What’s the Catch?

Joseph Heller’s satirical war novel, Catch-22, reigns above all other war novels – satirical or not. Not only does he actually succeed in making World War Two funny (always a fine line), but he also poses potentially the biggest dousy of a question, one that coined the term ‘Catch-22’. So what exactly is a catch-22? In this case, it’s an American fighter pilot, Yossarian, who has to fly because he’s sane enough to know he doesn’t WANT to fly. Yet if agrees to fly, he doesn’t have to, because it proves he’s insane. To quote Heller, ‘that’s some catch…’

While the novel centres around Captain Yossarian, Catch-22 also uses each chapter as a snapshot into the lives of the men who are part of the fictional 256th Squadron on the island of Pianosa, just off of Italy. While some of the characters have the logical viewpoint of ‘war is stupid, let’s get out of here’ just like Yossarian, others, such as Miles Minderbinder, use the war as a way to make money, while others use it to enhance their position in society.

Critics have complained that Catch-22 reads as though Heller has shouted the words onto the page. While they meant that as an insult, to me it was the perfect way to encapsulate how Heller writes. Despite the length of the book, the plot resembles a ball of tangled yarn – to start any description of the character, it involves describing another, and another. To begin any sort of plot involves backtracking, or fast forwarding, usually multiple times, in snippets, before the reader is finally told what is happening in the present (which, ironically enough, is usually not much). Basically, in terms of linear structure, Catch-22 is like Pulp Fiction on speed. As a result, for the first half of Catch-22, nothing really happens, and then, BAM!, in about the last five chapters, an avalanche of catastrophes, some hilarious, some heartbreaking, all happen at once.

Out of all the books I’ve read, and I can arrogantly say that it’s a fair amount, none of them, not one, has come close to displaying such a perfect display of wit and irony. Though Catch-22 largely occurs about nothing, every sentence, every character, has obviously been thought about. And while the characters are ludicrous, the plot frequently ridiculous, and the government’s input frighteningly pointless, it all somehow speaks the terrible truth of war. While we see horrific things on the news, a large part of war is pointless, dull and stupid. Yossarian is told to fly more missions, simply because that is what he has to do. The men are told to bomb an Italian town, not because they pose any threat, but because the bomb formation will look great as a picture. And bloody Milo Minderbinder, who trades with countries throughout the world (except Russia), justifies bombing his own Squadron, alongside the Nazis, because of the revenue that he can make from it. As Minderbinder complains, war would be far easier if it was less about fighting each other and more about making money. 60 years on since the book was written, and it is still frighteningly accurate to what is happening throughout the world today.

Perhaps what is most impressive about Heller’s writing, is that while he is most definitely poking fun at those in charge, and his writing is positively dripping in satire, he also creates a story that ends on a poignant note. There is a scene throughout the book that Yossarian goes to time and again, but because of the nature of Catch-22, we don’t actually find out the whole story until right at the end. Of course, when we do, we’re reminded about the atrocities of war, and why Yossarian doesn’t want to keep fighting – because he has seen grisly death firsthand, time and again, and he doesn’t want that fate for himself.

It would be a terribly difficult task to write a satirical novel on the biggest war in history, let alone one that doesn’t piss off any countries and get banned. Oh, and is actually relevant and entertaining without being insulting to all the victims. Needless to say, there is a reason why Catch-22 continues to crop up as people’s favourite book of all time. It isn’t a particularly easy book to read, the storyline takes convoluted to whole new level, but it is a book that is both entertaining and socially relevant. If you’re at all interested in taking note about how politics works, but in a way that isn’t dry or too serious, then I’d recommend reading Catch-22. Or, you know, if you just enjoy some great irony and want a good chuckle.

Have you read Catch-22 or anything by Joseph Heller? Comical war novels – are they appropriate? Let me know!