Friday, July 31, 2009

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Posted by lea at 4:29 PM
Catch-22 is a brilliant and scathing anti-war book that's equal parts frustrating, funny and absurd. The hero (or central character, since he's hardly heroic) is Yossarian, a bombardier whose main objective is to stay alive throughout the war (WWII). Unfortunately for Yossarian, his attempts are thwarted at every turn. Trying to prove himself mad (and therefore unfit for duty) is undermined by the evidence that he wants to stay alive, and only a sane person would want to save their own life. That's the essence of Catch-22, and the reason for it being coined in the common lexicon.

The book is filled with a veritable Forrest Gump box of chocolate range of characters. Madness of some sort seems to be a general theme, although each to a different degree. Hungry Joe is war-mad from trauma, Chief Halfoat is race-mad from exploitation by white people, Milo is profit-mad and even bombs his own squadron to make money, Colonel Cathcart is approval-mad, continually raising the men's number of missions in order to get his picture in the newspaper, and the list goes on. There's whore-mad, son-in-law-mad, weakling-mad, danger-mad, mad-mad... Yossarian, who simply wants to stay alive, seems the sanest of them all, despite showing up to a medals ceremony completely naked and signing a fictitious name to official documents and causing havoc.

Although I think Catch-22 is a work of real genius, the experience of reading it was not enjoyable. With its circular logic and dark humour, it is incredibly frustrating to read, and its many idiosyncratic characters can be difficult to keep track of. Nothing seems to make any sense at all and power is held absolutely by absolute idiots. It's a maddening book that acts as a parable to question society, and in particular, war.

As a female reader, I have to also take a moment to mention the role of women in the book, as much as I don't want to. Apart from the doctor's greedy wife, no woman is mentioned without a reference to her sexuality, whether she's a whore, a colonel's wife or a nurse. It's disconcerting that in a book about power, women are hung on the very bottom rung of the ladder. The men are subject to the whims of their superiors, but women are subject to the whims of everybody. A particularly disturbing scene occurs later in the book where one of the men in the squadron (who you think you know, even as a reader) rapes a domestic servant and throws her out of a window to her death. I'm sure there's a thesis in here but this is only a book review so I'll end on this topic here.

Right at the very end, in the last few pages, the story eventually breaks out of its frustrating confines (not before things get a lot worse first) and finally a gust of hope is introduced. These last few pages, for me, made the whole book worthwhile. Finally you get a taste of what Yossarian (and you, because in the process of reading your empathy is entirely with him) has been wanting all along. But it doesn't come the way you think it will. I won't spoil it, but it's a truly rewarding ending.

Overall, Catch-22 is brilliant, funny and a little disturbing.


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