Catch-22 is Joseph Heller's first and most brilliant novel--based on his experiences during World War II. The work is a brilliantly satirical attack on the madness of war and the American's administration.
Like many pre-war novelists, he sees absurdity as the starting point for a narrative which is fractured, difficult to follow, and purposefully evasive. He focuses on the plight of Yossarian, a gunner in a US Bomber based out of Italy. He is desperate in his attempts to survive. The novel is shockingly funny and desperately sad.
Like many modernist novels, Heller's novel is purposefully difficult to follow. The work is highly episodic. Each chapter is a incident in Yossarian's life--in non-chronological order. The book begins (and ends) with Yossarian in a hospital bed. He is desperately trying to avoid being sent back to active duty. In the hospital, he meets a number of strange characters: a highly patriotic Texan, an ironic nurse, and a patient wrapped entirely in white bandages.
This last man is hooked up to two jars: one with liquid going in, the other with liquid going out. When one jar is empty and the other full, they are simply swapped and the process happens again. This is the first of many images of bureaucratic madness, which is Heller's central criticism of the way the Second World War was run. It can be compared to the now-famous explanation, made by a doctor, of the novel's title.
According to the doctor, "Catch-22" is a military rule, which means that a madman can't fly. However, the survival instinct is a sane reaction to the madness of war. Therefore the only people who can ask to be grounded are those who don't want to be. In many cases, this crazy logic is enormously funny. As the book progresses, the war's circularity becomes darker. Yossarian soon comes to the conclusion that the whole world is conspiring to kill him.
Juxtaposition of Comedy/Tragedy in Catch-22
The beauty of Catch-22 is the way that it is able to switch between the tragic and the comic. When the subject is inconsequential, the absurdity can be very funny. But, that absurdity also becomes both frightening and awful when it is applied to individual lives and deaths.
In a flashback that details Yossarian's training, he and a fellow officer come up for trial. Despite the fact that they face real punishment, the method in which justice is administered is a complete farce. In the end, despite the fact that there is a clear misunderstanding (the judge has difficulty hearing) an innocent man is sent for punishment.
Characters "Live" in Cach-22
Another great strength of Catch-22, is the number of incredible and larger-than-life characters:
- Major Major: Only named twice. He is so paranoid that he spends all his time hiding from his Platoon.
- Hayermayer: He does nothing all day but try to shoot mice in his tent, and nothing at night but have horrible nightmares.
- Orr: He's a buck-toothed midget who finally shows Yossarian what he must do to achieve freedom.
To Collaborate--Ideals, Beliefs, and What One Stands for
In the final moments of the novel, Yossarian faces the choice of collaborating with the upper echelon of the army who send men to almost certain death. They will send him home, but only if he goes on a publicity tour lauding the war. After a good deal of consideration, Yossarian realizes that there is a third choice. He goes on the run, hoping to escape all the shackles of war, the military, death, etc. He will save his life, but he'll also remain true to what he believes.
Brilliantly and hilariously written, with all the humanity and moral strength of a man who understands war, Heller's novel is a modern classic that is rightly studied in schools throughout the world. His first novel, which probably marked the height of his career, it has more than guaranteed his place in the pantheon of war writers.