This is the first time I’ve written a post about a book I’m still reading. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller is a book I read many years ago; all I can remember is that at first, I was mystified, then about half way through I thought “Aha!”, went back to the beginning, and read on to the end. It’s one of those books that, although the plot line was vague in my memory, has deeply influenced my understanding of life. And then I saw the film many years ago, and have the vaguest memory of it, but I loved it. Now, I’ve decided to revisit it, and bought a 2nd hand copy on the internet; this edition is published 2011, 56 years after the first edition. It’s one of those books that have shaped our popular consciousness, our way of thinking about the world, even if we haven’t read it. Everyone (at least in western culture) uses the phrase “catch 22” with an intuitive understanding, even though they may never have heard of Joseph Heller, let alone read the book. It’s a bit like, on another level, the Oedipal Complex, or the Freudian slip, or the archetypal unconscious … I’m sure there are lots more cultural catch phrases that express some of the myths and theories that have shaped our way of thinking.
But Catch 22 was no theory. It was written out of (I imagine, knowing nothing about Heller’s life) a deep personal experience of war and its absurdity. And I would say it is one of the great anti-war books of all time.
I read a few pages a day; it’s not my bedtime reading (I’ll write about that another time) or my early morning reading, on the days when I get to be lazy; but it’s my mealtime conversation. And conversation it is. It is packed with characters. The central character is Yossarian, the Assyrian American bombardier, who is trapped in a futile and absurd war game. The setting is north Africa in the closing months of the 2nd World War, and his mission, as defined by the squadron commander, is to fly 40 missions; then 50; then 55. In other words, the SC keeps upping the limit. Yossarian is one of the few sane men in the outfit, in that he continually challenges why he should have to put himself at the mercy of thousands of people he has never met who are trying to kill him. Of course, his protests fall on deaf ears, and his strategies to evade flight duty don’t work. Until …. Wait for the 2nd instalment, when I’ve read that far!
Meantime, every chapter introduces a new character or situation, with lots of extreme and often absurd situations, and the antics of the men who try to survive them. I won’t try and give a taste of that here. What I would like to do is just quote a couple of passages, to give a flavour of the book, so that you too will visit or revisit this wonderful piece of humanist, ethical, passionate and comical-tragical writing.
First, what is Catch 22? 1) a man who keeps flying combat missions has to be crazy. 2) before that man can be grounded, he has to ask. 3) if he asks, he can’t be crazy, because, as Doc Daneeka says, ‘Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy’.
So the men have to keep flying. There are tragic moments, amidst the absurd and outrageously funny situations. One is the mission when Snowden died. Yossarian was in charge of evasive action, because he had more fear than anyone else in his crew. Each mission, as soon as the bombs were away, he would bolt and scurry back to his compartment at the rear of the plane, near, but not near enough to the escape hatch, yelling ‘Hard, hard, hard, hard, you bastard, hard!’ to the pilot, the universe, the deaf god. But one time, one of the men went crazy in mid-air, and wrested the controls away from the pilot and ‘hurled them all down suddenly into the deafening, paralyzing, horrifying dive’; just in time, the pilot seizes back the controls, and levels the ship, but right back into ‘the buffeting layer of cacophonous flak from which they had escaped successfully only a moment before.’ As Yossarian dangles from the ceiling of the ship, pleading wordlessly ‘Oh, God! Oh, God, oh, God,’ Dobbs, at the back of the plane, calls out for help, confused, thinking that it is Yossarian, the bombardier, who needs help. Yossarian yells back ‘I’m the bombardier. I’m all right. I’m all right.’ ‘Then help him, help him,’ Dobbs begged. ‘Help him, help him.’
And Snowden lay dying in back.’
I could go on a lot more, but I still have 2/3 of the book to read, and I just wanted to give you a taste. I hope you will read it. If you have, or if you’ve seen the film, I’d love to hear your impressions of it!