Heller’s opus Catch-22, is often mentioned in the same breath as Joyce’s Ulysses, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, or Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.
But unlike those novels it also added a word to the English lexicon – ‘Catch 22′, the law that says you can’t win, no matter what you do.
I was 17 when I first read Catch-22.
My initial reaction was this.
Yossarian is a bombardier in an American bombing group during World War 2. He’s flown his fifty missions and is frightened this is going to happen to him:
He wants out of the war, but he can’t find a way around Catch-22, the rule that states that pilots don’t have to fly if they are certified as insane: ‘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.”
A British comedian called Tony Hancock used to do a vaudeville show with his partner, Sid James. In the script Sid stamped on his foot. Once he did it so hard he broke one of Hancock’s toes. In the hospital the doctor asked Hancock why James didn’t just pretend to stamp on his foot. Hancock replied: ‘Because if there’s no pain, the audience don’t laugh.’
And this is the heart and soul of Catch-22. It’s about real pain.
The novel is one long side-splitting joke about the people who think collateral damage in a war is acceptable, and why the joke isn’t funny at all. In Yossarian’s war “men went mad and were rewarded with medals.’ But Heller’s target is not just war; it’s militarism, bureaucracy, patriotism, psychiatry, big business, and religion. Oh, and God.
So sure, it’s not for everyone; but it sold ten million copies.
The cast includes Colonel Scheisskopf, who is obsessed with winning military parades; the newly promoted Major Major, who spends the war trying to hide from his men; and Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder, the prophet of profit, who buys eggs for the mess at 7 cents and sells them at a profit for 5 cents; who finally bombs his own airfield when the Germans offer him cost plus 6 per cent. He is a dark prophesy of Dick Cheney.
Heller was Yossarian, the book was based on his own experiences in the Second World War when he was a bombardier in the 12th Air Force stationed on Corsica – Pianosa in the book.
Reading it as a teenager, it was perfect anarchy; wildly funny with dazzling wordplay and a Kafkaesque vision of a world gone mad.
A great part of its success was down to timing: it was a book about the Second World War that told the story of the present and the future. Soon after its publication in 1961 there came a whole generation of Yossarians trying not to fight a war, and soon after them a generation of Milo Minderbinders in the White House, waging secret wars for the Haliburton Corporation.
I recently re-read it and loved it every bit as much as I did when I was 17. The question Heller poses – what does a sane man do in an insane society – is as relevant now as it was then.
If you know the answer, please write me. (Or maybe I’m the one that’s crazy.)
An extraordinary novel. Unsettling. Brilliantly funny. There is no catch like Catch-22.
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