Monday, September 08, 2014

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Book Review #83 of 2014)

Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition
This book is usually ranked in the top ten best American novels of the 20th century on several lists. My wife is currently working through one of those lists and I had the best intentions to follow along some but this book bogged me down.

This is the most difficult fiction book I've ever had to plow through. According to GoodReads it is one of the most frequently started but unfinished books among its users. I read that the initial reviews for the book said that it would either delight you or drive you nuts, and it was definitely the latter for me. 

The author illustrates the cruel absurdity of war very well, too well. Catch-22 refers to a fictional clause in Army regulations that a person can be excused from combat if he is shown to be insane; but "anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy," hence he cannot be excused.

"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...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." 

In the closing chapters, which become quite dark, Catch-22 hardens into whatever the Army wants it to mean:
"Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing...'They don't have to show us Catch-22, the old woman answered. The law says they don't have to."
"What law says they don't have to?"
"Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon, or burn up."

Many of the chapters read like an Abbott and Costello skit which becomes increasingly frustrating. The characteristics that supposedly make this book good literature are its (often) non-chronological narrative, its increasingly-revealing flashbacks that tie events together, and its bridges between seemingly unrelated chapters. The author is also quite erudite, a dictionary while reading is helpful (which is why I'm thankful for e-books).

The characters in the story are morally base and the book becomes quite dark in later chapters as many of them die. War profiteers cynically turn the war into a business (which profits everyone while never being able to make a profit). All of the commanding officers deal with deep insecurities while the main character, Yossarian, deals mainly with his own fear of being killed. If one counted Yossarian's sexual partners in the book he would probably approach triple digits. Tragic loss of life, rape, poverty, and destruction are stark in the closing chapters, making the reader just eager to finish it.

The characters are all contradictions in nature.
"Clevinger was one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains, and everyone knew it except those who soon found out...He was a very serious, very earnest and very conscientious dope."

"'It's not my business to save lives,' Doc Daneeka retorted sullenly."

My favorite chapter (20) introduces a hapless chaplain, who is hated by a jealous atheist underling for not being a great chaplain. The atheist, Corporal Whitcomb, secretly wishes to take the chaplain's position so he can improve the religious services and grow the flock.

"It was people like the chaplain, he concluded, who were responsible for giving religion such a bad name and making pariahs out of them both." 

There is much cynical commentary on war and government bureaucracy, which Heller reportedly had the Korean War in mind while writing the book in the 1950s. I read Thomas Ricks' The Generals while I was reading Catch-22 and it actually helped bring home some reality of Heller's work. Working for the government, I often see the inefficiency and absurdity of bureacracy.

"Major Major's father was an outspoken champion of economy in government, provided it did not interfere with the sacred duty of government to pay farmers as much as they could get for all the alfalfa they produced that no one else wanted or for not producing any alfalfa at all."

"I've got a dead man in my tent that nobody can throw out. His name is Mudd." 

I was really glad to finish this book. As I hated it so much, I cannot recommend it. Two stars. I appreciate it for what it is, but it greatly diminished my will to read "great literature."

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