Sunday, 8 March 2009

Book Review: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Catch 22

Joseph Heller

There’s a scene in Joseph Heller’s Magnus Opus in which the main protagonist, a 256th Squadron bombardier called Yossarian, emits a respectful whistle at the very simplicity of the self-contradictory military clause, Catch 22. “That’s some catch,” he muses in admiration. Throughout the course of this extraordinary book, the reader is likely to be found extolling similarly on the story within. Despite its relatively straightforward plot, Catch 22 manages to be one of the most complex, engrossing and multi-faceted works to have emerged from the 20th Century, suggesting that in eight years of writing it, Heller made extremely good time.

The story centres on a group of US Air Force pilots stationed on an Italian island, Pianosa, towards the end of World War II. With colleagues perishing on a regular basis and moral within the camp plummeting, the troops and particularly Yossarian begin to search for ways to avoid completing the ever-increasing number of missions they have to fly, only to be continually foiled by an omnipresent clause: Catch 22.

Perhaps a reflection on the influence this book has had on the literary world and it’s standing within society at large; Catch 22 is a concept we are all familiar with. Its original premise, seen within the novel, is simple. Of course, one would be crazy to fly any more missions in the face of such danger, and crazy pilots should surely be grounded. But in showing concern for your own well-being, one displays a soundness of mind clearly lacking in an insane person and is therefore fit to fly missions. Catch 22.

It returns in various connotations throughout, but its hypothesis remains the same. Heller’s tome is a damning indictment of bureaucracy in the face of suffering: oppression and manipulation of Orwellian proportions.

The writer’s view of society is undoubtedly bleak. His impressions of the government are cynical and uncompromising. Heller, perhaps embittered from his own time as a bombardier, openly questions the accepted “virtues” of honour, loyalty and patriotism. Would-be heroes are cast as fools. The true heroes of Catch 22 are the cowards: those who defy authority, ultimately Yossarian and his unlikely accomplice, the Chaplain. Indeed, the Chaplain’s struggle with his faith highlights more disillusionment in Heller’s psyche: his uneasiness with religion adds another bow in the mutinous literary arsenal of this novel.

The dark tones are accompanied by irrepressibly black humour. Rarely does a book capture the gallows humour of a people on the brink of despair so vividly. Heller’s use of paradoxes, his frequent contradictory style and his repetition of scenes and phrases, from the viewpoints of different characters inject Catch 22 with a unique depth of comedy. It is sometimes slapstick, see Yossarian’s penchant for naked marching, but more often satirical and mocking. Heller uses simplistic dialogue to wage war on the powers that be, to devastatingly funny effect.

Questioning how well it has stood the test of time is rhetoric: half a century after its publication, Catch 22 remains as potent and relevant as ever. Heller’s strong anti-war sentiments are echoed in the writings of countless others, with their calls falling on ears as deaf as their 1961 counterparts. The moral dilemmas of battle remain the same. The civil unrest that shrouded the world around the time of Catch 22’s release is mirrored today and Heller captures that mood brilliantly and hilariously. You shouldn’t need this book to tell you that war is a terrible thing, but with the world’s finger edging ever closer to the self-destruct button, why not have a chuckle whilst you wait?

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