Thursday, December 14, 2006

Catch-22

Catch-22 (Joseph Heller, 1961)
I'd heard about the classic satire by Joseph Heller years ago, and my first brush with it was when an English teacher in school had the class read an excerpt from the book. The excerpt was hilarious (as I recall, it was the first conversation between Yossarian and Doc Daneeka regarding the Catch-22), and I was intrigued. Strangely, I never got around to actually reading the book till now - and this despite the fact that I've owned a copy of the book for over two years!

Did it live up to expectations years later? In a word, yes. I don't usually find so-called 'funny' books to be funny, but Catch-22 is genuinely hilarious and it often had me in fits of laughter. It's a satire set towards the end of the Second World War, and revolves around events and characters in a bomber squadron based on an island off the coast of Italy. The protagonist is Captain Yossarian, a man who wants to get away from the war and all the people who are trying to kill him - this includes all the Germans soldiers (whom he's never met) as well as the bureaucracy on his own side. Unfortunately, whenever he comes close to meeting the required number of missions to be sent home, the required number is increased.

The book is an indictment of the absurdity of bureaucracy, blind capitalism, and the ability of people to selfishly rationalize their way out of what ought to be moral quandaries.

There is only a loosely held together narrative, with the book jumping back and forth in time and filling in the details of various key events that are often linked together. It features a range of idiosyncratic characters, many of whom have a quirky backstory. It's at times absurdly funny, and at other times bleak and gut wrenching. The ending, which presents a glimmer of hope, is uplifting and I found it to be a satisfying and fitting conclusion.

The book introduced the phrase 'catch-22' to the English language, and as such I think the meaning of said phrase should be mentioned here as it is defined in the book (quoting the quote from Wikipedia):
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's 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.

The book is fairly long and what with me being a slow reader it took me a while to get through it. The writing style is one littered with long sentences that together form paragraphs full of absurdity that are punctuated by terse sentences (which are often the lines uttered by characters). I have to confess that I was compelled to consult the dictionary on many an occasion, due to the fact that Heller has a penchant for indulging in sampling from an extensive, erudite vocabulary that overwhelms my bad word skills (sadly, I was unable to think of any appropriate words whose meanings I don't know to use in that last sentence).

All (bad) jokes aside, Catch-22 is brilliant and a must read.

4 comments:

sanity index said...

I never finished the book. The last time I was assigned it, I didn't have time to read it and ended up reading a commercial summary for it to do a paper (if I remember correctly). Haven't been compelled to pick it back up all these years, but maybe sometime in the future!

Antimatter said...

Add it to your 'To Read' list... :)

gargoyle37909 said...

I agree with your assessment. Most so-called modern classics aren't worth the trouble but this one is.

Antimatter said...

Yeah, and one thing about Catch 22 that lots of classics don't have going for them - it manages to be entertaining without being dumbed down.