Monday, September 20, 2010

Catch-22: A Novel / by Joseph Heller

For readers accustomed to novels possessing a linear structure and straightforward narrative, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 may seem an incoherent, jumbled series of confusing characters and disconnected episodes. Many critics said as much upon its publication in 1961. But to the more enlightened audience, the novel is nothing short of a literary masterpiece. Born in Brooklyn in 1923, Joseph Heller grew up the only child of Russian immigrants. In 1941 at the age of 19, he joined the Army Air Corps as a bomber pilot in training and subsequently flew over 60 combat missions in the European theater. Upon his return stateside, Heller worked as a copy editor while crafting his concept for the story which would become Catch-22. The satirical wartime novel chronicling the individual's place amid an erratic institutional bureaucracy swiftly became a classic and remains so today.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind . . . Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. "That's some catch that Catch-22," he observed. "It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed. (p. 46)
Capt. John Yossarian is an American bomber pilot in the final months of World War II. Having already flown well over the designated 40 flying sorties, or missions required by the Army, Yossarian is nonetheless kept around on active duty by his seemingly idiotic superior officers who see to it that the quota number of sorties are repeatedly raised. It's not just the number of combat missions. The entire squadron is certifiably crazy, it seems to Yossarian, who finds common sense and logic nominally absent from the base's operational system, the entire chain of command appearing to function with a misplaced agenda.
It all seems a big muddle from the outside looking in. But is it? Though everyone and everything seems ludicrous to a T, bent on insanity and lunacy, the self-perception within the squadron isn't so drastic. Visibly, the atmosphere is relatively docile with the men seeming to accept the way things are. The absurdity of incidents like a captain promoted to major simply because his last name is "Major" (so he could be called "Major Major"), a discharged private who's continually given the most important duties, a colonel's reason for action based solely on what others think of him, or the company mess officer orchestrating the bombing of his own men are accepted as perfectly permissible activities or otherwise inconsequential dealings. What really matters, it seems, isn't quite what really matters.
More than anything else, Catch-22 embodies its title phrase--the self-contradictory, circular reasoning evoking a no-win situation. The structure and style of the novel itself are like this, the prose always repetitive and paradoxical, reiterating themes of irrationality and nonsensical logic all purported as sound doctrine and ingenuity. Yet it's this seemingly ridiculous pattern of disjointed incoherency which makes the book so profound. For within the double-speak and literary hodgepodge is a deadly serious diatribe on war, peace, life and death, brilliantly illuminating the ordered chaos of military combat which inevitably subjects individuals to disorientation and futility. The 1970 film version (DVD CATCH) of the book starring Alan Arkin, John Voight and Orson Welles received lukewarm reviews but has garnered an appreciable fanbase and "cult" status in subsequent years. (FIC HELLER)

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