Now that the summer reading challenge is over and my vacation is only a fond memory, I thought I should perhaps get back to my yearlong reading goal of getting around to all those books I should have read by now. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller has been on my list a long time. It was one of those books in that genre that I successfully avoided for most of my English undergraduate career. I touched on this when I spoke about Slaughterhouse-Five earlier this year. And yet again, I enjoyed this book for some inexplicable reason.
Well, OK, not inexplicable. Catch-22 is funny. Strike that, it is laugh out loud hilarious at times. Sure, every character in it is despicable and insane. Sure, it takes making its point to almost annoyingly extreme levels. But it made me laugh. For that, I can forgive it a lot of things.
For those of you who haven’t read it, Catch-22 follows the plight of Yossarian, a bomber stationed in Italy during World War II along with a motley crew of insane colonels, doctors and pilots. I say insane and mean it – there is not a one of them I would trust to see me home safely let alone send up with a plane full of bombs. Yossarian is convinced there are people out to kill him which, considering he’s in active duty during a war, is perhaps not so insane as it seems. His colonel keeps raising the number of missions he has to fly to go home, there is a major who is a recluse, a chaplain who is being investigated for crimes he may or may not have committed, tent mates slowly building stoves or dead, and a growing list of men who are disappearing, either dead or managed to convince everyone they are. It’s pretty much chaos.
I did find the characterizations fascinating because Yossarian, who starts out seemingly despicable, actually turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Which, perhaps in this book, isn’t saying much but you do end up cheering him along. People I started out liking like Milo, the mess officer who is running an illegal international shipping cartel with the sanction of the US government, turned out to really not be very good in the end. I adored Major Major Major who somehow managed to become a recluse in his own squadron by insisting no one ever see him…until the day Yossarian tackled him to the ground and then after that, no one ever saw him again. You have Nately who is in love with an Italian prostitute, Arfy, who may be the most clinically insane of them all and Dunbar who is disappeared after he makes one too many common sense remarks.
The characters helped when the story didn’t. The narrative is often disjointed; making reference to events that the reader hasn’t been told about yet. This seemed clever at first but then just sort of got old. Heller would often belabor a point too long. Yes, everyone is ridiculous and not making sense – the point is made quickly. At times, it was just tedious to read. The chaplain’s interrogation is a major moment where I skimmed because I was just annoyed and bored. The point that there was no point was made within the first paragraph, I didn’t need a chapter going on and on about it. Of course, that is the point; that there is no point. Bother, now I remember why novels of this era and genre are not my favorites.
However, like I said, the book made me laugh and I can forgive it for being a little too in love with its purpose at times. What is its purpose? Obviously, it is a satire addressing the ineptitude and complete disregard for human life that war seems to bring out in people and especially their governments. Heller himself was in the air corps during World War II so he knew what he was talking about enough to poke fun at it and criticize it.
All in all, I am glad I added this novel to my reading list for the year. I think I would have loathed studying it in a classroom but just reading it and being able to enjoy it (or skim it as needed) was entertaining. I wish Yossarian a lot of luck getting to Sweden.