Imagine you are thousands of miles from home. You desperately want to go home. The only way to get home is if you’re declared insane. You think you are insane, because you think everyone is trying to kill you.
But there’s a catch.
Wanting to go home, and thinking that people are trying to kill you are both perfectly sane things. So by asking to be declared insane, you’re actually sane and you can’t go home.
There is one other way to get home. Fly 25 missions. The rules say you can go home after you fly 25 missions. You have a commander, however, who madly insists on increasing the missions. 30 missions. 40 missions. 60 missions. You’ve flown 55. You could go home.
But there’s a catch.
The rules say you CAN go home after 25 missions. But they also say you HAVE to obey your commander. They don’t say you HAVE to go home after 25 missions, only that you CAN.
Its this very type of maddening logic circle that drives the motor of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The book is undeniably brilliant. The technical use of the English language is superb. Captain Yossarian is the key character – but to call him a main character would be perhaps a bit of a misnomer. Each chapter looks at different characters that fill out the military world Yossarian lives in.
For most of the novel, I wanted to laugh. But it was a sort of sacrilegious laughter that felt utterly wrong right down to my core. At times I couldn’t help it – my laughter at the absolute insanity of the dialog burst forth. Then I would look around guiltily, wondering if someone heard and was passing judgment on me.
I felt, at times, as though I was watching Gregory Peck, Charleton Heston and Humphrey Bogart reading the script of a Marx Brothers movie. At other times, I was convinced that Groucho, Harpo and Chico had stolen the script to an epic war film. Do I laugh, do I cry, do I rage? Perhaps, I began to wonder, I am the insane one.
The characters are richly described in all of their inanity, insanity, obscenity, and absurdity. They are deeply entrenched in an almost comprehensible madness that seems to be slowly taking over the reader.
The narrative is circular, not at all fashioned in a logical procession. That, in and of itself, would drive you mad. There are all of the unexplained characters and scenarios that you don’t fully understand until the last pages. Snowden, eternally frozen in a plane muttering about being cold. The dead man in Yossarian’s tent who can’t be gotten rid of. Men being beaten by shoe-wielding whores. The beneficient Syndicate that is either making money hand over fist, or loosing money hand over fist. Or both. And that is either doing good for all, or for only one – or for no one. No one’s really sure.
This is not you’re traditional war time novel. No technical jargon about dropping bombs or flying planes. No clear, logical chains of command. No staunch patriotism. Only confusion, selfishness, and gross vulgarity.
Would I read it again? Probably not. Should you read it? Absolutely.
Coming up next: Book the Third – The Five People You’ll Meet in Heaven.