This book has quite the reputation. It’s one which everyone says you “must” read, and the phrase “Catch-22” is instantly understood all these years after being written. It was published in 1961 and follows the fate of a group of American soldiers based in Pianosa, an imaginary Mediterranean island, during the Second World War.
From the legend created around this book, I was led to expect a bizarre story filled with post-war satire; a clever observational comedy aided by the luxury of hindsight. While in theory this sounded right up my street (i.e. history mixed with humour and an element of the surreal), any book which is this hyped-up always fills me with a dread of feeling let down, so I was a little reluctant to start reading it.
Luckily, this particular modern classic delivers. The characters’ frustration at the illogical decisions and the incompetence of those in charge, plus the skilful wordplay between Yossarian and his friends, cleverly gained my sympathy and made me snigger – out loud in a couple of places.
What I wasn’t expecting from this book was a bitter-sweet story of fear, grief and loss, yet that’s also what I found within its pages. It’s tempered by the comedy of course, but the lasting sense of the novel, for me, was one of regret. Perhaps I should have expected it from a novel set during the war. Yet the notoriety of this book, as far as I understood it, is down to its humour and surrealism, not its sadness.
Regardless, I’ll move on from this vagueness to the elusiveness of the plot itself…
Yossarian, the central character, will do anything to escape the war. He tries everything he can think of to be sent home, yet everywhere he turns he is stopped by Catch-22. Catch-22 effectively prevents something happening because of contradictory reasons which cancel any possible actions out. It’s summed up nicely in one particular passage where Yossarian asks Doc Daneeka to ground him, claiming insanity, but the doctor laughs at him:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
And if you’re struggling to get your head round that one, don’t worry, there’s more where that came from. Catch-22 pops up all over the place in different scenarios. Expect to feel a little confused throughout most of the book (at least I was), but don’t let it worry you: just let the characters’ confident yet warped logic take you in.
While Yossarian’s attempts to be sent home are the main thrust of the book, there are many other stories which are told alongside his. Our omniscient narrator introduces us to a large number of other characters, some of whom we come to love, others whom we come to despise, and still others whom we catch only the merest glimpse of. Yossarian’s friends and fellow soldiers are all plagued by different demons, and the claustrophobic atmosphere created by war brings them all out in the open. Everyone seems crazy to a certain extent.
The plot is further complicated by the fact that the action is not narrated in chronological order. We are left with huge gaping gaps in our understanding of what has taken place, and it might be many chapters later before we begin to piece together what really happened. In some places we never find out, unless of course I missed the clues in those instances; it’s the kind of novel from which I’m sure I would benefit from a second reading. That’s something I definitely intend to do.
There’s not much more to be said. Catch-22 is a brilliant read: a funny book with a dark soul. Another “must-read” ticked off my list then…