Catch-22 is one of those books that I “should have” read a long time ago but never did. And looking back, I’m glad I didn’t read this in high school. I doubt I would have gotten as much from the book as a teenager in comparison to what I got reading it now.
The basic premise of the book is this: Yossarian is in the U.S. military during World War II. The colonel in charge keeps raising the number of missions the men have to fly before they can return home. When Yossarian complains, he learns of Catch-22, which is that if you ask to no longer fly missions, you are sane and must fly them, but if you want to keep flying missions, you are insane. Yossarian spends the entire book dealing with situations like this one, in which the only sane thing to do is act crazy.
Catch-22 talks a lot about the absurdities of war. It’s no wonder that it became hugely popular during the Vietnam war. Heller is relentless in setting up hilarious yet disturbing scenes in which all the normal, logical rules of society no longer seem to make sense. The book is full of circular reasoning, paradoxes, and self-contradictory situations. One of the essays in the back of my 50th anniversary edition described the book as “humor that slowly turns to horror,” and I couldn’t think of a better description. At first, I was amused by the impossible situations and the fact that Yossarian seemed to be the only sane person in a group of lunatics, but by the end I was angry. “I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy,” one of the characters says, and the reader sees this as well. Those in charge seem to be running the war as a way to gain more power and prestige for themselves, rather than to free those who were crushed under Hitler’s regime or protect the men fighting, supposedly, for their country. (In fact, although this book is set during WWII, this fact is hardly ever mentioned.)
Although I really enjoyed this book, I do see some flaws in it (and I was glad to note from the essays in the back that other, more scholarly people do too). Women are treated merely as pawns, catalysts to move the story along, and they are often treated sexually (there is a high number of prostitutes in this book). Also, I found the book a bit too long. Many of the events run in the same vein, and I think the book would have been just as good, and probably better, if some of them had been cut.
I’m sure I’m missing something in this book (as I often do when I read something that’s considered a classic), but I’ve got the gist of it. War, the government, the military, and even our own life is often nonsensical and illogical. Sometimes the smartest thing to do seems insane to everyone around you. It’s kind of a disturbing thought, but well worth reading.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good