The Catcher in the Rye
Approx. 174,500 words
THE NOVEL | THE TEXT
War as you've never seen it before
Whenever he was told he's never written anything else as good as Catch-22, Joseph Heller was tempted to reply, "Who has?"
A bit of hyperbole. There are plenty of modern novels as good as, or better than, Catch-22.
But really nothing quite like it.
In 1961 when it was published, Catch-22 was unprecedented for its theme, its style, its brand of humour—even for its title giving a new catchphrase (so to speak) to the English language.
Which may not make it the greatest book of the past century, as some fans would have it, but sure makes it interesting.
It was not the first American novel to come out of the Second World War. But the first that totally ridiculed the military. Others, like Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948), could be considered anti-war in the sense of soldiers finding war is hell, but the fight against the Axis powers was still thought worth fighting. In many such novels the inevitable divide opens between high-ranking officers who direct the fighting and the rank and file who risk their lives in the battles whose sense they don't always see. But in Catch-22, the entire armed forces command is depicted as crazy, corrupt and trying to kill the men—on their own side.
There's no notion of the necessity to defeat the evil of Hitler. No one is striving to be brave or patriotic. The officers are maneuvering for promotions or profiteering on the black market. The men who crew the planes, especially the book's anti-hero, the bombardier Yossarian, are trying to stay alive, whatever it takes—pretending to be too sick to fly, bombing the wrong locations, or worse. Off-duty and on recreational leave they resort to all manner of criminal activity, including rape and murder.
What saves Catch-22 from just being disgusting though is its outlandishness. As well as the characters and situations are drawn, they are elements of over-the-top satire. It's doubtful anyone reading this book would think Heller is painting an accurate picture of what life was like in an actual bomber command during the war. Rather he's trying to get at some truths about the insanity of any war by concentrating and exaggerating every bit of military lunacy possible at this army air base in the Mediterranean theatre over a couple of years.
The love for this book may seem strange, savaging as it does the one war that everyone—including Heller himself, according to interviews—agreed was a "good war". But the popularity of Catch-22 after it was published was more a reaction to the less popular Korean War of the mid-1950s and the following far less popular war in Vietnam. The novel was not an immediate sensation when it was came out but grew in prestige through the 1960s as the Vietnam War—and U.S. involvement in it—became a world obsession.
The humour of the book also won over readers, most too young to remember the actual Second World War, in those unsettling times. Think of it as somewhere between Franz Kafka paranoia and Monty Python non-sequiturs. Conversations that race in circles around the poles of anxiety and absurdity.
"Who's they?" he wanted to know. "Who, specifically, do you think is trying to murder you?"
"Every one of them," Yossarian told him.
"Every one of whom?"
"Every one of whom do you think?"
"I haven't any idea."
"Then how do you know they aren't?"
The novel is also endlessly quotable. And the title concept of a self-contradicting rule has been endlessly applied to diverse aspects of daily life, usually to show us in the grip of relentless bureaucracy.
Primarily in the novel, the catch numbered twenty-two is the fictional rule that anyone may be excused from risking life fighting in the war if they are shown to be insane but a desire to avoid risking life fighting in the war proves their sanity. Actually, the phrase "Catch-22" is used differently in several other parts of the novel, though always justifying agents of the system doing whatever they like with the lives of those they oversee.
For all this humour, Catch-22 is not an easy read. Critics have often attached that dreaded label "post-modernist" to the book. The story is not told linearly but jumps around in time, without always signalling to readers which time period they are in. Characters you had earlier read were killed are suddenly playing central roles. It's hard to understand the motivations of characters when you can't sort out at any point what came before in their story arcs or what is yet to come.
Plus it is not evident the narrative in any given chapter can be trusted. If the entire story were straightened out, linear fashion, would it really all hang together or would it it be wracked with contractions? Would Heller even care, or is this all just part of the paradoxical nature of modern life and warfare that's being explored? It's hard to tell.
Nor does the action of Catch-22 follow the usual structural rise and fall of conventional novels. Each chapter is a separate picture of some conundrum of the soldiers' existence, freely associating with other chapters to form a weird mosaic. Momentum does not seem to build in any particular direction, with characters continually pushed to bizarre behaviour and Yossarian repeatedly frustrated in his efforts to escape the horrors.
Toward the end though, the book comes to some kind of climax and conclusion. Or so I'm told. I'm not sure I see it, though many others do.
A lot of reviewers and readers have found all this hilarious and exhilarating. It is certainly provocative at times and often entertaining. But in my view it would have been a lot more effective if about half the repetitive material were cut out, creating a shorter, sharper black humour masterpiece.
— Eric McMillan
THE NOVEL | THE TEXT