Posted by: Nathan | June 6, 2009

Rereading Catch-22

“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.”–C. S. Lewis

The topic of rereading has always been at the back of my mind in my pursuit of literature. The ongoing problem is that there are myriad books I haven’t yet read, and I feel that I ought to get to them in my short life. I suppose it’s akin to travel: do you return to your favorite spot year after year, or do you go somewhere else that everyone says is great? It’s not an easy question to answer. I read somewhere that C. S. Lewis alternated between reading new books and books he’d read previously. I decided to adopt his idea (for now anyway), and I began my rereading with Joseph Heller’s wonderful novel Catch-22, which I first read just after high school.

Catch22_coverMy memories of the book were vague. I remember thinking it was hilarious, especially at the beginning, but it became more tragic as it moved along. Upon rereading it, I found my memory to be both right and wrong. The absurdities that make the first half of the novel so humorous remain consistent throughout, but they take on a sinister nature as the book progresses. Things which seem harmless and are comical at first become dangerous in unforeseen ways. Heller shows the reader the intrinsic contradictions of life, which are sometimes laughable and sometimes horrifying, and the difference between the two isn’t as great as we like to think.

Catch-22 is a renowned anti-war novel. It tells the tale of Captain Yossarian, a bomber in World War II, who is terrified of dying and wants to get out of the war immediately. The problem is that Colonel Cathcart continuously raises the number of required flight missions, so Yossarian et al. are stuck. Heller is brilliant at exposing the ridiculous aspects of military life—the red tape (Yossarian has a dead man in his tent who “doesn’t exist” because he died before he could report for duty), the rivalries between superior officers (Cathcart, Col. Korn, Generals Dreedle and Peckem), and the opportunities for exploitation during war (Milo’s syndicate, in which everyone has a share) to name but a few. Heller also highlights the irrational nature of how we think of war, such as in this section of dialog between Nately and an old Italian:

‘There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.

‘Anything worth living for,’ said Nately, ‘ is worth dying for.’

‘And anything worth dying for,’ answered the sacrilegious old man, ‘is certainly worth living for.’ (257)

It is fascinating how Nately’s cliche, used so often to defend war, is so easily turned on its head. One cannot really say either is more correct. It is this sort of thinking that Heller wants the reader to develop. I am glad, however, that the anti-war element in the novel does not take it over entirely. While I despise war (as every rational human should), I know that it will always exist (sorry, John Lennon) and in some cases must be waged.

The humor in the book is its crown jewel. Catch-22 is rarely as enjoyable as when the author is creating and exploring strange, illogical circumstances. I could give dozens of examples. Major Major refuses to let anyone see him unless he is not in is office:

‘What shall I say to the people who do come to see you while you’re here?’

‘Tell them I’m in and ask them to wait.’

‘Yes, sir. For how long.’

‘Until I’ve left.’ …

‘May I send them in to see you after you’ve left?’

‘Yes.’

‘But you won’t be here then, will you?’ (109)

Yossarian postpones the bombing mission to Bologna and fools his superior officers by moving the troop advancement line on a map past the target. The Chaplain is interrogated and convicted for a committing a crime about which he has no idea: “[W]hy would we be questioning you if you weren’t guilty?” (395). Col. Cathcart sends out sympathy letters to the families of his squadron: “Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported mission in action” (355). And there are endless throwaway lines, which may be my favorite aspect of the novel:

‘One hand washes the other. Know what I mean? You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’

Yossarian knew what he meant.

‘That’s not what I meant,’ Doc Daneeka said as Yossarian began scratching his back. (43)

The emotional power of the book develops slowly as the quirky characters begin to die, sometimes horrifically. There are several scenes that feature questioning of life and God. The “Eternal City” chapter features a despairing Yossarian wandering the streets of Rome and witnessing atrocity after atrocity: “The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome sight a leper must have been!” (425). The ability of Heller to balance the humorous with such poignancy demonstrates his efficacy as a writer.

The novel has its faults. The absurd humor and circular dialog that is so funny eventually wears on the reader, like hearing the same joke too often. The structure of the novel is somewhat choppy, as is typical of postmodern novels. Heller titles each of his chapters after a different character, and the book jumps all over in time and plot. I never felt lost, but the novel is unable to build up emotional momentum. The reader moves through the novel in a series of circles—almost like a plane circling over a landing strip. A lot is said, but not much happens. When big events do transpire, however, Heller drops them in casually and without warning, which I appreciate because sudden disasters are a horrible, inextricable part of war. The structural problems are overcome in part via several throughlines that Heller works into the story (Snowden’s death is especially well done), but it could have been better arranged.

All told, Catch-22 is a worthwhile and often funny read. It definitely deserves its spot in the Twentieth Century canon. I’m glad I reread it; I feel like it gave me a more complete and accurate understanding of the book, and there are several passages I was blessed to re-encounter, whether it was to laugh or contemplate. 4.5/5 stars.

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