Joseph Heller & Catch-22

Joseph Heller (1923-1999)

I have been rereading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.  It is not nearly as fun as the first time I read it.  To quote Israel Shenker it is disorganized, unreadable and crass.  These were the claims of critics when it was first published.  Since then it is universally praised.  It is called Great.  An American Classic of Modern Literature.

I have to admit that I like it a lot.  That doesn’t make it easy to read.  It is full of rambling narrative, oxymorons, redundancies and non-sequiturs seemingly without end.  The worst damage is done in the beginning of the book and it is not until the reader is about a quarter of the way through that the book finally begins to take a rhyme and reason–a method to its madness, so to speak.  The very title of the book takes an oxymoron and shapes it into a sub-theme.

A Catch-22 is

a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules.   . . . often resulting from rules, regulations, or procedures that an individual . . . has no control over because to fight the rule is to accept it.  Another example is a situation in which someone is in need of something that can only be had by not being in need of it.

From the novel;Catch-22-Book-Poster1

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.

The book is a good satire of not only war, but the military in general.  It is a satire of bureaucracy.  It is also disorganized (in the beginning at least), nearly unreadable, and undoubtedly crass and vulgar in the description of servicemen frequenting prostitutes while on leave in Rome.

I hesitate to call it great, but it is very good.

I much prefer a latter work of Heller, God Knows.  But that’s for another post.


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