I find it difficult to review a book that, in the period since its 1961 publication, has become a modern classic. Whatever I want to say comes out like an essay and, hallelujah, having graduated in May, I’m on a break from those.
Thus (oh no: essay speak) I’m going to offer not another critical analysis of this worthy piece of writing, but my emotional, almost immediate impression of it.
But first, what is Joseph Heller’s most famous work about?
That is not so easy a question as a basic synopsis would suggest. Heller uses a very particular non-chronological narration to his plot: nothing is in order, events overlap, jumping backwards and forewords through time and place and merge in the most outlandish ways. (Do you remember the fictional “War Room” in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove? I somehow picture Heller needing a massive screen like that on which to project his convoluted, yet masterfully controlled plot.)
Let’s say this:
Time: World War II
Place: The island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean
Characters: U.S. Air Force personnel
Main Character: loosely, Captain John Yossarian (the novel circles around a number of other characters).
General theme: How do the Air Force men fulfill their increasing number of missions while attempting to retain their sanity?
I should also say that it is a satire. And, yes, it’s going to remind you of M*A*S*H. You will laugh, probably heartily.
You will do far more than that, however: Catch-22 is a visceral ride (I am going to use flight analogies here, be warned). By the end — which took me three months to reach — you will be hung out, wrenched dry, and probably heaving (from laughter and nausea). I was bored — the generals and colonels made me want to run in circles and chase my own tail — and awed. I was haunted, not just after the fact, but during the reading: what happened to Snowden and Yossarian, after all? And the ending. I was prepared for a tremendous decline, a last falling drop. But Heller has a kind of last burst to propel us out with. Why not end with frenetic elation and possibility? Catch-22 has something of the retro-fantastic about it. You can’t believe it, but you’re not reading a fantasy either. That’s one of it’s powers, of course — Heller’s hurtling insistence that you must believe.
One last note: What of the phrase “catch-22?” Heller did invent it, although his original choice was “catch-18.” Read the novel to create for yourself a full-bodied definition.