Author: Joseph Heller
Genre: Black Humor, Satire
The glorification of war has a long sordid past, stretching all the way back to the days of Homer and the Iliad. The masses’ rejection of war and the exposure of its horrors have relatively less storied histories but are well-established nonetheless. Joseph Heller’s dark comedy classic, Catch-22, lays bare a third, far more mundane element – the mind-numbing inanity and jaw-dropping pettiness of war. Set in the dreary final days of World War II, when the war was almost as good as over but not quite, the novel focuses on one Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier whose sole aim in life is to live as long as he can. Unfortunately for him, his job requires him to fly regularly into extremely dangerous enemy airspace and his countless attempts at getting out of the army are rebuffed by his archenemy – the eponymous Catch-22. In its first incarnation, the catch states that asking to be grounded from flying dangerous missions is the sign of a rational mind, since only crazy people would willingly fly such dangerous missions – however, anyone certified crazy can apply to be grounded and not fly the missions. The beauty of this bureaucratic atrocity is lost on neither Yossarian, who grudgingly grants it the respect awarded to a worthy foe, nor on the reader, who will see it manifest in numerous forms throughout the book.
Humour is the most obvious foundational element of Catch-22, but so are death and trauma. The novel works as well as it does because of the way Heller is able to juxtapose these two extremes in keeping with the best traditions of black comedy. The relentless idiocy and incompetence that the characters display would make for amusing enough entertainment on its own but those same qualities displayed in the grim setting of a devastating war make the contrast that much more striking. The humour is, naturally, delivered by a cast of characters that are unfailingly inept, each of whom is, in some sense of the word, crazy. Most of the novel’s charm comes from these characters and their idiosyncrasies; incapable of completing the simplest of tasks though they are, their frequent, ill-fated attempts at finding solace in the tedium of war make for great, madcap comedy. The characters, divided into the greedy and selfish members of the military brass and the jaded officers below them, take turns in the telling the events of the story; often, a joke will be set-up by one character with another delivering the punchline. This rotating point of view allows Heller to flesh most of his characters out and while that doesn’t always lead to sympathy, it does often lead to understanding. That understanding, for better or worse, only goes so far; no amount of empathy can really excuse some of the characters’ self-serving actions.
The first half of Catch-22 certainly seems to drag on; it’s a barrage of jokes and non-sequiturs as Heller gives each character a little bit of time in the limelight. It doesn’t really help that the first half of the novel is told in a rambling, non-linear manner; each incident references in the opening chapter is expanded upon but not in any sort of logical order. Even the humour is light-hearted enough that for a while, one might suspect that Heller is simply using World War 2 as an excuse to give the characters a context in which to interact. Where else but in a drafted war would you find a Red Indian chief, a corrupt New Jersey doctor, mentally handicapped repairman and chaplain with self-confidence issues? There were mentions, of course, of people dying, of vague, half-remembered comrades, of the ever-present possibility of death. The humour, however, lulls the reader into a sense of complacency; yes, ‘people’ are dying in the war, but surely not any of the named characters. The second half of Catch-22 takes a turn for the darker; Heller retains the same dry style throughout the book but the events he describes start becoming increasingly troubling as the war continues to drag on. Characters begin to disappear and others begin to show signs of trauma that can no longer be conveniently ignored after being labelled amusing. Suddenly, the self-serving pettiness of the military brass is no longer quite as funny as it was; now that characters that the readers are invested are beginning to really show the effects of constant fear and stress, it’s hard to feel anything but rage at those at the top who continue their politicking, unaffected by the pain they are inflicting. By the novel’s final chapters, there are no laughs to be found.
That transition, over the course of the novel, from the amusing to the shocking, is what makes Catch-22 so memorable. Better authors have written better books about suffering and the inhumanity of war, better books have been written about the pain and sacrifice of those who fight in the war. What Catch-22 isn’t so much a condemnation of war as a whole or an examination of its effects on the common soldier – though there are notable elements of both throughout the book – but rather, it is an indictment of the greedy and the selfish that make war a lot worse than it has to be.
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