Catch-22 by Joseph Heller [A Review]

Catch-22 is a brilliant novel and my personal favourite. True to the themes at its core, its style is frustratingly unique, its message is absurdly sensible and its tone is depressingly hilarious.

Cover image of Catch-22, a novel by Joseph Heller

Where to begin with Catch-22?

A US Army airbase has been built on the small island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean. From here, American B25 bomber crews fly missions bombing Italy during the Second World War. Among them is Captain Yossarian and he’s had enough.

Yossarian only volunteered for the US Army Airforce because he thought he would be drafted eventually anyway and, given the length of training required for bomber crews, he thought the war would be soon over. Now, having completed more combat missions than most men would see, he feels he’s ridden his luck long enough. Yossarian is certain that he’s going to be killed if he stays in this war any longer and he wants out.

His fellow soldiers naturally question his patriotism, his morals, his bravery, but Yossarian has an answer for all of them. If they believe so strongly in patriotism and the war, good for them, but why does he have to fight and die for something he doesn’t believe in? If people have to die to win the war, fine, but why does he specifically have to be the one who dies and not someone else?

‘Open your eyes Clevinger. It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.’

Clevinger sat for a moment as though he’d been slapped. ‘Congratulations!’ he exclaimed bitterly, the thinnest milk-white line enclosing his lips tightly in a bloodless, squeezing grind. ‘I can’t think of another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy.’

‘The enemy,’ retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, ‘is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.’

Doesn’t he want to do his duty, his share? Not really. And in any case, he already has done his duty. He’s already flown the number of missions required in order to be sent home. Or, rather, he’s flown the number that was required when he first arrived but his group commander, Colonel Cathcart, keeps raising the required number of missions, always just as Yossarian gets close to being sent home.

He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.

Increasingly consumed by fear, Yossarian plots a way out of the war or at least out of combat. His latest attempt is to feign illness and spend his days in the hospital. But that comes with its own problems. Being in the hospital means being in close proximity to other men. Some of whom are seriously wounded and only compound his fear. Others he just can’t stand.

Then there’s the complete lack of sympathy for his situation from Dr Daneeka who refuses to ground him. A fateful day arrives when the Doctor explains to Yossarian that even faking insanity won’t save him.

‘You mean there’s a catch?’

‘Sure there’s a catch,’ Doc Daneeka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.

‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed.

As impressed as Yossarian is with the circular perfection of Catch-22, it does nothing to help his situation. If anything, it articulates the helplessness of it.

‘They’re not going to send a crazy man out to be killed are they?’

‘Who else will go?’

Yossarian is without a real friend in the squadron. Some men he can tolerate but most just aggravate him even more. He shares his tent with Orr. Possibly the most crazy of them all, Orr is the best pilot in the squadron, though he repeatedly crashes his planes, and he is continually infuriating Yossarian with his nonsenses and eccentricities.

Then there’s Milo Minderbinder, a former pilot, who has taken over as Mess Officer and makes deals all over the Mediterranean to supply the squadron. The men have, admittedly, never eaten better in their lives’ but it comes at an unseen cost as Milo confiscates their equipment, their necessities, to fund his syndicate. Eating well may be costing men their lives and there are rumours Milo is hoarding money and stashing it in the hills overlooking the airbase.

Yossarian’ most immediate superior is Major Major. He’s the man Yossarian should see about his dilemma except that no one can get past his aide, Sergeant Towser, and into Major Major’s office.  

‘From now on,’ he said. ‘I don’t want anyone to come in to see me while I’m here. Is that clear?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Sergeant Towser. ‘Does that include me?’

“Yes.’

‘I see. Will that be all?’

‘Yes.’

‘What shall I say to the people who do come to see you while you’re here?’

‘Tell them I’m in and ask them to wait.’

‘Yes, sir. For how long?’

‘Until I’ve left.’

‘And then what shall I do with them?’

‘I don’t care.’

‘May I send them in to see you after you’ve left?’

‘Yes.’

‘But you won’t be here then, will you?’

‘No.’

As the Allies progress northward through Italy, the men can take their leave on the mainland. They soon become regulars at a bordello in Rome. But even here, amongst safety and pleasure, they are confronted with unsettling questions and difficult choices.

Meanwhile, Colonel Catchcart keeps raising the number of missions.

‘What would they do to me,’ he asked in confidential tones, ‘if I refused to fly them?’

‘We’d probably shoot you,’ ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen replied.

‘We?’ Yossarian cried in surprise. ‘What do you mean, we? Since when are you on their side?’

‘If you’re going to be shot, whose side do you expect me to be on?’ ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen retorted. 

I first read Catch-22 when I was eighteen years old during the summer after my first year at university. It became my favourite book then, remained my favourite over the years and, having now reread it, it is still my favourite! It is, however, a divisive book; one that people either love or just can’t stand.

A lot of this division, I believe, comes down to its style

Catch-22 is nonlinear, jumping back and forth in time frequently and often extremely. It is very casual about how it does this, with little warning or structure. It is very anecdotal; sometimes during a stretch of story you get more asides and digressions than actual story. Sometimes it’s the asides and the digressions that are the story. And, as if to emphasise the dilemma at its core, it can be circular, coming back to certain events to add a bit more. All this combines to give some readers the impression that this novel of over 600 pages has no plot!

It does have a plot of course but some assembly is required. Its disjointed nature is probably what puts some readers off. Those who persist probably love the originality, the innovation, most of all because, ultimately, it works. The other reason they persist is because it is very funny. But even the humour is difficult to describe and equally turns some readers off because of its absurdity.

Dunbar was lying motionless on his back again with is eyes staring up at the ceiling like a doll’s. He was working hard at increasing his life span. He did it by cultivating boredom. Dunbar was working so hard at increasing his life span that Yossarian thought he was dead.

In the intervening years since I first read it, I would often take the book off the shelf, turn to a page at random and start reading. Its peculiar structure, its unique style, allows you to do that and be immediately transported back. I read Catch-22 again because I have come to believe that life is too short to read your favourite books only once; you ought to experience them again.

What did I get from reading it again?

Apart from the enjoyment of reading a loved book there were several things I noticed on reading it again. The first was that the novel was far darker than I recall. The horrors that Yossarian faces, the pointlessness of his life, the feeling of entrapment, of the inescapable and the tragic fate of other characters, seemed more palpable the second time around. It was more noticeable how the structure changes as the novel progresses to manipulate the reader. Later in the novel, as things get darker, the chapters get longer, the story becomes less anecdotal and more linear, there are fewer jokes and the humour that is there is also longer and darker rather than the witty, punchy, laugh out loud humour from early in the novel.

Catch-22 is often primarily interpreted as a critique of war

There is plenty in the novel to recommend that interpretation. Much of its satire and absurdism is pointed at exposing the hypocrisy, corruption, lack of humanity and faulty logic behind the premises of war and the military chain of command. Though it is told almost exclusively from the somewhat detached point of view of men who serve as bomber crew, as opposed to infantry or civilians, it is frank and unsparing in its depiction of the horrors of the war. If anything, using bomber crew as the focus (like Yossarian, author Joseph Heller was a WWII bombardier), helps underscore the themes and mood of the novel. Death from anti-aircraft fire comes somewhat randomly for the bomber crew, with little they can do to protect themselves, emphasising the sense of fatalism that increases each time Cathcart increases the required number of missions.

Since the men who are killed are usually killed with their entire crew and their remains are rarely recovered, the men who survive each mission are detached from death’s reality. It is as if their friends are not really dead, they just haven’t come back yet. This survivor bias is all over the novel. The optimism, the lack of fear, the sense of purpose, of the men, is all contingent on the silence of the dead, who would probably offer a different perspective of things. Yossarian’s nonconformity gives the dead voice as he sees his fate in theirs all too clearly.

To die or not to die, that was the question, and Clevinger grew limp trying to answer it. History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend upon it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war. Just about all he could find in its favour was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.

Much of the novel takes place after mid-1944 when Germany’s defeat was still distant but increasing certain and the men in the novel face no resistance from enemy aircraft. Again, this setting only helps emphasise Yossarian’s view about the pointlessness of continued war, killing and risking his life. As the main objective of the war diminishes, other motivations are exposed from Milo’s self-enrichment to Cathcart’s hopes for promotion, both of them working without any fear that they themselves are in any danger of being killed.

All that being said, Heller has carefully manipulated the circumstances of the novel to allow his themes to play out. Everything from making Yossarian a volunteer and not a draftee, using airmen who fly in and out of the war from isolation, to the 1944 setting has been done to give Yossarian’s moment its plausibility. It is to Heller’s credit that he has done this so surreptitiously the reader can hardly notice the manipulation. It also means we have to be careful not to give the anti-war interpretation too much emphasis.

Besides, there is also much else going on.

A modern army is, of course, not just a collection of men, leaders and weapons but requires an ever-expanding bureaucracy to support it. Catch-22 has much to say about this as well, to the extent that many interpret it as more of a critique of bureaucracy than of war. Catch-22, as explained to Yossarian by Doc Daneeka is just one of many bureaucratic roadblocks that obfuscate, impede, torment and kill the characters in the novel.

I want to largely avoid spoilers so I will give just one relatively minor example. A new airman named Mudd arrives at the airbase and is assigned a bunk in the tent shared by Yossarian and Orr. As a newly arrived soldier, he is first required to check in at the administration tent. But a blunder means that, before he checks in, he is immediately pulled into flying a mission, during which he is killed. Yossarian is understandably haunted by the presence of Mudd’s bags in his tent, but, since Mudd never properly checked in, Yossarian can’t do much about it.

The dead man in Yossarian’s tent was a pest, and Yossarian didn’t like him, even though he had never seen him. Having him lying around all day annoyed Yossarian so much that he had gone to the orderly room several times to complain to Sergeant Towser, who refused to admit that the dead man even existed, which, of course, he no longer did.

No bureaucracy is very efficient, no authority is ever fully checked and where there are gaps, corruption can fester and grow. Add the potential for great individual profits from an unending supply of public money and corruption, conflicts of interest, a military-industrial complex and a motive for repeated and prolonged war are virtually guaranteed if no real resistance is offered. The personification of this in Catch-22 is Milo Minderbinder.

It begins innocently enough. Milo is able to escape combat duty by convincing his superiors to make him the Mess Officer. From there his power and influence grows as he is given planes, equipment and men to expand his operation. Soon his enterprise is so large he can operate with impunity especially since he has arranged things so that everyone has a financial interest in his success. As things continue to escalate, not only does the line between public interest and private profit become blurred but the distinction between allies and enemies is confused as people on all sides start thinking about their own interests and the post-war world. Milo excels at what he does and seems to know the value of everything except human life.

Catch-22 is also a very existential novel. These characters, in the middle of a brutal war, pointedly and succinctly articulate and discuss the problems of explaining God’s apparent indifference to suffering, the purpose of pain and existential questions of their purpose in life and in this war. It is clear most of them had not considered how they would answer these questions or assumed the answers they have been told were sound. Most would probably rather not face these questions. To do so removes the security they had built around themselves, leaves them vulnerable to face what they are doing and what is being done to them. In particular, the squadron’s chaplain finds himself suffering a crisis of faith. Yossarian is one who knows his own answers and it only gives him more assurance of his own sanity and the insanity of war. It is a small but powerful aspect of the novel.

‘And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,’ Yossarian continued, hurtling on over her objection. ‘There’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us.’

The separation and isolation Yossarian feels from everyone else’s way of thinking allows Heller to explore another important theme – individualism. While the modern West can be self-congratulatory in its self-appraisal as a triumph of the individual, that does not extend to the military which remains a collectivist enterprise and probably has to be one. Yossarian’s thinking has led him to question what and who he would be willing to die for and his experience convinces him that only he can act in his best interests. Yossarian is a rebel and a literary hero of the individual spirit.

The country was in peril; he was jeopardising his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.

What are the adaptations like?

Catch-22 was famously regarded as unfilmable. Nevertheless, a film adaptation was made and released in 1970 and I have watched it several times. The first thing that needs to be said about the movie is that it is very well cast for the novel’s key characters with Alan Arkin as Yossarian as well as Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Bob Newhart, Art Garfunkel, Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles (although Newhart was probably too old to play Major Major even if he was very well suited to the part). If you are familiar with the novel, then on first viewing you may find the film to be an adequate attempt, enjoyable to see favourite moments enacted, but understandably lacking. Reading the book again, I was surprised by how many of the key scenes and subplots are actually included in the film. The scene between Major Major and Sgt Towser is wonderfully executed. The film also embraces the back-and-forward nonlinear structure of the novel to an extent without getting too confusing.

After rereading Catch-22 I also watched the 2019 miniseries adaptation and… I was actually disappointed by it. The TV series ditches the non-linear structure and shows events in chronological order. It is very dark, bleak in fact, which adds considerable power but I did not find it very funny compared to the novel and the film. The advantage of a miniseries compared to a film is that the length allows for better pacing, letting the events sink in for the viewer, but much was also omitted too. I also can’t say I agree with the casting choices, the changes made to the plot and the altered ending. The character of Milo Minderbinder was the big winner in the latest adaptation, perhaps reflecting the influence of wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and the evolution of the military-industrial-complex in the interim.

The writers and directors – including Grant Heslov, Luke Davies and George Clooney – justify their choices by saying the humour of the novel might not have aged well. The nonlinear plot too, they say, reflects the style of the period but may not play well now. They all say they are great fans of the novel but their choices make me wonder who they were making the series for. Not for fellow fans apparently.

To put it another way, my wife, who is one of those who could never get into the novel, and never got past the early chapters, enjoyed the miniseries and hopes to see it again. In contrast, I love the novel but am left disappointed by the series. Maybe I need to see Catch-22 twice (sorry, inside joke).

The 1970 film has its faults too, but I actually prefer it. Given the considerable difficulty in procuring B25 bombers well into the 21st century, one wonders if there will ever be another chance to adapt Catch-22 and I can’t help but feel the makers of the miniseries missed a great opportunity to produce something special.

Has the novel aged poorly?

There are very few women in Catch-22. The men are almost exclusively white who occasionally and casually throw around the N-word and frequently refer to the women they do encounter, mostly the prostitutes on the mainland, as tarts and whores. All of this is expected. Less because of the time in which it was written and more because of the boundaries of the period in which it is set, the nature of that setting and the focus of the story. In fact, if racism and misogyny were wholly absent, we might instead be questioning the historical accuracy of the writing here. Catch-22 does not therefore set off any alarm bells for me as something that has not aged well or contains nefarious ideas. Especially since these aspects are not championed but are simply part of the setting.

However, there is one aspect of Catch-22 that is worthy of notice and comment in this regard. While the focus of the story is on the tragedy of war from the point of view of the servicemen, they are not the only victims in the story. There is no avoiding the victimhood of the Italian women, working as prostitutes, that the servicemen visit in Rome. Though little of their experience is shared, enough is offered to inform the reader that whatever the servicemen may be complaining of may be less significant than what the civilian women have already lived through. The nauseating irony of their tragedy is that some of them are prostituting themselves to the very men whose bombs are the reason they are where they find themselves. As Rome becomes full of foreign soldiers from a variety of nations, the harassment of the local women only increases and the reader is not spared.

Catch-22 uses satire to highlight the hypocrisy and insanity of war and the men who champion it, but sometimes it also has the effect of softening the tragedy of the story. While reading Catch-22, it may seem as if anything is open-game for the satire. Yet, if you pay close enough attention, you may notice that there is no satire, no softening, on offer for the fate of the women. It is to the credit of the novel that theirs is a story shown unflinchingly; the one story whose tragedy is offered no respite. 

Catch-22 can be difficult – difficult to read, difficult to adapt, difficult to review. As I write this review, in late May 2020, the lockdown following the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has been relatively eased here in Australia and I have taken the opportunity to browse bookstores for the first time in a couple of months. Though I was not looking for it, it did not escape my attention that each store I visited had Catch-22 on its shelves whereas a number of other 20th century classics may be harder to find. Despite what the makers of the recent miniseries achieved, it clearly has enduring appeal in its original form and, being my favourite book, I hope I have done it some justice here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.