Catch 22 (book) – The Mayhem of the Mundane Survival


A critic reviewing the work of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” said that “it is a savage indictment of the twentieth century madness, and the desire of the ordinary man to survive it.” No other words would be perfect enough to describe this anti-authoritarian, anti-war novel. “Catch 22” was published on Oct. 11, 1961. At the time of its release, the book was universally panned. In that post-World War II, works about war have taken on a serious note. They were often tragic in tone and imbued with sentimentality. Heller’s work was a black comedy, whose characters have only aim in their life: To survive. Most of the books before Heller have referred soldiers as “brave hero,” whereas “Catch 22” was brave enough to indicate that the so called hero should be insane enough to do what he does – like running into a firestorm.

When Heller’s novel released in paperback there was some change of tides. The book not only received positive word of mouth but also went on to become a ‘bestseller.’ What really turned the tide in favor of the book was the approaching storm called ‘Vietnam War.’ It was then seen, not as a historical World War II novel, but as a prophecy. The government’s statements and the images conjured up on the TV screens of the 1960’s America was entirely different. It was much like the paradox, “Catch 22.”

Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller

What exactly does the term “Catch 22” means? To explain it clearly, we need to use the words of Doc Daneeka (a character in the book), “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. [Bomber pilot] 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.” This foolhardy paradox engaged the anti-authoritarian youths of 60’s. “Catch 22” is the classic no-win trap. Not only in America, you can find this no-win scenario in lots of political or military policies, all around the world. This books remains as an evergreen classic because it can resonate with youths of any era.

Now coming to the story……. Actually, the book provides many things: microcosmic view of our existence, comedy of bureaucracy etc, but it doesn’t provide a thing called ‘story.’  It just follows a group of WW II, American bomber pilots, in Italy, who’s only mission is not to get blown to pieces, while trying to keep their sanity on the ground between missions. Yossarian is the main character of this novel. He is not our typical war hero. He is a common man, who remains furious of the fact that his life is constantly in danger at the war front. He hates to be martyr and unlike a hero, he was grief-stricken by the death of his friends. The “Catch 22” situation, I mentioned above, is inherently built with the position of every characters.’ On one hand Yossarian wants to live, on the other hand he doesn’t want his friends to die. He is actually reeling inside that paradox, since he can only live at the cost of someone’s death.

Yossarian (Alan Arkin) in the movie adaptation of "Catch 22"

Yossarian (Alan Arkin) in the movie adaptation of “Catch 22”

There are a lot of characters who are caught inside this circular, self-defeating logic. Explaining about all those characters would be a futile attempt, on my part. I can write a lot about the character sketches but nothing could match Heller’s visceral, raw vision. However, I have one favorite character in this novel apart from Yossarian. It is Milo Minderbinder. If you have seen the cold war movies, he would be the archetype war profiteer. But, Heller takes such a character and makes him human. Milo loves the men on his squadron. He brings in classy European food and drinks for the mess hall by running a syndicate. Then he starts selling both sides, later goes far by purchasing a German aircraft to bomb his own base. He somehow makes a large profit from his entire insane venture.

Joseph Heller uses absurd humor to showcase the ridicules of our society. His novel isn’t confined within the theme of war. The self-serving attitude is one of the recurrent themes of “Catch 22”, which can be found in mad bureaucracy policies all over the universe. Most of Heller’s descriptions depart from realism (like Milo bombing his own military base, Clevinger’s disappearance into clouds, and Dunbar’s disappearance from hospital). The overstepping scenarios from realism should be seen as a metaphor. The unusual deaths, exaggeration are aimed at a viewer to make him laugh at first and lure him into this hellish world. Then, when you remove the humorous facade, you could feel the horrific settings.

Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” is a bird’s eye view of how humans inflict pain upon themselves. The book’s statement on life is unconditional and final: life cannot be redeemed by anything other than life.


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