Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I had this book for years before I finally read it. I guess it was something I had to grow into. When I did finally read it, it became one of my top five favorite books. Since then, I’ve read it over and over again. I lost track of how many times. It is a Quentin Tarantino-style story. It starts in the middle, it goes back, and then jumps all over the place until the reader is completely dizzy.

It is a hysterically funny book.  The main character, Yossarian, is convinced that everyone around him is insane, even though he himself is irrational, paranoid and terrified of dying.  Since the book is mainly seen through Yossarian’s eyes, everyone starts to come off as crazy.

The story rolls along in this zany, light way – making you laugh a lot and half wish that you could hang out with these guys, drinking at the officer’s club and visiting Italian whorehouses.

Then Heller takes about four pages right in the middle of the book and has you feeling sick with grief at the real horror of war and suddenly you understand why these guys came back from Europe with post-trauma.

Yossarian is one of the most beautiful, charming, asshole, weirdly logical, mad characters in literature. In the middle of war and destruction and chaos, Yossarian starts reconsidering his position. He joined the military voluntarily because it seemed like the politically correct thing to do, but as he watches most of his friends die, he struggles to find the reason for it. To justify it. But he can’t.

That’s really the base of the book. Justification for war. It isn’t enough that a bunch of governments and leaders of countries want a war. Considering things from his own point of view,  the patriotism, the service to one’s country, all the cliche things they tell you, just can’t hold up against the senselessness of death. But Yossarian is stuck flying mission after mission, with no end in sight, and here’s why:

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. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

Brilliant. There are so many kick-ass characters in this book that I can’t – I won’t – go into them all, but notably there are Yossarian and the Chaplain, Chief White Half-Oat and Captain Flume, Orr, Clevinger, Dunbar, Hungry Joe, Colonel Cathart, Nately and just dozens more.

Many of the characters aren’t too developed. They might have a cameo for a bit, before they are blown up or disappear, but since the chapters run all over the place, it’s easy to read about a guy for one chapter and then pick up with him again like ten chapters later. There are women in the story, but with the sexist male thing happening at its height, many of them aren’t treated too respectfully. Some of them are downright ridiculous. I’m fond of the Italian whore who keeps trying to knife Yossarian. She hides behind doorways and in alleys and is always leaping out at him. She believes he is responsible for the death of her lover, and so wants her revenge. Yossarian evades her every time and the tragedy that triggered it becomes somewhat comical.

Yossarian becomes obsessed with the idea that ‘everyone is out to kill him’ (the enemy, the generals who send him on dangerous missions etc) and he becomes determined to stay alive. Here is a part where he tries to get out of flying missions (again) and is told to suck it up.

Yossarian suddenly seized his arm. “Couldn’t you forge some official orders on that mimeograph machine of yours and get us out of flying to Bologna?”
Ex- P.F.C. Wintergreen pulled away slowly with a look of scorn. “Sure I could,” he explained with pride. “But I would never dream of doing anything like that.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s your job. We all have our jobs to do. My job is to unload these Zippo lighters at a profit if I can and pick up some cotton from Milo. Your job is to bomb the ammunition dumps at Bologna.”
“But I’m going to be killed at Bologna,” Yossarian pleaded. “We’re all going to be killed.”

“Then you’ll just have to be killed,” replied ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen. “Why can’t you be a fatalist about it the way I am? If I’m destined to unload these lighters at a profit and pick up some Egyptian cotton cheap from Milo, then that’s what I’m going to do. And if you’re destined to be killed over Bologna, then you’re going to be killed, so might just as well go out and die like a man. I hate to say this, Yossarian, but you’re turning into a chronic complainer.”

Everyone has a different attitude in regard to Yossarian’s seeming paranoia. Some are fatalist,like Wintergreen. Some are confused by it, not really understanding why he is making such a fuss over the fact that he’s risking his life. But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. People are dying every day, and you could be next at any second. It is a perfectly normal human reaction to fight for all your worth to save your own life. Which is what he does, in the end.

“They’ll have to try like hell to catch me this time.”
“They will try like hell, and even if they don’t find you, what kind of way is that to live? You’ll always be alone. No one will ever be on your side, and you’ll always live in danger of betrayal.”
” I live that way now.”
“But you can’t just turn your back on all your responsibilities and run away from them,” Major Danby insisted. “It’s such a negative move. It’s escapist.”
Yossarian laughed with buoyant scorn and shook his head. “I’m not running away from my responsibilities. I’m running to them. There’s nothing negative about running away to save my life.”

This book is the anti-establishment book. Published in 1961, it was called “The best American novel to come out of World War II” With it’s clearly unpatriotic themes and it’s satire of a bureaucratic system, it gives me some satisfaction to read the above line and think “So. All that blather about how patriotic and honor-bright our grandparents were. And how our generation just has no patriotism and no understanding of war. Huh.” Lies, all lies.”

I am not saying that there were no patriotic Americans. Indeed, it was just the opposite. There were millions. But not everyone felt that way at the time, even thought we always get told how noble and awesome everyone was and how those ‘hippies’ came along and ruined everything. Bullshit. This book is the truth. Humans have always questioned the necessity of war. They have always shrunk from killing others in the name of whatever happens to be the cause of the day.

In the Civil War, “It was a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight” and men were deserting right and left. Southerners and Northerners. In the Mexican-American war, people were protesting in the streets in every city across the country. Thoreau got himself thrown in jail for refusing to pay taxes that supported the war. Of course, he was only in there a night, but he wrote ‘Civil Disobedience’, and the world of English literature has never been the same. People don’t like death and brutality and genocide, but they engage in it and say it is for freedom’s sake. That’s messed up and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging that there is something dreadfully wrong with it. Surely there must be a better way to settle our differences? Catch-22 is unapologetic and the book calls out the ridiculousness of killing each other to make the world better.

“To whom?” Yossarian shot back.  “Open your eyes, Clevinger. It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.”
Clevinger sat for a moment as though he’d been slapped. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed bitterly, the thinnest milk white line enclosing his lips tightly in a bloodless, squeezing ring. “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, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.”

I guess I like history when it’s accurate. It’s ironic that a fiction novel makes history true. I guess I like things to be a bit negative – while calling it reality. But the thing is, it is reality you are facing when you look at the crap. In psychology, they explain to you how people who are severely depressed, tend to examine the world without rose colored glasses, while the so-called ‘normal’ people who do not suffer from depression, tend to spend most of their time looking for the bright side which doesn’t always exist.

I found this fascinating, as I have been depressed since I was twelve, and for the first time I realized that if I had just been a different person, one more prone to lying to myself, I would have been much happier. Wow. Its messed up. But the truth shall set you free, as the old saying goes. And I prefer the truth, even when it hurts and makes me unhappy.

Like Yossarian, I have a bit of paranoia, too. Not that everyone is out to get me killed. Or even that everyone is out to get me in any way. But sometimes I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle against the absurd.  Against apathy. Against phony ideologies. Against memory and the way we like to gloss things over so it supports a narrow-minded and self-centered belief system.

This book speaks that to me. It doesn’t highlight the nobility of sacrifice. (And I am not saying that there can’t be nobility in sacrifice or even that sacrifice is not necessary sometimes – I just think that there are different ways to sacrifice – that’s all – without harming others)

Instead, the book points out the destructiveness that can happen to your mind, your heart, and your world when you accept everything around you as A-OK. Especially when it isn’t.

It takes a lot of guts to be mad to deal with the madness around you. Most of us don’t have the strength for it. At least not until we work ourselves up to it. But Yossarian proves to us that it is possible to do the right thing even if the whole world is telling you’re wrong, and that it’s anything but crazy to do anything you can to save your own life.


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Filed under Banned Books, Literature

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