I was slightly nervous on approaching a re-read of ‘Catch 22’. We are all familiar with the experience of a much loved book, television programme or film being much weaker when revisited (for some reason this is particularly true of television programmes – some iconic series such as The Prisoner, or Monty Python, utterly brilliant at the time, are almost unwatchable a few decades on). Comedy that is side splitting becomes dull and predictable. Novels that once seemed compellingly relevant and important lose any impact. What once worked well in a specific cultural context now seems pointless. Would ‘Catch 22’ suffer in the same way?
The good news (“there’s cookies?”) is that ‘Catch 22’ seems if anything stronger, more relevant, and more hilarious than ever in our post War on Terror world. It is such an incredible tour de force, without a false step or weak moment, a sustained piece of brilliant irony and devastating satire. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Set in Italy in 1944, ‘Catch 22’ revolves around the activities of an American bombing squadron. Heller was a bombardier in the US Air Force in the Second World War, so much of the realistic detail of the novel is based on personal experience. Written in the early 1950’s, when the Korean War was in full flow, the novel was eventually published in 1961. American involvement in Vietnam was only tentative at this stage, and as the war there grew in intensity, so did the popularity of ‘Catch 22’, so perfectly does it capture the insanity of war. In so far as the novel can be said to have a central character, the sane (or largely sane) focus around which the madness rages is John Yossarian, an airman who understandably complains that people are trying to kill him.
“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly. No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried. Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked. They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.” And what difference does that make?”
But Yossarian had proof, because strangers he didn’t know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, and it wasn’t funny at all.”
Each time he reaches the required number of missions, the target is raised, and he is pitched back into combat. The novel’s structure is disjointed – events are referred to several times, but the full explanation of the event – Snowden’s death for example – is constantly deferred, giving the final reveal all the greater impact. Heller builds the novel slowly – at first we are in a slightly darker version of MASH, where the threat to the airmen is slightly, and the emphasis is on their comic adventures. As the novel progresses and more and more people are killed, the danger closes around Yossarian, and he finds it harder to escape from the full horror of the war. There is a strong Kafkaesque feel to these closing chapters, with people being mysteriously “disappeared”, and with Yossarian being arrested and questioned to find out what he is guilty of. Despite this, the novel ends on a positive, hopeful, note with Yossarian learning of his friend Orr’s miraculous escape to Sweden.
The satire of the novel progresses in parallel with the changes in tone – at first the targets are specifically American – “The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them” – but as the body count mounts, Yossarian comes to despair as he realises there is something much more profoundly wrong
“What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused, or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, how many people would go insane? How many cockroaches and landlords would triumph? How many winners were losers, successes failures, and rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt
There are very few works of literature that have given us brilliant concepts captured in a single phrase – Big Brother and some of the other ideas in 1984 stand out – but Catch 22 quickly entered the lexicon as a description of a double-bind paradox imposed by an insane and malevolent authority – anyone who goes mad is not obliged to fly missions; but anyone who applies to stop flying shows a rational concern for his safety and is therefore deemed sane. The paradox is explained several times in the novel, but this is probably the best example:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s 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.”
Despite the profound subject matter, Heller manages the extraordinary trick of making ’Catch 22’ both intensely serious and enormously funny. Some of this is admittedly slapstick – the “moaning” scene is a case in point. At a mission briefing, Yossarian starts moaning in lust at a buxom young nurse in attendance at the briefing – this is taken up by the others present, and the session turns into chaos, climaxing with a scene where the officer leading the briefing accidentally joins in the moaning, and is threatened with being taken outside and shot. The other scene which had me giggling out loud was set in the hospital, where an injured airman shouts out randomly “I see everything twice” (picking up on the novel’s title, incidentally) and where Yossarian joins in, causing utter chaos.
It is important to be clear – ‘Catch 22’ isn’t simply an anti-war novel. It is intensely political and anti-religious as well. The descriptions of Milo’s successful attempts to turn war into a business are a devastating Swiftian critique of capitalism, and his attacks on religion are equally scathing:
“Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include tooth decay in His divine system of creation? Why in the world did He ever create pain?’
‘Pain?’ Lieutenant Shiesskopf’s wife pounced upon the word victoriously. ‘Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers.’
‘And who created the dangers?’ Yossarian demanded. ‘Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs?
Heller uses a number of techniques throughout the novel to comic and satiric effect. One is the use of repetition – various phrases are used almost as refrains, being returned to constantly, with often the significance of the phrase being delayed, to maximise the impact of the eventual revelation. The best example of this is Snowden’s repeated phrase “I’m cold”. Heller also employs a feature which I am sure has a name, but I confess I don’t know what it is, whereby he uses small paradoxes or contradictions. There is no single formulation for these, but typically they involve someone saying they will never do something, or being forbidden from doing something, and then immediately doing it.
“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.”
“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.”
“Nurse Duckett found Yossarian wonderful and was already trying to change him.”
This device serves to underline the absurdity of the war and the circumstances Yossarian finds himself in.
The novel is equally rich in comic invention, almost all absurd but believable. In the same way that Douglas Adams’ Babelfish went on to inspire translation programmers, and eventually to enter the language, so Catch 22 gave us Major Major Major Major, the idea of not growing alfalfa, which must surely have inspired the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, Milo Minderbender’s commercialisation of war, and Doc Daneeka being declared dead because the plane he was supposed to be on crashed, even though he wasn’t on it. Perhaps best of all in this respect is Heller’s extraordinary cast of characters, most of them monsters, others sad and pathetic, but all very convincingly realised.
The chaotic structure of the novel disguises a cleverly crafted construction in which time flows back and forth slowly revealing events which we have been given glimpses of, before a final climatic reveal. This adds to the nightmarish atmosphere of the novel, in which time itself abandons the usual laws of reality and joins in the madness. Despite this there is a naturalistic element to the novel as well, not least the descriptions of the bombing runs and life in camp in between raids. Heller is not just a comic novelist – his writing has a real depth and power, drawing its strength undoubtedly from the fire of his anger, but in moments having a surprising delicacy, such as when “all through the night, men looked at the sky and were saddened by the stars” or when Kid Sampson’s disembodied legs are left to rot on the beach like “a purple twisted wishbone”.
Some readers might be uncomfortable with the portrayal of women in the novel. The airmen spend a lot of time with prostitutes, and perhaps not surprisingly for a war novel there are few clearly defined female characters. Those that appear other than the prostitutes are invariably simple sexual stereotypes. In some ways this is a consequence of the novel’s subject matter, but Heller is very clear that women are also victims in war, and the brutalising effect war has on men is sometimes taken out on women.
Of the 200+ novels I have read for this blog, ‘Catch 22’ is one of the funniest, cleverest, most interesting thus far. Read it; although I recommend you avoid the Vintage “50th anniversary” edition which is full of irritating spell mistakes.