"What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for."
"Anything worth living for," said Nately, "is worth dying for."
"And everything worth dying for," answered the sacrilegious old man, "is certainly worth living for."
When Joseph Heller was asked, late in life, why he had never written another book as good as Catch-22, he responded, “Who has?” Cocky, perhaps, but not unjustified—Catch-22 is certainly one of the densest, funniest, most rewarding books I’ve ever read.
The plot ostensibly follows Yossarian, a bombardier captain in the waning days of World War II, who wants nothing more to be sent home. He first tries completing the required missions, but his captain keeps raising the number. He carries on, faking sickness, faux insanity, and even talking to his largely inept or uncaring superiors, but nothing works—he is caught in a catch 22, a term that is never directly defined in the novel, but which has passed into popular usage as an impossible situation, and is exemplified throughout the novel, both explicitly and more subtly. Defining the novel as Yossarian’s story is misleading though, as any first-time reader will quickly learn.
Structurally--and I’m a serious geek for structure--it’s right up there with Ulysses and As I Lay Dying, completely unique and sometimes bewildering in its presentation. Chapters jump from person to person and place to place, sometimes in mid-scene. The novel is constantly folding in on itself, jumping through timelines, shifting perspectives, and recasting previous events as the backstories and motivations of supporting characters become more fully fleshed out. There’s really no way to explain how all this works; it just does. It brings to mind the film technique of showing a character, say, looking into a mirror, and when the camera pulls back, the character’s face is now on a photograph being held by someone else. It’s remarkably effective, both comedically and dramatically, throughout Catch-22, and I’m fairly certain I’ve never seen another novel use it. Nothing is unimportant or frivolous—even the most insignificant character arc pays off as the story goes on. As the disparate strings were woven together, it was honestly pretty amazing.
Catch-22 has a reputation as a funny book, and it definitely is, for much of its bulk, laugh out loud funny. Even the pervasive humor, however, works toward the novel’s unexpected final third, where everything comes together in a way that’s both nightmarish and bleakly (VERY bleakly) hilarious. It’s a scathing satire not just on the military or the long-term futility of war, but on the very core American values. Nothing escapes unscathed—God, country, capitalism, government—but the satire isn't without buried affection, and the ending is almost joyful, relative to the very bad things leading to it.
Still, this is a challenging book. Anyone expecting a comic novel to be an easy read will probably be put off fairly quickly—just check out some of the scathing Amazon reviews for proof—but this is serious literature covered in a thin candy shell, and it deserves to read that way. It’s almost a Catch-22 itself.