I finished this book after reading it for about 30 days, maybe more. This is not my usual time for a 400-page novel but it wasn’t an easy one. It’s not a book like “Da Vinci’s Code” or “The time traveler’s wife” which are both unputdownable.
The writer is Joseph Heller. He is not a prolific writer judging from the five novels he has written during his 76 years (1923 -1999). I read in the book’s short biography note that the writer served as a bombardier during WW2 and later this experience inspired him to start writing the book. In the edition I read, there’s an introduction Howard Jacobson and he mentions that Heller had once said to Kurt Vonnegut that if it wasn’t for the War he’d have been in the dry cleaning business. Meaning to say he was a quiet man, not at all academic or bookish.
While I was reading the book, people were asking me “What are you reading now Anna?”, as they usually do. This time I didn’t know what to say. OK, I said the title and the writer but after that, any attempt to describe what kind of book that was, utterly failed. I began by saying it was about the War. “Isn’t that boring?” people would say? Well, no. This book is everything but boring. It is actually addictive in a quiet, subversive way. Its anarchic sense of humor, the way it unpredictably ends his sentences. Take this for example in the first pages of the book. Yossarian, the American( of Armenian origin?) hero of the book is in hospital, trying to avoid dangerous missions as a head bombardier. Dunbar his friend is also in hospital “Dunbar was lying motionless on his back again with his eyes staring up at the ceiling like a doll’s. He was working hard at increasing his life span. He did it by cultivating boredom. Dunbar was working so hard at increasing his life span that Yossarian thought he was dead.” (Don’t tell me it doesn’t remind you some of the people you know).
The situation is this: American soldiers are situated in a camp in Italy from where they take off to bomb strategic targets of nearby towns. It’s toward the end of the War. Yossarian tries to do anything to avoid getting killed. He thinks everyone has conspired to get him killed: The Germans, but also the General the doctors of the hospital, the other soldiers he flies with. At one point he warns the chaplain about going to the other wards: ‘Be careful, in those other words, Father…That’s where they keep the mental cases…This is the only sane ward in the whole hospital. Everybody is crazy but us. This is probably the only sane ward in the whole world’. And he’s right since Yossarian is the only one who wants so badly to live.
Life is a paradox in this camp. It’s bizarre and Yossarian isn’t the kind of hero who appeals to the readers immediately. But he grows on you. The only reason he stays in the hospital for is to keep himself alive. He has already flown 25 missions when the book starts but the general keeps raising the number of the missions required to send someone home. From then the whole book takes us from one deadly mission to another until Yossarian is the only one left from the original group of friends.
The array of strange people appearing in the book is endless. There are people who are promoted because of their names, there are officers who refuse to see anyone and mess hall officers who conduct black market interactions and trade in everything. There are brave soldiers but mostly normal young people who are so scared they can’t hear in order to avoid flying. There’s even soldier who manages to row his way to Sweden (starting from Italy)
There are hardly any women in this book. Only nurses and prostitutes. There’s no time for love here. Only for lust
While reading it and after I finished it I kept thinking about the war, any war and about military service. All the men I know who have served in the army, keep saying how absolutely insane everything is there. This book says the same thing but in a tragic way. The title is about that too. As far as I know this phrase “Catch 22” was introduced in the language by Joseph Heller. It means an absolute impasse, a no-way out. “What’s the catch?” the soldiers keep asking? “Catch 22” the officers answer. It soesn’t make much sense, does it? Well, that’s exactly it!
At least Yossarian is alive at the end. We don’t know how but he manages to survive. The writer himself says in the preface: “But Yossarian is still alive when the novel ends. At the end of the successor novel he is still alive… Sooner or later, I must concede, Yossarian now seventy, will have to pass away, too. But it won’t be by my hand.” He wrote these lines in 1994. Five years later he died so Yossarian will live forever.
This book wasn’t love at first sight for me. But even now a month after I finished it I’m thinking about it. Doesn’t this say something?
This article refers to this edition of the book
Update 27/11/07: I just found this article about how the book actually gor its title.