“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.” – Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Ah! The story of Yossarian. A story of the ridiculousness of war and man. A story which is incredible on so many levels it is hard to say anything which would do it justice.
But I’ll try.
For those who aren’t familiar, Catch-22 invites you into a world of madness. A world which is set during World War 2 and details the story of bombardier Yossarian and his fellow airman, trying to survive the craziness of war to get home.
Much of their story takes place at their squadron base in Pianosa, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, and it is here where we first find our protagonist Yossarian. Below I’ve attempted to pinpoint a handful of reasons why Everyone Should Read Catch-22.
1) It’s an incredible piece of literature.
Of course, I’m pointing out the obvious. But I have found no other which I feel matches in its complexities, its humour and brilliance.
Heller used what the fancy folk like to call ‘a distinctive non-chronological third-person omniscient narration’. Basically it’s written in the perspective of a number of characters and it’s not in chronological order. So the brain has to do some real thinking to keep up at times.
But this is what makes it so incredible. The fact that one man’s brain was able to create such a narrative, one that flits from one scenario to another, yet does so in a way which keeps you engaged and makes you want to keep on reading. It just frankly blows my mind.
Heller keeps you interested through the humour, a joke from one chapter will be completed several chapters later (like I said, your brain has to keep up), through his on-point observations about life and people, and the full, crazy and loveable characters within.
2) The idea of Catch-22.
It’s the title of the novel, and it is used throughout as a plot device. Joseph Heller created the idea of Catch-22 over 50 years ago, now it’s a phrase in the dictionary.
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.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
“Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing”
Nowadays, the dictionary definition states that Catch-22 is ‘a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions‘, which is true – to an extent.
There is one part which is missed, which is how the idea of Catch-22 can simply be a tool for those in power and those who have control. Catch-22 benefits them, and they are able to continue winning due to the circumstances of Catch-22. They get to use and abuse.
Catch-22 follows the story of Captain John Yossarian. He’s a bombardier, and he wants to live. He is brave, yet he is the anti-hero. He’s sane in an insane world. He thinks everyone is out to kill him, which they probably are in one way or another. He does not see Germany as the enemy, but he sees anyone who puts him in danger as the enemy. This includes the Colonels and Senior Officers – those who are making him fly more missions.
“The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on.”
War changed Yossarian, but he cares for his friends. He knows right from wrong, and he has his integrity. Yet war broke him, and it is through this that you see the true damages of war.
You learn to love Yossarian. And more than anything, you want him to get his wish. You want him to live.
At the end of Joseph Heller’s 1994 preface he offered the following about Yossarian (spoiler alert):
‘Everyone has got to go,’ his physician friend in that novel [Closing Time] reminds him with emphasis. ‘Everyone!’ But should I ever write another sequel, he would still be around at the end. Sooner or later, I must concede, Yossarian, now seventy, will have to pass away too. But it won’t be by my hand.
4) It has stood the test of time.
Joseph Heller began work on Catch-22 in 1953. People first enjoyed it in 1961. We’re now in 2016. The ideas discussed in the novel are still relevant to life now, and we use the phrases which Heller created in everyday life.
The jokes still earn a laugh. Students are still being educated about it, and it is still hailed as one of the greatest pieces of twentieth century literature. If that’s not a reason to give it a read, I don’t know what is.
5) Its honest portrayal, its humour and its paradoxes.
You will laugh, and you will want to cry while laughing. Catch-22 manages to depict so much of the world we live in, yet it is set in mainly one place and in a situation that many of us would or should not be able to identify with.
Joseph Heller created a world and story that is so full of paradoxes – much like the ones that we see in everyday life – and full of characters who depict the folk we meet and know.
Characters such as Milo show us the ridiculous nature of capitalism, while Nately gives us hope with his ability to see beyond what society sees and Colonel Cathcart demonstrates the arrogance in life.
And the list could go on forever, but instead I shall leave you with one last quote from Heller.
“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”
What are you waiting for? Get reading.