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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Catch-22 - Joseph Heller The first 80 percent of the book was a trial to read with its unrealistic exaggeration of military and commercial business power over those who are powerless. The telling of short vignettes in random order seemed to be headed in no particular direction; sort of like the conversational sharing of old war stories among disillusioned war veterans. Much of it sounded like a Abbott and Costello doing a "who's on first" routine. The absurdity in the face of the horrors of war reminded me of M.A.S.H. except the one-liners in Catch-22 aren't funny, just ironic and absurd.

But then, late in the book, its narrative began to build toward two simultaneous climaxes that had a clearer emotion grabbing message. The two climaxes are (1) Yossarian, the main character, is offered a deal that calls for him to sell out his friends and join "the system," and (2) the flashbacks that have been occurring throughout the book become more explicit and its horrors are told in a graphic manner that takes the reader's breath away. The combination of emotion and question of moral integrity reveals the book to be about more than a war story. The craziness of the events of Catch 22 reflect the arbitrary and inescapable exercise of power that can and will operate by its own rules. It shows how cheaply human life is valued in a world of mechanized destruction and the business of making money, all in the control of an elite power structure. A metaphor of modern life, the story is filled with paranoia, interrogation, and unexplained instructions (i.e. folded, bent and mutilated by the system of corporate and state power).

The following quotation is taken from page 379-380 which is where I believe the message in the book begins to become more focused:
"…and of all the shivering, stupefying misery in a world that never yet had provided enough heat and food and justice for all but an ingenious and unscrupulous handful. What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, How many people would go insane? How many cockroaches and landlords would triumph? How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust had sold their souls to blackguards for petty cash, how many had never had souls? How many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people?

Three years after Catch 22 was published Heller said that the novel was really about what he called “The contemporary regimented business society depicted against the background of universal sorrow and inevitable death that is our lot.” This would have probably come as news to many of the young men of draft eligible age during the Vietnam War who were largely responsible for making this book a best seller. Many of those reading the book in the late 1960s and early 70s did not want to fight in Vietnam and were happy to read a book that reinforced the logic of not wanting to fight in a war.

Does the book deserve to be included among the best novels of the 20th century? Many people think so. But I also know many good readers who say they stopped reading after only a couple pages. They couldn't tolerate the use of hollow silliness to deal with the subject of war. If the style of narrative is so hard for many readers to stomach, can it be good literature? Or is that what makes it good literature? One analogy that comes to mind is that of modern abstract art that makes no attempt to realistic, but rather communicates emotion by less direct means that may appear to be mixed-up lines and colors. Perhaps that is what this book is doing. There's a thin line between genius and insane.

The following is taken from PageADay's Booklover's Calendar for November 10, 2011.
Catch-22 was written about World War II, but to students in the ’60s it was about the Vietnam War. How does Heller’s brilliant, bloody satire of the “logic” of war hold up in the 21st century for the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War? Today is the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication. We invite you to spend some time with Yossarian, Milo Minderbinder, Colonel Cathcart, and, of course, Snowden and his secret. The Modern Library ranked Catch-22 number seven in its list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century.
CATCH-22, by Joseph Heller (1961; Simon & Schuster, 1996)