Banned Book Club: Catch-22

Title: Catch-22

Published: 1955

Author: Joseph Heller (1923-1999)

Challenge status: #15 on  Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and target of banning attempts according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #3 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Language, References to women as “whores”. I’m guessing the sex, violence, and portrayal of religious leaders didn’t help either, but don’t see specific references to them.

First line: “It was love at first sight.”

Synopsis: Well. This book is hilarious, engaging, there’s a good storyline, and it’s very well written. Heller’s style of prose is delivered with the clever cadences and the comedic timing of steven wright (if steven wright did slapstick and deadpan at the same time). Technically this is satire. But what is actually saddest about the book is that, as we are wound tighter and tighter into the grip of the story, it stops feeling like satire and starts feeling like reality. Just a reality we wish we could lock into a box and make it disappear. The insanity in the beginning of the book is quite reasonable compared to what passes for sane, everyday behavior by the end of the book.

Yossarian, our main character, is a bombardier who wants out of combat missions. As he pursues his goal (35 completed missions), the goal posts keep getting moved ever further out (40 missions, no 45, no 50….) and the war keeps stretching on with no end in sight. Around him people crack, die, disappear or flourish based on how their nature dictates within the context of this camp outside Italy. No virtue goes unpunished and every vice ends up hyper-extending and warping each character into a cartoon. From Major Major’s desperation to be accepted “he had a shy and hopeful manner in each new contact, and he was always disappointed. Because he needed a friend so desperately, he never found one,”  to Colonel Cathcart’s desperate ambition “he could measure his own progress only in relationships to others,” and Milo’s Kafka-esque cross-country capitalist chess games (eggs, tomatoes, lobster, egyptian cotton, airplanes, combat mission details…) “They all belong to the syndicate…and they know that’s what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country…Everybody has a share.

Yossarian wants out, and here’s where the concept of Catch-22 comes in (first in conversation with Doc Daneeka): anyone who’s crazy enough to keep flying combat missions must be crazy, and thus can be grounded — all they have to do is ask! But the catch (Catch-22) is, that anyone who asks, i.e. wants to get out of combat duty, can’t actually be crazy. And thus can’t be grounded.

Interestingly, the term Catch-22 is actually a reference to the book; the term didn’t exist before the book was published. Originally the book was going to be called Catch-18 and went through a few variants before the author and editors just decided Catch-22 sounded the funniest.

Very good book, though the last few chapters started stressing me out – a kind of sympathetic reaction. I’ve been in a number of discussions lately about professional burnout (seems to be an epidemic in the tech/infosec industry) and so reading this story about a set of folks so stuck on a hamster wheel as their psychological states deteriorated at an accelerated rate was kind of startling: Stress. Pain. Anxiety…”Everybody has a share.”

2 thoughts on “Banned Book Club: Catch-22

  1. Ally –

    Catch-22 is one of my favorite books, not least due to the cadence and timing you mentioned. I also find the expert use of almost-mid-sentence time-jumps to create what still feels like a linear plot to be powerful (as they add to the general sense of unease that eventually permeates the book).

    Particularly, though, I wanted to comment on the humor aspects. I’ve read the book a few times now over the years and I’ve found that each time through I feel less of the humor and more of the stress. Without having researched Heller’s intent, I’ve come to believe the entire book is less of a satirical and more of an actual direct commentary about the nature of war (and, to some extent, modern civilization).

    Catch-22′s spiritual sibling seems to me to be Kafka’s The Trial. There’s the same sense of grinding inevitability. Heller, however, brings humor in and uses it in an interesting way: It’s not arbitrary satire for satire’s sake, but rather a common reference/entry point used as an oppositional leverage point into a different perspective.

    The closest thing I can analogy I can think of off the top of my head is System of a Down’s BYOB:

    “Everybody’s going to the party have a real good time.
Dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine.”

    System of a Down aren’t *really* saying that war is a party…instead, that perspective is the driver for the opposition (the rest of the song). This is obvious in their case, but Catch-22 does the same thing.

    We all speak lightly of war, but without being there it’s easy to forget what’s actually going on. In the book, Snowden has a “secret”: the mortal wound he sustained that no one saw. I believe this is central to the overall theme and, if expanded, is the frame within which the book operates.

    Humor is an interesting thing in that it often revolves around life’s absurdities but the transition from fun to horror is a fine line.

    I think Catch-22 reminds us to never forget Snowden’s secret: War’s absurdities are appalling and their sponsoring bureaucracies are insane, senseless, machines pushing everything in their path toward inventible death.

    • Snowden had a secret, eh? Well that’s kind of an ironic irony. I guess some Snowdens are better at keeping secrets than others. 🙂

      I think you’re quite wise about Snowden’s secret, though. It is especially interesting how many of the other characters are also internally wounded, and *trying* to show that they are bleeding, and, like with Snowden, there’s morphine (protection from the pain). In fact the morphine has been stolen by a privateer – what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country; and the IOU is about as comforting as “knowing” that only 5 more missions are needed before Yossarian can go home. The IOU is either a lie or guaranteed to pay out too late.

      The stress you mention overpowered the humor for me, I think most satire has a type of humor I’d describe as “taut” in the sense that the funniness is stretched too tight over something darker for me to really relax and laugh. We’re definitely on the same page about there being a thin line between humor and horror. At the end of the book the stress escalated to hysteria, which isn’t funny anymore at all.

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