What’s the Catch?

by Chet

Since my last book related update I’ve been reading. I recently read on someone’s Facebook status that we should all strive to read two books per month. I immediately thought to myself, “That’s my norm.” However through November I read more than two, and I didn’t spend any less time with a book than normal. I haven’t learned to read any more quickly. I just, apparently, have no idea what my norm is when I’m not reading books from Westeros.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Everyone that has a basic high school education is aware of this book’s existence. Furthermore, anyone who has been alive since Heller released it is familiar with what a Catch-22 is, whether or not they know what the Catch-22 is.

I met this book in high school. I started reading it, and returned it a few days later thinking it wasn’t very good. I was surprised since Mrs. Oakes had never never led me astray before. Now that I’m slightly older and perhaps wiser, I found that there was a lot to be enjoyed about this title. I have to thank my dear friend Ashton for this rediscovery. She had been attempting to read Catch-22 and was not enjoying it. One day while we were chatting on the phone she threw down the gauntlets and announced, “I’ll read it, if you read.” I know, it’s a very adult thing to have happened. Thus began my journey to Pianosa.

Whenever I pick up a book I always investigate the covers. Admire the artwork (Has any other novel’s artwork gone as unchanged as Catch-22’s?), and read the reviews on the back. The first line to be found on this edition follows a particularly optimistic train of thought: “One of the funniest books you will ever read…” I smiled and took that in stride.

In the beginning this truly is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. The reader is introduced to a lovely cast of characters on the Mediterranean Island of Pianosa. They are all members of the United States Army. It is the midst of World War II. Their lives are full of shenanigans. Especially the life of Yossarian. He is the protagonist of this novel. Many of the events in the books will connect back to him some how, and he’s responsible, directly or indirectly, for many of the events. He’s paranoid that everyone is trying to kill him, and has decided to live as long as possible or die trying.

As the book progresses the shenanigans become less and less lighthearted and more heartbreaking. Heller has designed the story to introduce the reader to the inconvenient, yet laughable, aspects of the military’s established set of rules that governs its officers and enlisted men. It is in the phase we learn the first catch.

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. 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. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. (p. 46, ch. 5)

Eventually the reader is forced to see a much darker aspect of the military and life in World War II. The incidents that occur are no longer happy-go-lucky, but are full of death and demise. Many people we’ve been introduced to and learned to care about die or mysteriously disappear. The worse offender commit heinous crimes, but see nothing wrong with them. A particularly difficult to read part of the book teaches us the horror like side of Catch-22.

Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating.

or

Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.

Naturally this is where the laughter is harder to come by. The reader is forced to see all of the ugliness in the world, and that there are real people who have to deal with it everyday.

My reading partner disliked portions of this book because they can be read as largely anti-woman. There are whores, there are misogynistic jokes, there are times when the women truly are treated like objects whose sole purpose for existence is to be groped and fooled around with. I felt like as much as I don’t respect these actions, they are true to the time. However I also feel it’s worth mentioning.

As I think about the book more I believe it’s possible to draw that aspects of this book are where the creators of M.A.S.H. found their basis. Both are funny on the surface, and no one seems to remember either of them for a particular poignancy regarding absurd bureaucratic endeavors in the military. Just sayin’

I don’t believe I’ll pick this book up again. At least not for a little while. I’ve learned why it’s respected as one of the best books of the 20th Century, but I’ve also learned why Catch-22 is the only book by Heller anyone ever cares about. Read it, it’s worth knowing the story and learning the lessons.