A review of this — 5 years ago
Few genres are more enjoyable to read than absurdist satire, and Catch-22 may be the finest example of the genre that I have ever read. It takes only three pages to reach the first seeming contradiction that, after a bit of thought, makes perfect sense: “The Texan turned out to be good-natured, gregarious and likable. In three days no one could stand him.” The entire text is filled with such gems. My favorite is a paragraph from chapter 9, describing Major Major’s father. Regardless of your stance on farm subsidies, it is impossible to deny the absurdity and hypocrisy exposed by this brief description:
Major Major’s father was a sober God-fearing man whose idea of a good joke was to lie about his age. He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down. His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him very well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest a not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make sure that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county. Neighbors sought him out for advice on all subjects, for he had made much money and was therefore wise. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” he counseled one and all, and everyone said, “Amen”.
It is interesting that Heller chooses World War II, which of the armed conflicts in which the United States has been involved is clearly the most just and necessary, to demonstrate the senselessness of war for all who are involved. I have never served in the military, but it is not necessary to have done so in order to recognize the people and situations in Catch-22. While the novel centers around an Army Air Force squadron, the insights it provides are as much about bureaucracy and human nature as they are war. Generals and colonels who consider their mission to rise in authority or to gain publicity while caring little for the orthogonal mission of winning the war could as easily be company executives or government officials who rally their subordinates to the task of improving their lives without regard for the objectives of the organization that employs them. There is a part of mercenary merchant Milo Minderbinder in every selfish charlatan, from a back-stabbing friend to Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. The catch 22 itself should be roughly familiar to anyone who has had significant interaction with any large entity.
As I was reading through the novel I suffered a bit of fatigue because, while each chapter is brilliant, they are all brilliant in the same way and for the same reasons. At the time, I was prepared to suggest that large portions of the text be excised. After completing it, however, I find that very little occurs that is not important later. Given the opportunity to edit the book down, I doubt I would be able to remove more than ten percent of the text without significantly degrading the impact of the work as a whole. I have been previously critical of literature in which place and time flow continuously back and forward through sections of the book. This is certainly true of Catch-22, but in this case it is not a significant hardship. This is because very little of the novel is plot-based. Rather, each short chapter illustrates an unusual character or situation, sometimes from a different perspective than previously. Thus, the chronology is not terribly important, and Heller is free to deliberately reveal information in whatever order suits it best.
Biting satire is only effective when it is pointing out something truly horrible. Was is indeed, as Sherman stated, hell, but Catch-22 extends beyond war to all human suffering. The poignant 29th chapter briefly abandons humor to enumerate a litany of inexcusable, and only peripherally war-related, conditions. Yossarian encounters extreme poverty, illness, rape, violence against animals and children, police brutality, theft from the elderly, murder, and finally injustice while wandering through the streets of Rome. I must include another quote here to demonstrate the depravity Heller is trying to convey.
… Almost on cue, a nursing mother padded past holding an infant in black rags, and Yossarian wanted to smash her too, because she reminded him of the barefoot boy in the thin shirt and thin, tattered trousers and of all the shivering, stupefying misery in a world that never yet had provided enough heat and food and justice for all but an ingenious and unscrupulous handful. What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, how many people would go insane? How many cockroaches and landlords would triumph? How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust had sold their souls to blackguards for petty cash, how many had never had souls? … The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the dark world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves.
What a masterful account of the dark night of the soul, befitting the near-end of a masterpiece. Yossarian lives!