When I think of impossible stories, ones that are so intricate, so many-layered, so brilliant in use of language and narrative structure that it seems no mere mortal could have written them, I think of Murasaki Shikibu, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Tolkien, and Joseph Heller, among others. Somehow, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 doesn’t appear in the canon of fictional masterpieces, though it has been a bestseller. I don’t know why that is, because it is a book so brilliant that although I read it many years ago for the first time, it has stayed in my mind ever since. The book had mixed reviews when it was first released in 1961, but became a bestseller when it came out in paperback, and went on to sell 10 million copies in the US. A movie was made in 1970, and many who have not read the book know it through that medium. Recently I decided to re-read it. I did so in small bites over a couple of months, as it is such a heady brew, my mind would not take in more at a time. This had a disadvantage, because I kept forgetting who the characters were. They are vividly drawn, but all of them, except for the central character, Yossarian, have only minor parts to play, though their faults, follies and absurdities are described in unsparing detail. And all of them are seen through Yossarian’s eyes, though all are narrated in the third person. In fact, Yossarian, I think, is Heller’s alter ego. Heller joined the US army air corps at the age of 19, and was sent to the Italian front, where he was a bombardier, like Yossarian, and flew 60 missions.
The question that drives Catch 22 is “what does a sane man do in an insane society?” ” Catch 22″ has become code for describing a no-win situation, where the desired outcome is impossible, and all choices result in the same negative outcome in an absurd world. At the start of the story, Yossarian has flown 48 missions; the target before he can go home is 50. The trouble is, Colonel Cathcart keeps upping the number, so that he can appear to be patriotic and be made a general.
It’s impossible to summarise the plot of this book, which seems to have a life of its own. Yet there is a pattern to it. For instance, there is a refrain that runs through the book, a connecting thread that is the clue to Yossarian’s fall from fearless bombardier to one who will go to any lengths to avoid flying any more missions. The refrain is the death of the young gunner Snowden, when a mission goes wrong, and the plane is hit. Yossarian tries to help and soothe Snowden as he dies in the rear of the plane, not realising that the wound he is tending is not the fatal one. This story is reprised several times, and each time more detail is revealed. The last telling gives all the horrific details, over several pages. When Yossarian realises Snowden has a fatal wound under his flak suit, and starts to peal the clothing back, Snowden’s guts spill out on the floor:
Yossarian was limp with exhaustion, pain and despair when he finished [vomiting]. He turned back weakly to Snowden, whose breath had grown softer and more rapid, and whose face had grown paler. He wondered how in the world to save him.
‘I’m cold,’ Snowden whimpered. ‘I’m cold.’
‘There, there,’ Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard. ‘There, there.’
Yossarian was cold too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. 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 was gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness is all.
Stripped of all illusions, all Yossarian can do is try to survive and find a way out of the trap he is in. He finally hits on a plan, but whether he succeeds is left unresolved in the book; at least, he is not captured, and he isn’t dead.
If you haven’t read this book, and if you like stories that make us wonder what it means to be alive, to be human, and what price we have to pay to survive in dangerous or impossible situations; if you like stories that haunt you long after you close the cover of the book for the last time, I suggest you put Catch 22 on your short list. The message is just as powerful and relevant as it was over 50 years ago when it was written. For me, that is the mark of a great book.