There was only one catch and that was catch 22, which specified that a concern for one’s 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.
Joseph Heller: Catch-22
Review by Garret Wilson
19 July 2001 6:30 p.m.
Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is an complicated, overly complex work that is so simplistic that it's boring. It is trite, long, confusing, short, funny, boring, and somewhat innovative.
Such a description is not atypical of the type of prose one finds in Catch-22, Joseph Heller's famous book set during World War II about being in the military. Heller's point is to make points about the world in general, about people, about life, about how nothing makes sense and we're really the cause of it — but there's nothing we can do about it. The execution leaves something to be desired, though, as Heller is not the most brilliant composer of prose to ever lift a pen.
That's not to say that Heller never makes any valid points — he in fact makes quite a few of them, some rather good ones, and even more that are actually quite funny. One particularly telling example:
"What would they do to me," he asked in confidential tones, "if I refused to fly them?"
"We'd probably shoot you," ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen replied.
"We?" Yossarian cried in surprise. "What do you mean, we? Since when are you on their side?"
If you're going to be shot, whose side do you expect me to be on?" ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen retorted (68).
Yossarian is the hero of the story, although we're really not sure why, unless it's because Yossarian doesn't get killed and sticks around to tell us what's going on. Yossarian is the narrator, the one who gets into all sorts of situations as a ploy to drag the reader along. Take for instance the time Yossarian is forced (Yossarian is forced to do everything) to pretend to be a hospitalized soldier for the benefit of his parents, who have just come to visit not knowing their son has just died. At times Yossarian, in the darkened room, gives up his mission (Yossarian always gives up his missions) and informs the family of who he really is. The dead soldier's younger brother is the only one who seems to notice:
"Ma, make him feel good," the brother urged. "Say something to cheer him up."
"It's not Giuseppe, Ma. It's Yossarian."
"What difference does it make?" the mother answered in the same mourning tone, without looking up. "He's dying" (195).
And so Heller brings us all sorts of really good thoughts, points, and witty Thing to Keep in Mind while Living. It reminds one of a Chris Rock movie, in which there are multitudes of small scenes each of which seems to have been perfect for a skit, but they're not in a skit, they're in a movie. Such is the excellent story of Captain Black's quest to make an outcast of Major Major by his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade, in which every soldier is required to sign an oath of loyalty (except, of course, Major Major who is not even allowed to sign the oath). As other officers followed suit with loyalty oaths of their own, Captain Black "would stand second to none to his devotion to country", and soon made everyone...
...sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after than "The Star Spangled Banner," one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new strategem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again (123).
What a brilliant anecdote, a wonderful skit. This example is priceless, fully of relevant points on so many levels. The problem, of course, is that the skits try to make a movie — or in this case, the anecdotes try to make a novel. For every good anecdote one has to wade through such prose as, "This sordid, vulturous, diabolical old man reminded Nately of his father because the two were nothing at all alike" (254).
Heller thrives on paradoxes, oxymorons, and anti-redundancies of all sorts. He sees contradictions throughout life, but in his assurance of his own wittiness he tries to create even more of them — as if there weren't enough already. Perhaps he at times thinks there's not even enough space in his book for them all, so he lines up the mutually exclusive adjectives in a row, separated by commas.
Heller thinks that in every case we'll recognize the truth of it, how both alternatives are at the same time true, how that reminds us of someone we know, that we'll nod our heads and recognize how silly we humans are. Sometimes we do. But we don't do so as often as Heller thinks.
And what is "Catch-22", anyway? Did this book, Catch 22, invent the phrase? If so, it wasn't developed nearly as well as it should have been to become an ingrained part of the English language.
In the preface to this special edition of Catch-22, Heller relates how that, for the first edition of the book, a reviewer in The New Yorker claimed that the work "doesn't even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper" (II). Maybe. There were certainly one or two guffaws included, too.
Copyright © 2001 Garret Wilson