So, I’ve been working my way through the BBC’s Book List challenge and there’s several books I’ve been putting off reading. War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Ulysses etc. I think you can probably guess why I’m putting off reading them! But I’d also been putting off Catch 22. Not for the same reasons though, I wanted to save it so I’d still have a fun book to read amongst all those weighty classics. In the end I gave in, I wanted to see what I’ve been missing out on all this time.
And I had been missing out! Daft, silly, witty, clever and wonderful, this is the story of Captain Yossarian, a US bombardier during WW2. The thread of the story really doesn’t matter here, the point of the book is the madness of war, and specifically the absurdity of those in charge. The story itself is non linear, events happen out of sequence throughout but it doesn’t matter. It’s only as confusing as the various military rules, or catches quoted throughout the book.
As Yossarian doesn’t want to fly any more dangerous missions he decides to fake insanity, as an insane pilot will never be allowed to fly. Upon learning of his insanity, his superiors decree if he was really mad he would want to fly as only an insane man would willingly fight. In order to prove his condition, Yossarian claims he does want to fly. His superiors decide to grant his wish and sign him up for several more missions. This is Catch 22 – a no win situation.
Throughout the book Catch 22 is quoted in various situations leading Yossarian to realise it doesn’t really exist. It’s there purely to back up any superior officers decisions. It’s power lies in the fact that people believe it’s real so it really doesn’t matter whether it exists or not. It is also unnecessary to prove it existence as Catch 22 specifically states that “agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating.”
This is the sort of book that you can read a bit of, put down for a while and then pick it up again at a later date. As the story is secondary to the madness it doesn’t matter whether you follow the thread throughout. Yossarian is the voice of reason, yet he’s living in an illogical world. Mirroring this is the style of the prose. Often events are repeated later in the book, from another perspective, allowing us insights into events and jokes whose punchlines were several chapters earlier. This circular style is reflective of Catch 22, there is no escape.
I know that my descriptions may make this book sound confusing, but it’s not really. The subject matter and the insanity of the situation make the writing style essential. It’s very cleverly structured and genuinely laugh out loud funny throughout. There’s very few books I’d say that about but there’s very few books that have had such an impact as this. It’s definitely one of my top reads of recent years and one I’ll no doubt read again.
“You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you’re at war and might get your head blown off any second.”
“I more than resent it, sir. I’m absolutely incensed.”
“You have deep-seated survival anxieties. And you don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs, or hypocrites. Subconsciously there are many people you hate.”
“Consciously, sir, consciously,” Yossarian corrected in an effort to help. “I hate them consciously.”
“You’re antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, degraded, humiliated, or deceived. Misery depresses you. Ignorance depresses you. Persecution depresses you. Violence depresses you. Corruption depresses you. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’re a manic-depressive!”
“Yes, sir. Perhaps I am.”
“Don’t try to deny it.”
“I’m not denying it, sir,” said Yossarian, pleased with the miraculous rapport that finally existed between them. “I agree with all you’ve said.”
If you like war satire you might like Slaughterhouse-Five
If you like the characters’ idiosyncrasies you might like The War Of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts
If you like books with an unusual structure you might like Cloud Atlas