Catch-22 by Joseph Heller What is a Catch 22?
It is a bizarre story staged in a small island of WWII Italy. We meet Yossarian, the veteran bombardier protagonist in a hospital where his imaginary liver pain causes an uncrackable puzzle to a bunch of incompetent army physicians. We also learn that, along with other officers, Yossarian is charged to censor the letters of the enlisted soldiers' to their loved ones. Yossarian first shows his rebellious nature by censoring the letters with the utmost irresponsibility. This act of his left me puzzled through the whole story - what was I missing? - To hide his mischief, he usually signs his reviews with the assumed name of Irwin Washington--except for one letter that he signs as his good friend, Chaplain Tappman. Toward the end of the book, the poor chaplain with his gentle soul gets into a whole lot of trouble because of this faked signature.
From these humble beginnings, the plot takes on as the literary equivalent of "Family Guy;" an irreverent US animated sitcom series. The main conflict builds between Yossarian and his bombardment squadron leader, Col. Cathcart, because of increasing numbers of required missions. Although the colonel has the choice of requesting fresh crews, he wants to distinguish himself by the highest number of missions per crew in the entire Air Corps. It quickly becomes evident that Col. Cathcart doesn't have much more to impress his superiors with.
Most chapters are methodically built around various characters who interact with Yossarian. Although this structure gives a sense of monotony and choppiness to the chapters, Heller manages to hold the story coherent with the help of the vibrant Yossarian and the powerful satirical narration. The third person omniscient narrator reveals the characters through their action and dialogues without having much access to their inner thoughts. Although the timeline stays in a relative narrow range between 1943 and 1944, the narrative advances out of sequence. Several events are told more than once from different perspectives. This structure requires alertness from the reader to piece the story together.
One peculiar attribute of Heller's dialogues is an abundance of repetitive, circular repartees. Although initially this style felt original and witty, at times it became stilted due to overuse.
Perhaps because of the almost cartoonish nature of the characters and events - at one point, e.g. Yossarian picks up his medal from General Dreedle completely naked since he is upset over the death of a comrade -, first I had hard time to identify with the story. As I moved on however, Yossarian's deep humanity, complete with both weaknesses and strengths, and the intrigues of the corrupt military leadership, drew me into the novel.
Although the setting is strictly military, the story is loaded with allusions to everyday life with universal relevance. This is nowhere more evident than in the actions of Milo, the mess officer. He sets up a world-wide syndicate of comical complexity, exemplifying the worst of capitalistic excess and greed.
The book has multiple compelling passages about the dangers of bombing missions. Among these, the most heart retching is the tragic fate of Snowden that keeps hunting Yossarian throughout the novel. Heller has undisputed authority describing the tension of bombing raids having served as a bombardier himself during WWII. Yet, for me the most gripping passage of the book happened not in an airplane. It was Yossarian's futile search for a lost child he wanted to rescue from the streets of war-stricken Rome. During this search, he encountered an impressive collection of the worst that war can bring forth from humanity including sadism and indifference.
Finally, an obligatory remark on the title. Although in its original form the camp doctor Doc Daneeka refers to Catch-22 as a particular concept describing who can do and who does do combat missions, the circular nature of this logic appears in multiple situations throughout the story, when mindless arguments seem to justify mindless actions. In my paraphrasing, Catch-22 states that those who are crazy enough will fight in the wars even though they could be exempted from combat duties because they are crazy. Those who are not crazy and would want to get out of wars however are not allowed to leave the battle field since they have no mental illness for an excuse. If a crazy person changes his mind and asks for relief from duty, it means that he is not crazy anymore and thus he needs to continue the fight. So, at the end, there is no way out of war: everyone has to fight it. This is perhaps a simplified, perhaps even a pacifist concept of war, but it comes from someone who has personal experience of the devastation war brings. I wish people were listening to Joseph Heller.