Monday, 29 March 1999

Joseph Heller: Catch 22 (1961)

Edition: Corgi
Review number: 236

Joseph Heller's best known novel is probably the greatest work of literature to be based around the experiences of World War II. It manages to be both hilariously funny and terribly sad. Heller makes each of the man in the USAAF flight based at Pianosa a believable individual, each of the front-line fliers responding to the stresses of the war in the air in different ways, and each of those who are in the army bureaucracy behind the lines wrapped up in the totally unimportant in their own different ways.

While the war itself provides most of the tragedy, it is the clash between the bureaucracy and the fliers that provides the comedy. This clash is exemplified by the famous Catch 22 itself, described as "the best catch there is". The medics can ground anyone who is crazy, provided that they request it; but (as fear in the face of danger is a normal human reaction), anyone who requests grounding is not crazy, so they cannot be grounded. (From a logical standpoint, it depends on an error: sanity does not purely consist of fear of danger, so it should not be the only criterion used to determine madness.)

This sort of crazy logic pervades the whole novel, so that Milo Minderbinder can make a profit selling eggs for a loss, Major Major will only see people in his office when he's out, ex-PFC Wintergreen becomes the most powerful man in Mediterranean Operations because he controls the mimeograph machine, and the pattern made by the bomb craters on the aerial photograph taken after the mission is of more concern than the military effectiveness of the bombing.

Heller manipulates the craziness of the atmosphere through the way he plays around with chronology. The events catalogued in the book are arranged in an order which makes them seem to both follow the chronology and ignore it. For example, statements in the account of event x like "this was the most fun Orr had had since y" imply that y occurred before x even though x is described first. On the other hand, the commanding officer keeps raising the number of missions a man has to fly before becoming eligible for leave back to the US, and this number increases in the order in which events are described in the book, so that it might be 45 during x and 60 during y - implying that x occurs before y.

Tragic events tend to recur, as they take an important place in the minds of the fliers - Snowden bleeding to death, the men on the raft, and so on. The absurdity with which they are surrounded makes them even more telling, and has been frequently imitated (notably in MASH).

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