Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

As an English Literature graduate, I have a long list of books that I feel I should get through. There’s so many I want to read, so this might take a long time!

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller has been one of the novels on the top of my list for quite a while, and I’ve just ticked it off… wooop!

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I’ve got to be honest, I did pick up the novel having no idea what it was about, but with a gut feeling that I would enjoy it, and that it would stick with me in some way.

It’s one of those books that everybody has heard of, or at least knows the expression ‘Catch 22’, which was brought into the English language by Heller through this book. There’s so much that I could say about this book – but I’ve tried to keep it snappy!

I read a special edition copy of the novel, which helpfully explained the background to the novel, which was first published in 1961. Joseph Heller had been part of the US Air Force, and it was his perception of the insanity of the whole situation that prompted him to spend the next seven years constructing ‘Catch 22’.

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It’s a World War II novel about a US Army Air Force squadron. The narrative follows the squadron through the tests and trials of the war, both physical and psychological, using a satirical voice and black humour, so that you have to take a step back to understand what’s going on in some places.

The novel is depicted through the lead protagonist, Captain Yossarian, and the other men around him at the air base. The quirky characters and events go hand in hand with the horrors and realities of war.

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Satirical events such as the logistics of Milo Minderbinder’s complicated syndicate and trades with the enemy to make a profit from the war, the inclusion of the character named Major Major Major Major who spends his time hiding from the other men, and the relationships between Yossarian and his superiors go hand in hand with the horrors of war.

McWatt’s suicide from flying his plane into a mountain, and the untimely death of Kid Sampson caused by a propeller flying into him from the wreck are just some of the horrors witnessed by Yossarian and the other men.

One of the aspects of the novel that I really admired was the realism of the whole situation. It is not romanticised in any way, and no gory details are spared. With their laddish camaraderie and banter, attempts to stall their missions, and lust for the opposite sex, the characters are all very believable, yet in turn, this also makes their story humorous and seemingly absurd.

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The recurrent theme cropping up throughout the book is of the catch 22. The meaning of a ‘catch 22’ is explained quite early on in the book: it essentially defines how the men were crazy to fly more missions and sane if they didn’t. If they were crazy they could ask to be grounded, but in asking, it would prove that they weren’t crazy, and so they would have to fly more missions. A simple and logical catch 22.

Yossarian begins to question the concept of catch 22 and gradually realises that it doesn’t exist. He is left with the discovery that the people believing in it are the only thing keeping it in existence. How bizarre. This questions the bureaucracy of the war and tests the relationships between the ranks of men.

All in all it’s a good read, and it’s a bit of an eye opener to a side of the war in America that you didn’t learn about at school. I also understand the phrase ‘catch 22’ much better now! Time well spent.

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