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.”