Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” was published in 1961 but focuses on the tumultuous wartime era of the 1940s. Named after a now popular phrase, “Catch-22” is the epitome of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.
The story follows Yossarian, a bombardier (one of the crew members on a fighter plane) who is stationed on the coast of Italy, as he discovers the evils of war. One of the driving contradictions in this novel that make the name Catch 22 appropriate is Yossarian’s ploys to get out of service. He goes to his superiors in an attempt to get sent home, yet his superiors tell him that the only way that he can be discharged is if he is insane; the only way he can be deemed insane is if he denounces personal safety and continues to fly missions.
Yossarian’s attempts at claiming insanity are only denied because he can’t possibly be insane if he is recognizing the danger he is in and asking to be grounded. Essentially, he’s been cornered into this situation to remain in his post as a bombardier, because he can’t prove that he is crazy — but his position there is literally slowly driving him into insanity. Either way, he’s stuck in a bad situation.
It sounds like a ridiculous situation and it is, but when you read the book, it makes sense. After a few chapters, you begin to understand Yossarian’s way of speaking and can follow along with what he is doing. It is almost as if by following his spiral into insanity, you lose focus on the things that would normally be required to understand a book and simply follow him in his confusion.
To compliment the idea that Yossarian is spiraling deeper and deeper into insanity, the book itself is written in a very sporadic fashion, mirroring this inner chaos of the characters. The chapters skip around in chronologically and many stories are left hanging. This can sometimes be a deterrent to liking a book, but in this case, I find that the confused structure of the book adds depth to the novel as a whole.
Heller writes about the inner workings of a World War II soldier as he witnesses the many atrocities of war. The main character is far from neat and orderly himself, so don’t expect the format of the book to be either.
I am reminded of a quote by a classical literary scholar, Longinus: “Disorder contains a certain element of order” (“The Sublime” part six, chapter 20). This seems fitting because, although the book contains no clear sense of order, the movement and the jumping becomes clear after a while. Once you connect with the main character, Yossarian, you are willing to follow him through his disordered thoughts and confused ramblings.
These ramblings are not without a purpose — even something as simple as a trip to the infirmary often has a deeper subtext hidden within; this book challenges the reader to look beyond the obvious and discover what the meaning of this confused rambling actually is.
So, I’ll admit it — I’ve actually read this book at least three times, and there are still new things that I discover every time. I can’t tell you exactly what it is that keeps bringing me back to this book, but I think it has something to do with the fact that it’s like a puzzle. You have to take all these chapters and pieces of stories and try to make some kind of sense out of it. It takes work, but it is worth it, because amidst the confusion and the somewhat insane ramblings, there are moments of wisdom, of understanding and of insight into the human condition.