Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

There is nothing much about “Catch-22” that has not been mentioned in scholastic articles and essays that analyze this “apocalyptic masterpiece”. I’m sure if I was a literature student I would have to write an in-depth report of this novel at some point in my academic life, but I am not, so instead of trying to dissect this work of art, I will just jolt down some of my reactions to this novel.

I believe that “Catch 22”, along with 1984, is a must-read for everyone. If its reputation hasn’t convinced you enough, here are some of my reasons, from the objective of a common reader and not an academic literature researcher, for why you should (must) read this book.

Firstly, it’s funny. It’s not like “Heart of Darkness” or other Ondaatje war novels with such thick, over-bearing melancholic tone. Dealing with the ghastly topic of war, the novel chooses a humorous approach. It’s pretty obvious from the first chapter how unique this novel is: the absurdity of the character’s action, the contrasting and illogical sequence of events, the meaningless conversations. You should laugh, and not criticize the total incoherence logic, because as the novelty of the humor start to wear off and you don’t find Heller’s jokes funny anymore, you would come to realize that his jokes are not just cheap ways of pulling attention. The illogic is the theme of the book; the paradoxical motifs keep repeating itself to build fundamental themes of this classic novel. So do try to find those jokes funny instead of resisting the (seemingly) nonsensical layout of the book, because the book gets much darker afterwards. 

Secondly, it’s quite unpredictable. That is an obvious fact anyone can observe from just the first few chapters. Chronology does not exist in the novel, neither does logic. Even Kurt Vonnegut places his jokes in order and creates an apparent plotline that readers can follow. But Heller just keeps pumping out illogical jokes after illogical jokes, and if you can find the patience and mood to play along with him, you’re in for a fun ride. Unlike usual books that go in a direction that you can predict, Catch 22 just spirals out of control. It’s very fun, indeed, to, for once, let the story lead you.

Thirdly, it’s meaningful and smart. You could easily pull some materials off the book and crack a joke to people and look very intelligent. Furthermore, it is a very recognized book, so people might even perceive you as a scholarly person just when you allude to Catch-22.

I can think of more, but let’s talk about the book now.

Many themes appear and re-appear in Heller’s novel, usually at unexpected moments. Before my eyes, the novel transforms illogic into logic, creates its own rationale and justifies its unusual characters. Heller’s brilliance lies in building up this absurd world, then making his readers realize that is the world we have. The juxtaposition between sanity and insanity, between normal and abnormal, justice and injustice (and much more) emphasizes the crucial effects of war, bureaucracy and capitalism. Hidden among the complex humor and satire is the truth that we may or may not have accepted. This truth involves greed for money and power. And the system has allowed individuals to manipulate logic to their own benefits, resulting in the absurdity that we observe but not always realize. 

While playing with logic, Catch-22 also describes the graphic terror of war. In the last few chapters, as the tone switches from “hilarity to horror”, readers come to face the more immediate effect of war: death. Strangely, I felt “sad” as the characters disappear. The sombreness of the theme of death is greatly emphasized by the contrast between humor and horror. The novel also redefines “heroism”. As Yossarian comes to realize his ultimate solution, the novel also presents a new perspective on the glory of war and what it means to truly be a hero.