#3: Catch-22 (1961), by Joseph Heller

Yossarian…strode out of the apartment, cursing Catch-22 vehemently as he descended the stairs, even though he knew there was no such thing. Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse.


“You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you’re at war and might get your head blown off any second.”
“I more than resent it, sir. I’m absolutely incensed.”
“You have deep-seated survival anxieties. And you don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs or hypocrites. Subconsciously there are many people you hate.”
“Consciously, sir, consciously,” Yossarian corrected in an effort to help. “I hate them consciously.”

Catch-22 is a difficult novel to develop a relationship with. The chronology jumps back and forth, there is little semblance of a plot, and dozens of characters are presented as if you already know who they are. With no easy entry point, it’s tempting to put this novel down after a few chapters and read something else (I did, twice.)  But I’m glad I stayed with it; once I buckled down and committed myself to forge ahead, the novel soon opened up to me.

In Heller’s 1994 preface, he writes that one critic for The New Yorker wrote after its publication that the novel “doesn’t even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper.” Time has obviously proven that critic wrong, but it also raises the question of how closely s/he read the book to begin with: There is a circular logic to the novel, and though it reveals itself slowly, anybody paying attention can see just how meticulously Heller assembled his story. Like Infinite Jest, another long, chronologically fractured novel, Catch-22 almost dares you to flip back to page 1 and start again, just so you can see how he pulled it off.

Indeed, Heller’s pacing and careful dispersal of information is my favorite thing about his novel. This approach pays off most effectively in the sad story of Snowden, the soldier on Yossarian’s ill-fated flight who dies quite literally in Yossarian’s arms. His death is one of the earliest linear events in the story, and yet we don’t learn the full extent of it until the second-to-last chapter. When it comes, 440 pages in, it re-contextualizes our understanding of Yossarian, whose attempt to get his flight mission requirements reduced is now less comical than desperately urgent. Telling Snowden’s story on page 10 wouldn’t have had the same impact.

Catch-22 is also replete with paradoxes and contradictions. We’re all familiar with the titular phrase that entered the lexicon, but that is just one of the many instances of absurd pretzel logic. This one is a personal favorite:

“You put so much stock in winning wars…the real trick lies in losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost. Italy has been losing wars for centuries, and just see how splendidly we’ve done nonetheless. France wins wars and is in a continual state of crisis. Germany loses and prospers…Victory gave us such insane delusions of grandeur that we helped start a world war we hadn’t a chance of winning. But now that we are losing again, everything has taken a turn for the better, and we will certainly come out on top again if we succeed in being defeated.”
Nately gaped at him in undisguised befuddlement. “Now I really don’t understand what you’re saying. You talk like a madman.”
“But I live like a sane one. I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American.”

“But you’re a turncoat! A time-server! A shameful, unscrupulous opportunist!”
“I am a hundred and seven years old,” the old man reminded him suavely.

One of the themes coursing through the text is Heller’s deeply cynical take on bureaucracies, and how they, as a matter of survival, adopt their own logic systems. To the outsider, they make no sense at all, but within the organization, they make their own sense — because everyone within it believes in them. Recall the fate of Doc Daneeka, who because of a fear of flying had his name forged on flight rosters. When the plane he was supposed to be on crashes into a mountain, the military, as far as it’s concerned, considers Daneeka dead. Mrs. Daneeka is informed, she receives death benefits, and yet Doc Daneeka is very much alive. But from that point, Daneeka is slowly written out of the narrative. Alive in body, dead on paper, guess who wins.

This novel is also celebrated for its humor, but there is really nothing funny about it. Sure, there are funny moments, the Abbott and Costello routines, the Keystone Kops aspect of leadership, they are all “funny.” I laughed several times through the book. But I hold back on calling this a funny novel. Satire, when it’s right, uses humor and hyperbole to expose vicious truths, and Catch-22 succeeds as a satire because it gets you laughing right up until you remember what it’s criticizing. There are scenes in this book that, if they were written in a different kind of novel, would be remembered as among the most brutal and agonizingly sad in all of literature (I’m thinking of the almost surreal chapter when Yossarian wanders through Rome and witnesses one atrocity after the other.) But because Heller writes in such a detached, almost deadpan way, the reader has to actively remember what’s at stake.

So what is Catch-22 about? I was trying to summarize the plot of this book for a friend the other day, and I found I was reduced to critic-speak (“It’s about the dehumanizing aspect of war and the dangerous power of bureaucracy…”). I suppose if you boil the plot down far enough, it’s basically about one soldier’s ultimate disdain for war, its toll on the psyche, and how he goes to increasingly desperate measures to avoid flying. But that summary is about as good as saying Moby-Dick is about whaling. It’s a big, complex, ingeniously arranged novel that makes you think, makes you laugh, and by the end, makes you angry. How’s that for a blurb?

Some other thoughts:

  • Some of the names in this book are priceless. Milo Minderbinder, Doc Daneeka, Colonel Cathcart, General Dreedle, and of course, Major Major Major Major. Shoot, Nately’s Whore even has a certain majesty to it.
  • Speaking of Milo, I haven’t even mentioned his war profiteering and the syndicate yet. This is something else that is played most often for laughs in the novel, but again, once you think about it, you realize he is among the most venal characters in the book. But as a metaphor for unchecked capitalism run amok, he is a brilliantly conceived character. What’s good for M&M Enterprises is good for the country, indeed.
  • Mike Nichols of course adapted this novel for the screen, and my understanding is that over time it has become well regarded. It must have been difficult, though, since so much of the novel’s success stems from its intricate wordplay. Is that something the film captures?
  • Heller began writing Catch-22 after returning home from World War II. It was published in 1961, and I tried to keep that date in mind as I read. I considered what kind of impact a subversive, relentlessly satirical novel like this would have on popular culture. By now, its ironic, anti-establishment tone is so embedded in our bloodstream that children these days are practically born with smirks on their faces, but Catch-22, along with works from Vonnegut and Pynchon and others, really pioneered it.
  • And last but not least, here is a link to the Charlie Rose show, who last year had the novel’s editor Robert Gottlieb, Heller’s friend Christopher Buckley (who wrote a new introduction to the 50th anniversary edition), and Nichols to talk about the legacy of Catch-22.

Next up: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping!

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