Book Review: Catch-22

As we do occasionally around here, this week we’re stepping towards historical fiction, away from fantasy and science fiction, because man cannot live on dragons and spaceships alone.

Some works of art are so famous, so impactful, that they shape our language. We often associate this level of influence with classics, or mythology. You don’t want to be a scrooge. You might be praised for making a herculean effort. You might describe a long trip as an odyssey or a confusing one as a labyrinth. You need to look no further than the title to see the cultural impact of Catch-22.

Yes, the title birthed the phrase, not the other way around. Just to make sure we’re on the same page, a catch-22 is an inherently contradictory situation. For example, purely hypothetically, it might be that insane soldiers are not fit for active duty, and should therefore be discharged. Because it takes a crazy person to willingly risk their life, all soldiers who volunteer for combat duty must qualify. However, as soon as they have the good sense to ask to be sent home, they prove they are of sound mind and therefore fit for active duty.

The Basics:

Title: Catch-22
Author: Joseph Heller
Genre: Humor, satire, historical fiction
Published: Simon and Schuster, 1961

Spoiler-Free Summary:

Catch-22 weaves together many tangled threads, but the core narrative is simple: Yossarian is an air force captain flying bombers in the Italian theater of World War II. Because most of the story takes place from 1944-45, the history buffs in the audience no doubt realize his missions were largely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. The heat of the action was in Northern France, Germany, Belgium, and the pacific. Yossarian risks his life dodging clouds of flack to bomb nothing of strategic importance.

U.S. Library of Congress

Every time his tour is nearly up, ambitious generals safe behind cushy desks far from the front lines raise the number of missions necessary to be sent home. Yossarian and the men in his unit fly 50…. 60…. nearly 80 missions while flight crews in other groups sail home after 40. This will not do. Yossarian and his friends undertake increasingly daring and ridiculous schemes to get themselves discharged in a world where everyone seems just a little mad.

Why This Book Is For You:

I once described a book I adored as the best slow book I had ever read. Similarly, I mean it as the highest praise when I say Catch-22 is the best rambling, directionless book I have ever devoured.

Heller’s style is one-of-a-kind. Catch-22 is a madcap, meandering dreamscape of a novel. It reminds me of the absurdism of Waiting for Gadot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, or Monty Python’s Flying Circus. From the immensely successful general obsessed with marching, to the major who cannot be found, to the mess-hall officer who comes to command armies, each chapter is more ridiculous than the last. Heller uses an exaggerated, satirical voice to sucker-punch the reader with emotion as tragedies roll across the page with a laugh and a shrug.

It’s amazing. You should read it.

Where Can You Find More?

It’s good to be with a Big-5 publisher: You can read the original 1961 New York Times review of Catch-22 on their archive. If you’re intrigued, but not book-intrigued, they adapted the work as a movie in 2019.

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