Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 may just be the great 20th century American novel precisely because of its absurd, tongue-in-cheek pathos paradoxically makes humorous the macabre and the pitiful absurdity laughable. This is a novel about the bureaucratic traps that dominate the commerce of war, the dead ended hopes of those subjected to the merciless greed of those with power, and the pointless efforts of those aware of the foolish absurdity that directs the bureaucratic system. If that doesn’t describe the American way, I don’t know what does.
This is a good book, however it is not easy to like it. I had tried years ago to read Catch 22 after several friends claimed it to be their favorite piece of literature, but my initial reading was stunted by the repetitive nature of the first 100-200 pages of this 460 page behemoth. Only recently when I took a solo drive from San Francisco to San Diego did I get the bright idea to give Catch 22 a second chance via an audio format. I rarely listen to audio books, but having someone else read Catch 22 to me allowed me to get through those initial repetitive sections and come to appreciate for what it is: a carefully crafted piece of art.
Those first 200 pages or so are repetitive for a purpose, to illustrate the pointlessness of war and the circuitous logic of an insane bureaucratic system. Each chapter blends into the subsequent chapter, however the chronicity is incongruous, with stories from the past blending into stories from the present with the only signal of time being the number of missions that Colonel Cathcart is currently requiring the fighter pilots to fly before they will be released from their duties and able to head home. The increasing number in the mission counts is central to the plot because Cathcart aims to become a general by doing anything to impress his superiors, including leading the most missions, but the central character Yossarian does not want to fly any more missions. Yosarrian has decided to no longer fly any missions because the Colonel keeps raising them before he has enough to go home. This cat and mouse of increasing missions and refusal to fly them is one of the many Catch-22 events that occur.
The action, or lack thereof, proceeds with several sequences of Yosarian feigning illness to remain in the hospital and avoid flying missions for Cathcart. And each episode results in Yosarian eventually leaving the hospital out of boredom or annoyance or just because he is motivated by some force to participate in the war and witness his fellow fighters pointlessly die in combat only to push him back into the hospital once again. These sequences of repetition allude to a sense of déjà-vu that is central to this first section, even with the inclusion of a patient in the hospital who sees everything twice. There are several other ridiculous characters such as a man named Major Major who gets promoted to Major, a conspiracy about signing letters and top secret files with the pen name Washington Irving, and so on. There is plenty of humor and fun, but I don’t think I could have made it through the first half of this book without the aid of the audio book reading as I drove down the I-5.
The second and latter half of the book departs from the repetitiveness and is therefore much more interesting and “readable”. There is a prolonged exploration of Milo Minderbinder’s self-serving syndicate that is capitalizing upon the war left and right, a cathartic experience when Doc Daneeka is counted as dead simply because he is listed on the flight list of a plane that goes down despite the fact that Daneeka wasn’t on the plane, and so on. The humor of the second half of the book is mixed with the lurking pathos of the a rising death toll of many of the characters. Each death happens in an instant and the survivors simply move on, going about their business of trying to survive.
I especially enjoyed the chapter titled “The Eternal City” that narrates Yosarrian’s travels into Rome to inform Nately’s whore that Nately has died in flight. This chapter is full of self-deprecating insight such as “he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them” (415). This chapter includes a prolonged passage narrating Yossarian’s solitary walk through the city when he realizes that poverty and destruction he witnesses is not just before his eyes but spread throughout the globe. Yosarrian also discovers that the military clause “Catch-22” does not really exist and only has power because it is repeated in the mouths of those who believe it.
A review of this novel can’t ignore the grotesque chauvinism that is prevalent throughout the narration. Women are merely objects to the military boys. Wives are shared by all, nurses are fondled, whores are raped and murdered. There isn’t one strong female character throughout the entire work. I didn’t find this shocking because I believe that the choice was purposeful to further demonstrate the mindlessness of war. And, of course, Nately’s whore does vindicate all the women in her quest to…well, just read it to find out.
Or, don’t, because in the end, it is all just laughably pointless.