21 Jun 2012

Catch-22: a Review

He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt.
Idle bombardier, Yossarian, is the ‘hero’ of Catch-22, whose only real mission in war seems to be creating plans to save himself from any potential, horrible possibilities in war. The problem with this is that Colonel Cathcart keeps on raising the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service and therefore go safely home. And then there’s Catch 22: the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade that states that a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if anyone is sane enough to try and preserve their life by getting out of combat duty, they must be sane enough to carry out said duty and therefore cannot be signed off. If Yossarian makes any attempt to excuse himself from these perilous missions, he is trapped into flying more.

Such puzzling paradoxes are characteristic of Joseph Heller’s novel, and add to its hilarious satire. It mocks the Military establishment in a way that everyone can understand. Indeed, the satire can be applied to any overtly bureaucratic or hierarchical organisation (and what isn’t nowadays?). The war (specifically, the end of World War Two in Italy, where Yossarian is based) is a huge force that cannot be resisted, particularly by the gathering of hilariously dim-witted characters. It is only Yossarian (who himself is not exactly sane) who occasionally tells the blunt truth in his characteristically sarcastic, pedantic way:

Yossarian says, "You're talking about winning the war, and I am talking about winning the war and keeping alive."
"Exactly," Clevinger snapped smugly. "And which do you think is more important?"
"To whom?" Yossarian shot back. "It doesn't make a damn bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead."
"I can't think of another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy."
"The enemy," retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, "is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on."
You have to read virtually the whole book before it starts to make any sense; the jumbled myriad of events and the rapid bombardment of names means that you may have to backtrack to remember where a particular Corporal or General fitted in with the story.

I really want this post to emphasise the hilarity of this book. No doubt the key element of Heller’s writing, the funny moments often creep up on you unexpectedly and split your sides before you have a chance to stop it. His comedic style is subtle, efficient and will almost certainly steal a few violent snorts from you.

But Yossarian knew he was right, because, to the best of his knowledge he had never been wrong.
In this war novel, we never see the enemy, or any combat, we never get to examine any maps or serious missions and we never get to admire any believable heroes. However, Catch-22’s magic is precisely in this fact. Heller still manages to deliver a strong, anti-war message through the medium of satire. He creates moments, where the veneer of comedy slips slightly and we see the inescapable frustration of the characters, of such sharp reality that the impact of the novel is in fact greater than a novel simply describing war’s deepest dangers.

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