Rating: 3.5 out of 5
So I celebrated Independence Day my own way by finishing Catch-22, a novel which examines the real meaning of patriotism. I know that this is a popular read among you fellow book bloggers, so let’s jump right into it!
Catch-22, published in 1961, was based on author Joseph Heller’s experience as an Air Force bombardier during World War II. But this is certainly not a “war novel,” in the classic sense of the term, given the fact that the war itself is merely the backdrop for the interpersonal relationships and hierarchies among the men in the military.
It was interesting to see Germany, Italy, and the Pacific only mentioned in passing, without any discussion of the people (Roosevelt, Churchill, Mussolini, Hitler) that have become synonymous with the war.
Instead, the book focuses on the people who surround Yossarian, a Assyrian with a fictionalized Armenian surname. The story begins on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa with one of Yossarian’s many attempts of avoiding warfare by faking an illness–a common avoidance maneuver that even the doctors are in on.
And it’s a good thing that the doctors indulge these soldiers, since the commanding officers have made the possibility of discharge futile. Every time the men are close to completing their designated number of missions, the colonels raise the bar so that none of them can go home.
“Catch-22” explains the circular logic that keeps Yossarian and his comrades captive: a soldier may only be discharged if he proves insane, but the very act of declaring insanity proves that he is indeed sane, and thus he must continue flying.
But while the subject matter is very serious, Heller does an exquisite job bringing his satire to life. He expresses all the frustration with a refreshing combination of sophisticated wit and masculine brashness. Sure, Yossarian is risking his life every day, frequently losing men he cares about, but he manages to mock his superiors and womanize his nurses with a sense of humor that is often laugh-out-loud funny.
However, I feel that I would have appreciated Catch-22 more if I had read it in an academic setting. This novel is well-outlined and surprisingly intellectual; each character represents something deeper, from the treacherously capitalistic mess officer Milo to the nameless soldier in white, wrapped head to toe in bandages so that no one can recognize him.
Unfortunately, the middle of the novel is bogged down with so many secondary characters that I found at times it was difficult to stay engaged. Without trying to give too much away, the pace picked up toward the end, as I enjoyed the psychotic aftermath of Nately, his lover, and Yossarian’s determination to defect.
The ending was not what I anticipated, but readers should be aware that there is a belated sequel called Closing Time (1994). I’d love to hear from anyone who has read this follow-up, considering how generation after generation has gained insight from Catch-22.
People expect criticism of the Vietnam War or the current wars in the Middle East, so for Heller to speak out negatively against American forces during a historically glorified event has made it so Catch-22 has lasted the test of time.
I believe that readers appreciate Heller’s honesty and vulnerability, sharing the fears of someone in combat. Yossarian is the classic anti-hero, desperately trying to live forever, even if he dies trying. Although the deaths of his friends have traumatized him, he makes sure he looks out for himself, since no one else will.
My biggest takeaway from this novel is that whether in times of great chaos or the everyday grind, it’s important to question authority and define your own morality. Some may call Yossarian cowardly and blasphemous when he forsakes his country and faith respectively, but I respect him for refusing to live as a sheep, taking orders without seeking the answers behind them.
So next time you find that everyone is calling you crazy, remember that insanity is always in the eye of the beholder.
Favorite Quote: “The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.” (Ch. 39)