Edition Published: 1994, First Published: 1961
Language book read in: Bulgarian and English
This time I don’t even know how to start my review… And I still have no idea whether I like the book or not. I hope I get to a more precise opinion by the end of this review.
Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 is a very bizarre experience from start to finish. The story is set in WW2 Italy and revolves around the lives of the members of a US bomber squadron. The main character, Capt. John Yossarian, is certain everyone is trying to kill him and he is desperately trying to find a way to escape the war. However, his plans are almost always foiled by the rising number of mandatory flights to complete his military service and most importantly, Catch 22.
A Total Madhouse
As a quick disclaimer before I share my thoughts: I started reading a 1977 Bulgarian translation of the book, which uses a slightly older wording, and then I transitioned to an English audio book version read by Jim Wise.
Minor spoilers alert!
To be honest, the beginning was fun. I was immediately drawn into Yossarian’s musings about his fellow soldiers in the infirmary, as well as his unusual past time. But then I got lost, especially when dialogue was involved. Maybe it was due to the outdated translation and the resulting lack of jokes. It took me a long conversation with Vel and a few more attempts at the Bulgarian translation to switch to the English audio book. I think this transition is when things picked up, I finally was invested into the narrative and managed to finish the book.
There were too many characters right from the start. I couldn’t remember who was who. The characters’ rank did not help either because almost everyone was a colonel or a colonel-to-be. This is when I made a map with each character’s name and jotted down specifics and most striking qualities.
While I was trying to distinguish between characters, the idea of a psychiatric asylum crossed my mind. All of the soldiers have passed through the infirmary at least once during their military service. And each and every one of them has his own emotional and mental issues, save for the occasional flesh wound. I no longer wrote down character specifics, I was listing mental conditions: PTSD, night terrors, FOMO, suicidal tendencies, anxiety, etc.
There is a Bulgarian saying, which roughly translates to “He/she is in the movie”. It means that an individual is so far in his own thoughts, he or she is living in a reality of their own or a “film” of their own. I think this is also true for most of the main characters:
- Colonel Cathcart is obsessed with becoming a general;
- Milo Minderbinder is a profit-chaser, anxious not to miss the next great deal;
- Scheisskopf is so in love with parades that he neglects his own wife;
- Doctor Daneeka is extremely self-centered, constantly laments his secure medical practice back at home and is certain in his tragic demise from an unknown disease;
- Havermeyer has no regard for his life whatsoever, always insisting on being in the middle of the war action;
- Hungry Joe, who suffers from night terrors and PTSD episodes when he is not flying, whilst chasing after prostitutes during the day.
As I continued with the story, it became evident I had to tweak my theory. In a sense, it was a total madhouse, because this is war. War is never pleasant, it takes so much from your life, literally and figuratively, until you are but a shell of your former existence.
Catch 22 is definitely an anti-war manifesto. Joseph Heller uses humour and sarcasm to mitigate the reality of warfare only to make the story more digestible. The narrative poses difficult questions. Patriotic duty or self-preservation? Being a national hero or being a deserter? Is self-preservation egoism? Is it justified? Is it easier to take fate into your own hands or let someone else take the decisions for you? What does it take for one to lose all hope? How much can one endure before he actively seeks self-destruction? Does the end justify the means?
I am glad I managed to pull through the end of the book, since I support the message of pacifism and non-violence. If Catch 22 could be a character in the story, it would have been the Soldier in White: the inconvenient truth, the elephant in the room, which no one wants to acknowledge. Did I like the book? I would say yes, even though I was not fond of that particular style of writing. Would I read it again? Probably not. Once is enough for me and it was worth it.
Catch 22 was a challenge for me. It wasn’t just the sheer volume of the book, and I have noticed my patience for longer books has been declining as I get older, but also how utterly lost I felt in the story in the first half of the book. This was down to two main reasons: the initial lack of backstory, and sarcasm, which seems like second nature to the author. These same two skills are a challenge to me as a writer, as well as a reader, and when I analyse Catch 22 as a writer, I seem to have taken a lot more out of it than I have as a reader.
Development vs Revealing Backstory
Character development is always crucial to a good story, but in my opinion it happens only in the very last few chapters of the book. Until then, the reader is thrown into a maelstrom of events of which they have no clue, and spend over half the book piecing together who said what and who did what, or – did not. The author unravels a multitude of plotlines backwards in time, in the almost irrational way of a kitten playing with a ball of string, until the reader finds themselves tangled up alongside Yossarian, the main character, in layers of bureaucracy, rumours and unwritten rules. We can just about make sense of the world, but there is no resolution in sight, no easy way to defeat, or even fight, the system.
I can appreciate the skill it takes to achieve an almost personification of the ‘catch 22’ in the form of a book from a purely professional standpoint. But as a reader, I often felt defeated and overwhelmed by the logical and methodical lack of common sense in the twisting of laws meant to benefit the person into aiding a select few and the system. Had Joseph Heller written the book in a straightforward classical character development style, I am certain the effect on the reader would be much diminished. Instead, jumping right into the thick of things, and revealing each character’s backstory retrospectively, the feeling of powerlessness to break out of the cycle is enforced – a catch 22.
Serious Humour and Sarcasm
Without the humour Joseph Heller employs, the book would be completely unreadable. Often, it was the small plays on words and seemingly irrational actions of characters, which kept me going. On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, the sarcasm and serious humour (making light of serious matters, like death and its effects on a family, for example) the author employs, posed the biggest reading challenge for me. This was down in part because English is not my native language and it takes me longer to figure out a joke (and by the time I’ve stopped dissecting it, the joke is most often no longer funny), and in part because sarcasm makes me as a reader doubt the author – by the time I was halfway through the book I was second guessing every line I was reading.
Humour is one writing skills I have no talent in. I have come to accept this, and hardly try to employ it any more, but the uncertainty and doubt a well-aimed dose of sarcasm can sow in the reader’s mind can be an excellent narrative tool. A joke can lighten a difficult part of the story, and ease the reader into carrying on further. Heller demonstrates both, and I do feel like making another attempt at including the funny side of things whenever I finally do some writing again.
Catch 22 was a title I have had on my reading list for a long time, along with other classical apocalyptic writings. It is a bizarre feeling, as I feel happier having finished reading the book than when I was reading it. Needless to say, it isn’t a favourite, as I found it a difficult read, but also because it perhaps cut a little too close to home – I have felt entangled in a process or series of situations, where I’ve felt helpless to change the system, and have had to ultimately take myself of that environment or situation entirely to break the predicament. How do you go about breaking out of a catch 22?