Friday, February 8, 2008

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

"Sure, that's what I mean," Doc Daneeka said. "A little grease is what makes this world go round. One hand washes the other. Know what I mean? You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."

Yossarian knew what he meant.

"That's not what I meant," Doc Daneeka said, as Yossarian began scratching his back. "I'm talking about co-operation. Favours. You do a favour for me, I'll do one for you. Get it?"

"Do one for me," Yossarian requested.

"Not a chance," Doc Daneeka answered.

Catch-22 is like no book I've ever read and I doubt like any book I'll ever read, and that includes the sequel, Closing Time. It has a certain kind of manic logic that props itself up, a logic that is both its form and its subject matter, that mirrors the absurdity of life and yet is something else entirely. It is sometimes hilarious and sometimes horrible and often both. I must say I am in awe of it.

The hero of Catch-22 is Yossarian, an army bombardier on the island of Pianosa. Yossarian is terrified of dying, and being a bombardier is not a good profession to have if you have a terrible fear of dying. Compounding his problems is the fact that his commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart, keeps raising the number of required missions before Yossarian can be sent home. But, of course, any sane person does have a fear of dying, and that's Yossarian's problem: If he were insane--and he goes to great lengths to prove that he is--he could be grounded and not made to fly any more missions. But if he has to ask to be grounded, and if he does, it's proof of his sanity, and so he won't be grounded. That's a hell of a catch, and in fact, the army has a name for it: Catch-22. It's the perfect example of that "manic logic" on which this novel thrives.

The book is populated with a colorful cast of B-characters, including:

-Major ------ DeCoverly, whose countenance is so frightening no one has asked him his first name. When Yossarian moves the "bomb line" on a map of Bologna so it will seem as if American forces have already triumphed and the squadron won't have to bomb the city, DeCoverly is sent to procure apartments for the enlisted men and "disappears."

-Major Major Major Major, whose name is a particularly unfunny joke perpetrated by his father and whose rank is a joke perpetrated by the military computer.

-Clevinger, who disappears in the middle of a cloud.

-Doc Daneeka, who has Yossarian put his name on flight records so he can get his flight time. When a plane that lists Doc Daneeka on its flight register flies into a mountainside, all the officers refuse to acknowledge Doc Daneeka because he's dead. His wife remarries and moves to Lansing.

-Milo Minderbinder, who volunteers for the position of mess officer. Through a number of capitalist ventures, Milo parlays the position into a national syndicate that dominates world trade. Even the Germans contract with Milo to bomb his own airfield, but he gets out of a court martial by explaining how capitalism is part of the American spirit.

The whole thing is told in a broken order that doubles back on itself over again, which is difficult to read but, ultimately, that makes sense in a novel where causality and reason are such fickle things. To add to the confusion, Heller often switches between scenes without breaking paragraph as a stylistic tool. This is a novel that requires close reading, but is also very, very rewarding. In particular, it has a dark sense of absurd humor that I think many people on this blog would find satisfying. Highly recommended.


Carlton said...

I bought this but have yet to really start it.
I remember really liking the movie...featuring Art Garfunkel.

Nihil Novum said...

I really want to read this. The little excerpt was rewarding.

Christopher said...

Yeah, it made me laugh out loud.

led zeppelian said...

I agree , Catch 22 deserves a very close reading , it ain't for fun reading . Serious matters have been told in a matter so uncanny that make it seem almost funny always.This book is taking longer than I ever expected it to take.