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Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Reviewed by Celine

Catch 22 

Struggling to emerge from the sand trap of war, a WWII bombardier Yossarian and his unit’s stories are presented cleverly by Joseph Heller in his famed 1961 novel Catch-22. Catch-22 depicts the harsh war realities and the dangers of a bureaucratic system. The story shows that during times of war, man is caught in absurdity and treated like an artillery piece, and when one passes away he can be constantly replaced as fighting machines. The entire story is a dark satire and explores moral boundaries.

In this story, the main plot revolves around the circular policy of "catch-22," where a man can cease to fly dangerous missions if he requests to be mentally examined to see whether he's too insane to continue serving the war. However, any man who would request to do so proves that he is not insane, since any sane man would realize that flying these missions were insane actions in the first place, and therefore cannot be dismissed from flying missions and must continue contributing efforts for the war. The policy of "catch-22" traps the men in a never-ending experience to fly missions for the war, and they are expected to continue to do so until they die in a mission since there was no obvious way to be removed out of the service.

In the fictitious island of Pianosa too small to handle all the actions as the author noted, the story begins with a serviceman named Yossarian, lying in bed and enjoying it in the hospital since as long as he is there he no longer would have to fly missions and is always being served by other people. Doctor and nurses tend to him. He gets an easy job reading letters. He marks the letters up as he pleases. As life in the hospital beats flying missions (with the bonus that the food was also better), Yossarian was determined to stay there for the rest of the war. Heller’s third-person narrative presents Yossarian’s actions inter-mixed with Yossarian’s thoughts in erratic fragments. An unlikely opening “It was love at first sight” acts like a poor disguise for romanticizing this war story. All the dark humor and wise-crack sprinklings throughout the front part of book only helps the reader move through the harshness embedded within and cope with the real brutal moments. There is no singular plot but the singular theme of war absurdity in this book, and there are so many individual stories of these servicemen caught in the lunacy. The men in the squadron have flying missions to bomb the target. They need to make bombing runs. None of the servicemen wanted to be there to fight the war, nor do they want to make the run as there’s no assurance that they will make it back alive. Wouldn’t the men instead be insane if they don’t try to get out of their predicament and actually prefer instead to make the flight missions? The fact that the novel is set near the end of the war efforts makes these questions asked by Yossarian more legitimate as their contribution to the war effort seems questionable. 

As more and more of his friends died in action, Yossarian’s resolve to live deepens. He has argued with his friends and superiors about everyone trying to kill him. He argues that when he flies enough mission to be discharged, the number of missions will be raised to make him stay, and he can never meet the ever raising requirement. He was offered “milk runs,” easy missions, but it was in one such “milk-run” that his friend Clevinger perished. The thick layer of bureaucracy was represented by characters such as Peckem, Korn, and Scheisskopf (the name gives him away). Peckem was waging his war against his own enemies on the same side to secure his turf and expand his power. His invention of “bomb patterns” stirred obsession to create beautiful aerial photographs of bomb explosion instead of proof of successful hit. There was the ludicrous dual role of prosecution and defense assumed by Scheisskopf at Clevinger’s trial, and how calling parades to march men around is Scheisskopf’s top agenda. Then there was the German-deterring village-bombing mission briefing where the men sensed moral conflict vs. Korn’s cold response “Mais c'est la *guerre*,” (“But it’s the war.”) along with lecture to the men hinting at their non-appreciation of this “milk run.” They epitomize the evils of war as Yossarian characterizes: “When I look up… I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.”

How can a book be celebrated in which the main character is a deserter of his own country’s cause? As set nearing the end of the war effort and the missions seem to only meet arbitrary requirements, the aim of the men’s effort is unclear. The story is told in a disarrayed manner covering fragments of different men’s encounters and intensified as the novel progresses. A reader is taken through the confusion and the emotional turmoil that one ends up rooting not for an eventual deserter, but rooting for Yossarian’s embodiment of the human instinct to survive, to prevail, and to emerge triumphantly from all the absurdity. Spoiler alert: The bright spot in the novel is Orr, whose unsuccessful invitation (there was wink all over that conversation begging Yossarian to say yes) brings a sigh and whose success to evade catch-22 provided the final stimulus for Yossarian to make his move. We are left wondering Yossarian’s final fate but the uplift leads us to believe he will make it in the end. I recommend this novel to only older teens due to the language and the war depiction and cautions that this is not a book for everyone. Particularly one needs to brace oneself when Heller leads readers to the emotional swamp revealing the crazed despair Yossarian broke into when he realized he was unable to get things under control to save his friend from death. Catch-22 is definitely unique. It is rare for a book title to claim a permanent entry in the dictionary. Read it for yourself to see why when you feel up to it. Be ready to think while reading the greatest catch in literature. 

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