Catch-22 is a satirical fiction novel by Joesph Heller set in World War II. It follows the developments on an American Air Force base on a small island named Pianosa in the Mediterranean Sea. Captain Yossarian, a bombardier at the base, is desperately trying not to die after completing his tour of duty as he and his fellow men wait to be sent home.
"Wildly original, brutally gruesome, a dazzling performance that will outrage as many readers as it delights. Vulgarly, bitterly, savagely funny, it will not be forgotten by those who can take it," said a review in the New York Times. This is how I am feeling. A minor difference is that it has both outraged me and delighted me.
Catch-22 is a satirical fiction novel by Joesph Heller set in World War II. It follows the developments on an American Air Force base on a small island named Pianosa in the Mediterranean Sea. Captain Yossarian, a bombardier at the base, is desperately trying not to die after completing his tour of duty as he and his fellow men wait to be sent home. The story follows Yossarian and his fellow men around Pianosa and Italy as they struggle to stay alive and cling to their versions of sanity while the war rages and death picks apart their hopes of being sent home one by one.
The story maintains a comical exaggeration of the people's affairs, with each character having unique quirks and character traits. While I initially wondered if some characters were crazy when they called Yossarian crazy for believing that everyone was trying to kill him, I am fairly convinced now that all were a little mad. Yossarian notes that "strangers he didn't know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, it wasn't funny at all." The same Yossarian chides Danby on how he has been on combat duty as a bombardier and to not talk to him "about fighting to save my country." There is no one 'normal' in the ordinary sense except, perhaps, Orr. I think he knew what he was doing. While the author avoids exposing the reader to the brutality and trauma of war, there are pivotal instances centered around Yossarian where the brutality of war is thrust upon the reader as if poking an open wound with fingers. The narrator sees the war as madness but mostly buffers the readers from its horrors by sticking to the comical tone.
"Men went mad and were rewarded with medals. All over the world, boys on every side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives."
While America was at war with Nazi Germany, most men seemed to work for their personal interests, whether or not it benefitted the nation. Colonel Cathcart kept raising the minimum number of combat missions for his officers to gain favor among his superiors and a mention in the newspaper; General Scheisskopf wanted everyone to parade around; Milo Minderbinder started a successful syndicate spanning borders during the war, using the military infrastructure (and even escapes any form of retribution in the name of patriotism); Doctor Daneeka wanted to return to his clinic which had started to flourish when the world war eliminated his competition as they were drafted them to military service before him; Yossarian wanted to return home, and Chaplain longed for his beloved wife. But it is not just the war that is being admonished; there are discourses that take aim at religion, patriotism, medicine, and loyalty, which may make one take a pause and think if not ultimately (a)mend opinion.
What also caught my attention was the treatment of women in the book. On the off-days, the squadrons would be in Italy, fucking around with women. There is so much adultery and debauchery that one wonders what is happening. The language used to describe prostitutes is raw, and nothing but prostitutes or concubines have been described (other than nurses looked upon by the soldiers with a sexual fetish). It makes me wonder what the wars are for the women and the soldiers.
The style has a sense of repetition and banality in the dialogue, which understandably caused some reviewers to write that Catch-22 "gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper" and "what remains is a debris of sour jokes." While it reminds me of the style in Three Men in a Boat, the story moves at a decent clip, avoiding the boredom from prolonged exposure to exaggeration. Further, the book focuses on the human condition, which does not change too much too soon. Hence, even though the novel follows a gang of American soldiers during wartime (1942), I don't find the situations unrelatable from where we are today and feel that the novel is as current as it was at the time of publication in 1961.
The novel presents a comical account of people's affairs and left me a little uncomfortable by the end of the book because of its consistency. Everyone in the novel kept doing what they did with alarming consistency. As the story moves, one may expect a redemptive arc or a steep decadence in the characters. However, the characters keep doing what they did. To me, that is a great insight and achievement of the story. My lens as a reader evolved. The antics that were initially amusing when the stakes were low become frustrating as the story evolves. As a reader, the world and its connections, the causations and effects, all become clear as I read on, and the unity of the situation dawns on me. But it is not the characters that have changed - I, the reader, seem to have caught the emotion. This is the reason for my delight and my outrage.
P.S. There are multiple elements in the book's form that one can feel but not know explicitly until one reads someone else. I invite you to read its Wikipedia entry. Perhaps that would link up a missing piece that is not mentioned in the current review - the phrase Catch-22.