Tag Archives: catch-22

Book Review: Catch-22

As a reader who tries to roam far and wide on the literary landscape, I’d like to think I know craziness when I see it. And Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is crazy.

I’ve tried to write a detailed and semi-coherent plot summary. And I’ve failed to write a detailed and semi- coherent plot summary. So I won’t try anymore. Catch-22 is all over the place. Norman Mailer dubbed it “the rock and roll of novels,” and if by that he means that there is little discernible flow or structure to it, then I agree – rock and roll just about says it.

This lack of narrative flow would usually be a turn-off for me, but Catch-22 is an exception. I would even argue that lack of flow is part of what makes the novel as potent and memorable as it is.

They say war is hell, but according to Catch-22, it is also absurdity. Chaotic, vain, bloodletting absurdity. In keeping with this theme, Heller opts for a storytelling approach that is less-than-tidy; that is, in fact, the opposite of tidy. Just like war itself.

The novel is set in World War II-era Italy, and centers around a young bombardier named Yossarian, who happens to be furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. His worst enemy, though, is his own army, which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Oh, and there’s a catch… did I mention a catch?

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own 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 in Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed. (p. 46)

Confused yet? Good. To couch the Catch in less mind-boggling terms: a man is insane if he willingly flies combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore required to fly. Saavy?

Catch-22 is a satire, and a funny one at that. But no amount of humor can disguise the fact that it’s also a very grim, cynical, and sad piece of work. Heller doesn’t go for the subtle approach, either – his tool of choice is less the scalpel than the cricket bat, and war is his pinata.

A pacifist I am not, but I did appreciate reading this book. It gave me a different perspective to consider, and for that, I am always grateful. I even found myself in agreement with some of Heller’s criticisms (which surprised me). Having said that, it seemed to me that in certain respects, Heller is so over-the-top as to be unfair.

In the afterword of Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden observes that in the three most notable modern literary war novels (Catch-22, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow), World War II, the great triumph of freedom over totalitarianism,

becomes a sensible enterprise only to malevolent, invisible, powerful interests behind the scenes. Soldiers were meaningless because modern war itself was so terrible and costly that no cause or victory could justify it.

And of course, “when war is madness, soldiers can only be stooges, sadists, victims, or lunatics.” Those four types are, indeed, the only types you’ll find in Catch-22.

But is not this a rather lopsided way of looking at things? Am I really to believe that war is ever and only madness, and that those who fight are ever and only insane? Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it hard to reconcile such a picture with the one in, say, Ambrose’s Band of Brothers.

I’m not denying that there is an element of madness to warfare, because there is. But that’s not the whole story. As Bowden puts it,

Perfectly decent, honorable people are driven to war for very sane reasons. So long as one group of men on this planet would take what they want or impose their will by force, civilized people will organize to defend themselves and defeat them. Another way of saying that is, evil exists. So long as men are both good and evil, inside themselves and in their actions in the world, there will be conflict. And where there are evil forces at work in the world… good men and women will step forward to fight.

Soldiers make mistakes. They get scared. Sometimes they become tragically confused, shoot at the wrong people, and get injured and killed. We may even be driven to question the wisdom of their leaders. But along with these mistakes and questions, we shouldn’t lose sight of “the undeniable nobility of military service.” Attributing all war and all soldiering to insanity (or worse) is unfair at best; brazenly deceitful at worst.

By all means, read Catch-22. It’s a pivotal work, and one which deserves consideration regardless of one’s politics. Just remember there’s another catch, besides the Catch – just remember it’s not the whole story.

On the Bookshelf X

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
I’ve read mixed reviews on this one – people loved it and people who found it disappointing. I’m not sure which side of the fence I’ll fall on, but I can say that it’s an interesting read so far. I’m no dyed-in-the-wool Apple fanboy, but Jobs was a fascinating individual. His impact on the tech world was tremendous… and that’s still probably an understatement.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Described by one reviewer as “an utterly serious and sad, but damn funny book.” I’m looking forward to this one with mixed feelings: on the one hand, it’s an anti-war satire (and a pacifist I am not); on the other, it’s a classic novel which seems to demand a reading, regardless of one’s political views. So I’m giving it a go. I hope I don’t regret it.
Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice by Joel McDurmon
“God created logic and reasoning as He created man, and He created it for man, and therefore we should find it reasonable that God’s Word has something to say – if not a lot to say – about logic, rationality, and good judgment.” I enjoy reading McDurmon’s articles on American Vision, so I’m excited to finally pick this one up.
The Evan Gabriel Trilogy by Steve Umstead
“Umstead has created what I can only describe as a Tom Clancy-esque world a few hundred years into the future.” After reading that, I knew there was no way this series was not getting added to my shelf. I’m relatively new to military sci-fi, but it strikes me as a rather terrific combination, don’t you think? Here’s hoping this series is as smashing as it looks.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
I first heard about this one from Tim Challies, who gave it a glowing recommendation; then my Mom bought a copy, read it, and loved it. Now I’m reading it. This Pulitzer Prize winner is narrated by 76-year-old John Ames, “a preacher who has lived almost all of his life in Gilead, Iowa. He is writing a letter to his almost seven-year-old son, the blessing of his second marriage. It is a summing-up, an apologia, a consideration of his life. Robinson takes the story away from being simply the reminiscences of one man and moves it into the realm of a meditation on fathers and children, particularly sons, on faith, and on the imperfectability of man.”
Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung
Otherwise entitled How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, Etc. God appeared to me in a dream and told me this book was going to be awesome. Oh, wait…
1984 by George Orwell
Orwell’s classic needs no intro from me. I’ve been told that it’s incredibly dark and depressing – which strikes me as appropriate, considering the subject matter. Dark stories don’t usually bother me anyway, as evidenced by the fact that two of my favorite novels are The Road and Crime and Punishment.

What’s on your bookshelf right now?