Book Review: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22

It has been said by an innumerable amount of military leaders, authors, and journalists, “War is hell.” Those who have never served on the battlefield will never know the changes that happen in the minds of soldiers. In the May 5, 2005 edition of the New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert wrote “This is what happens in war. It’s the sickening reality that is seldom seen in the censored, sanitized version of the conflict that Americans typically get from the government and the media.” Consider Herbert’s quote as a renewal of the notions presented by Joseph Heller in his novel Catch 22. Although Heller’s messages were shrouded in “fiction”, they were, and still are, very real and meaningful.

Catch-22
satirizes many aspects of modern society. On the surface, it appears to be an outcry against war, but Heller criticizes not only the absurdity of war, but also capitalism and religion. Heller’s issues with the notion of capitalism are embodied in the character Milo Minderbinder and the different actions he takes. The absurdity of war is exemplified when Yossarian moves the ribbon on the map so the bomber squad does not have to raid Bologna. Colonel Cathcart’s constant upping of the number of missions for no feasible reason also hints at the ridiculousness of warfare. In Catch-22, Heller voices a sound protest against the ways of modern society.

Through the disjointed, spiral plot structure, Heller plays with the mind of the reader, creating moments where he or she begins to think like a war-ravaged soldier. Events happen, situations arise, soldiers are killed, but rarely does the reader know how, why, and sometimes even when. Such events include the dead man in Yossarian and Orr’s tent and the death of Snowden. Because of the unconventional plot structure, it is difficult for the reader to pinpoint when “now” is in the story. To aid the reader, Heller includes clues in many chapters such as the number of missions Colonel Cathcart has mandated before a soldier can go home and how many times Yossarian has been to the hospital. At times, the story is difficult to follow because chapters in the beginning of the book link up with chapters towards the end of the book, which results in some feelings of dÃ?©jÃ?  vu. The dÃ?©jÃ?  vu felt by the reader is akin to the monotonous life of a soldier at war; wake up, shower, eat, perform duties, go to sleep, repeat. Both the reader and the war-torn soldier are both pondering “haven’t I done this before?”. The uncharacteristic flow of the book does accomplish one very important task: it keeps the reader engaged. Catch-22 is not a book that can be skimmed for content. It requires constant attention, understanding, and a fair amount of rereading. Similarly, since Heller’s work is rather wordy, educated, and lengthy, the reader needs to sift through which information is relevant to understanding the story.

Heller chooses a third person limited omniscient point-of-view for his novel. In this point-of-view, the reader observes the actions and environment from the outside through the senses and thoughts of a character or characters. In the case of Catch-22 the reader observes the happenings through the eyes of more than thirty characters. This point-of-view is considered limited because narration is restricted to what can be known, seen, thought, or judged from the character’s perspective. This point-of-view works well in Catch-22 because it most closely resembles how people view the world: through a pair of eyes, a set of ears, and a mind. One downfall to the third person limited omniscient is that the reader feels less involved in the story because the narration continues to shift. It’s almost as if the reader is hovering above the story and checking up on each individual character as the story unravels.

In a broad sense, catch-22 is a metaphor for an ordinary person trapped in the insanity of war or life in general. In the waning chapters of the novel, Heller describes a dilapidated, destitute Rome. Its citizens are miserable, buildings are destroyed, starvation is the norm, and soldiers are dying by the thousands. All of this has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen because of catch-22. Regardless of whether catch-22 truly exists (Yossarian maintains that it does not), the common man has no control over anything. That is why Heller’s words are still relevant today. In modern society, decisions are still made by the Milo Minderbinders, Colonel Cathcarts, and politicians. They are not on the front lines sacrificing their lives. Instead, they are safe, secure, and becoming wealthier and healthier by the minute. “When I look up,” Yossarian says, “I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.” Yossarian is “looking up” at those in the higher ranks in the military and other political officials.

Heller leaves the conclusion of the book very open-ended. This may bother some readers, but there is no better way that Heller could have closed out this work. Given what happened in the novel, what could have been done? Similarly, given what is happening in society right now, what can be done? At the end of Catch-22, Yossarian didn’t have an answer, which translates into Heller not having an answer either. On the surface, the reader might perceive Yossarian as a deserter and a coward. In all actuality, he did the only thing that catch-22 would allow him to do after he was left hopeless, disgusted, and helpless: run.

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