Catch-22 is a clever, unique, darkly sarcastic novel in that “I don’t want to slit my wrists” sort of way and it’s even kind of enjoyable. Now, I say kind of as an overall statement- but I’ll get to that in a minute.
First, I must address that the theme of the novel is completely paradoxical. I don’t mean that it’s one thing that contradicts something else, but that, quite literally, it is about paradoxes. You might find this definition of “Catch-22” according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary helpful:
1 : a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule <the show-business catch–22—no work unless you have an agent, no agent unless you’ve worked — Mary Murphy>; also : the circumstance or rule that denies a solution
2 a : an illogical, unreasonable, or senseless situation b : a measure or policy whose effect is the opposite of what was intended c : a situation presenting two equally undesirable alternatives
3 : a hidden difficulty or means of entrapment : catch
[As a matter of interest I should also inform you that this very phrase came from the novel. That’s right- every time you might have heard it in conversation it referenced the book itself. In fact the etymology of the word listed at Merriam-Webster IS “Catch-22 by Joseph Heller”.]
Now, for a moment, I want you to think of reading an entire novel that is written so almost every single point made is a “catch-22”. If your mind didn’t boggle at that idea let me continue by saying it’s initially done in a sly and clever manner enabling the reader to grasp that it’s happening and still continue on.
The first time Heller explains what “Catch-22” is:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
Catch-22 coaxes you to laugh at some not typically humorous moments and still has the mind spinning and whirling wondering where the story is going. There’s a great deal of character exploration that occurs through narration as well as dialogue, but always there’s a string of paradoxes that follows everyone around and thus permeates the entire breadth of the novel.
The characters are unique with their own brand of insanity and quirks. Yossarian, a man that causes everyone to ask “what the hell kind of name is Yossarian?”, is the bombardier that keeps trying to get out of the war. He tries keeping himself at the hospital where he isn’t bad enough to get treated, nor well enough to get released and thus stays on until he decides to go back to the war.
This story follows him, and all the characters he interacts with, through the perils of war, the catch-22s that keep them all there while giving brilliant insight into excellent philosophical discussions by the use of paradoxical arguments. There is, however, a drawback to this work. It’s not particularly arduous to read but without a clear plot, and so many different characters, there is difficulty in getting through this tome. Almost every chapter is complete unto itself and contains many suspenseful elements but there is little motivation to continue reading after that chapter- it’s easy to put down.
I felt no wonderment at what will happen to our dear and wonderful Yossarian, whom shows up naked except for his moccasins to receive a military award, and certainly little to no interest in finding out what happens to Colonel Cathcart (the man that keeps raising the number of flights required before people get sent home). While the language is excellent, the use of paradoxes brilliant, it ultimately is a long read that feels long.
Perhaps, prior to the adoption of “Catch-22” into our every day vernacular this novel would have struck me as more clever and interesting but ultimately Heller tried to do too much. “Catch-22” was a theme that didn’t really matter to me by the end of the story. It was as though the very title was a character in the story whose sole purpose was to beat you over the head for all 443 pages. The character development was interesting but because of how it was divided off it ultimately didn’t allow you to feel much of anything for any particular character. Yossarian is the exception to that rule- but, honestly, I didn’t really care about him until the end of the book. Right up until the last 40-50 pages I could have set it down and never looked at it again.
Clever wit only gets so far with me- if I’m not invested in the book by, say, page 350 I get very annoyed. I start questioning the sanity of editors who let that go on. That isn’t to say there weren’t many brilliant and funny moments but without a thread running through a story, evoked in a manner which would draw the reader in with suspense for either the character’s demise and/or the plot- it’s tough to get through. I don’t think it’s a great novel, nor even a really good book- it’s interesting, wholly cerebral with a whole lot of annoying characters and events that don’t really do anything to make you care more about the end and the fate of Yossarian.
I think Heller sat down one day and decided, “Hey, I’ll write a novel to not be a novel.” <–And that sums up my opinion of this classic.