyes of Capt. John Yossarian, the protagonist.
The title comes from an interaction between Yossarian and Doc Daneeka about getting grounded. The passage is after the break.
“You’re wasting your time,” Doc Daneeka was forced to tell him.
“Can’t you ground someone who’s crazy?”
“Oh sure, I have to. There’s a rule saying I have to ground anyone who’s crazy.”
“Then why don’t you ground me? I’m crazy. Ask Clevinger.”
“Clevinger? Where is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I’ll ask him.”
“Then ask any of the others. They’ll tell you how crazy I am.”
“Then why don’t you ground them?”
“Why don’t they ask me to ground them?”
“Because they’re crazy, that’s why.”
“Of course they’re crazy,” Doc Daneeka replied. “I just told you they’re crazy, didn’t I? And you can’t let crazy people decide whether you’re crazy or not, can you?”
Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. “Is Orr crazy?”
“He sure is,” Doc Daneeka said.
“Can you ground him?”
“I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.”
“Then why doesn’t he ask you to?”
“Because he’s crazy,” Doc Daneeka said. “He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”
“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”
“That’s all. Let him ask me.”
“And then you can ground him?” Yossarian asked.
“No. Then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch.” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own 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 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 replied.
Yossarian is a disgruntled bombardier in the Fighting 256th (“two to the fighting eighth”) in the U.S. Air Force. His colonels’ have repeatedly raised the number of missions necessary to go home, and Yossarian is sick of learning he must fly more missions after he’s already completed his required share. He responds by running, every chance he can get, to the hospital (where’s he’s been diagnosed with an invisible liver condition), to Rome (where the streets are filled with willing whores, all of whom hate Yossarian) and to the woods (where, naked, he spends his time hiding in a tree).
Yossarian’s friends have different ways of dealing with the war. Orr, a man with whom Yossarian shares his tent, spends his time tinkering. He builds a stove and fireplace and all sorts of amenities for the tent itself. Hungry Joe, who has flown more missions than anyway, has screaming nightmares every night after he’s grounded for having completely his requisite missions, and sleeps soundly every time the minimum is raised and there’s more flying to do. Nately spends his days trying to woo his whore, who he’s fallen in love with. Dunbar is trying to live forever by taking no interest in anything. The Chaplain is lonely, and confused. Colonel Korn and Colonel Cathcart are both trying to weasel their ways into promotions. Milo Minderbinder is running his syndicate, selling fruits and meats and Egyptian cotton to anyone who will by it (including himself). Havermayer just doesn’t care.
The story changes course–from nonsensical to the frightening reality of war– when Yossarian decides he won’t fly any more missions. Whoever isn’t confused about this, is angry. Yossarian doesn’t even know what will happen, nor what he intends to do.
Heller references a number of other works, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well as an extensive reference to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in a chapter 39 (“The Eternal City”). Heller adapts Dostoevsky’s devices of lush description as well as extremely length paragraphing. Also like The Mad Russian, Heller’s climax in The Eternal City is an allegory, representing the destruction of innocence, and the unjustifiable insanity of violence. Its representation here is harrowing.
Catch-22 is a masterpiece. Its style gets the better of it at parts–it’s a bit slow halfway through–but most of the book is hysterical, but the ending is as dark, and yet as uplifting, as anything written in English.