Friday, September 14, 2012

Classic Fiction: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Hard to believe, but I somehow missed out on this classic best seller during my many years in school. None of my teachers ever assigned Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and I never quite had enough interest to pick it up for myself, until now.

The Situation: Yossarian is a bombardier stationed in Italy during World War II. He seemingly has an endless supply of schemes and ideas to save his own life and eventually get out of military service. He is surrounded by many colorful characters, some of whom he is friends with, others he is friends with out of convenience and proximity, and still others he absolutely loathes and would love to have nothing to do with. Many regard him as a coward for wanting to escape combat duty, when in reality many of them would do the same, or don't have the sense enough to know better. Almost all of Yossarian's colleagues frequent whore houses in Rome or other parts of Europe as means of escape between missions. But they all still eventually come back to their duties of having to drop bombs over specified targets, many times while being shot at by the Germans below. Eventually, Yossarian completes the number of missions necessary to be grounded, completing his commitment to the war as a bombardier.

The Problem: Yossarian actually completes the number of mission required to be grounded a few times. Every time he reaches the maximum number or gets near it, Colonel Cathcart raises the number of mission required by another five, or sometimes even ten. Naturally, many of the soldiers, namely Yossarian, are upset by this. And only someone out of his mind and truly unfit to fly would be willing to fly more missions. And such a person would need to be grounded. But to make such a case to someone would prove your sanity, and therefore make you ineligible to be grounded as you are clearly mentally fit to fly. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is "catch-22." Yossarian and his friends repeatedly meet the number of mission required, so the number gets raised. Meanwhile, people around Yossarian are dying and disappearing, he slowly reaches insanity, and the war just keeps getting uglier.

Genre, Themes, History: This novel has been regarded as absurdist fiction, satirical fiction, war fiction, and historical fiction. The book explores both the prisoner's dilemma and the social dilemma. The prisoner's dilemma has Yossarian constantly going back and forth between doing what is best for his entire unit, or doing what is best for himself so can get him out of the war quickly and alive, despite what it may mean for his colleagues and friends. The social dilemma has men around Yossarian who take advantage of others and act unethically in order to advance and get promotions and receive favor from their superiors. In other words, nice guys finish last. Other themes include sanity vs. insanity, the effect (and inefficiency) of beaurocracy, the idea of the hero, distortion of justice, greed, and capitalism as a priority over helping people.

One thing that struck me strongly about this book for the beginning is the tone of bitterness. And not necessarily that Yossarian is bitter (although he is), but more that the narrator is bitter. And then I read the Heller actually was in the military during WWII, and that explains a lot. A lot of how Yossarian and his colleagues feel about what is happening to them and around them came from Heller's personal feelings about his own situation during combat duty. When Catch-22 was published in 1961, it became very popular among college students as it gave voice to how they felt at the time about Vietnam.

My Verdict: At the beginning, I wasn't too thrilled by this book. But this book has a very slow, very gradual build until you find yourself extremely concerned for the well-being of some of these people (not just Yossarian), and eagerly looking forward to the destruction of others (not just Colonel Cathcart). Heller starts out by introducing the characters in somewhat of a confusing and jumbled mess. But eventually, as bits and pieces of different stories are told, all out of order, you come to know each major player a little better, until eventually, the full horrors of war are revealed. Some stories are told repeatedly, with a little more and a different point of view revealed each time. It is such a subtle thing that, even though it is happening throughout the novel, I was completely taken by surprise by how captivating and moving this novel really was. The story is told with a bitter humor that seems pretty light-hearted, like it isn't trying to take itself too seriously. But then the true horros are revealed, and you realize that this is all very serious indeed.

Favorite Moment: Like a lot of my favorite moments in books, this one isn't exactly a happy moment. Actually, I found it to be the most chilling and devastating event in the book, although some would probably argue with me there. It is a bit of a spoiler, so I'll have to be a little cryptic: Yossarian's favorite pilot to fly with, McWatt, has an annoying habit of playing pranks on Yossarian by flying too low over his tent because he knows it scares him. When Yossarian starts hanging out at the beach, McWatt starts flying over that too, until one day, he flies a little too low....and I'll just stop there. Anyone who has ever been teased about a very real fear will understand the anger Yossarian feels against with McWatt, until the pilot fixes things where anger isn't really the issue anymore.

Favorite Character: The very unlikely hero of Orr, Yossarian's roommate. He seems to be a little bit dense and possibly slighty OCD as he is continually "fixing" things by methodically taking them apart and putting them back together. But like a lot of the events in this book, a real conclusion can't be drawn until every last bit of evidence has been brought to the reader's attention.

Recommended Reading: I would love to take the easy way out and recommend Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. But given Heller's ability to make me laugh out loud and then feel like a terrible human being for finding such truly horrific situations even the slightest bit funny, despite them being told in a humorous manner, I would like to recommend some Flannery O'Connor. She was also a fan of the absurd, and I think her short story, "Greenleaf," actually fits quite nicely. It'll make you laugh...but it probably shouldn't. 

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