Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

★★★★☆ (4/5)

Without being aware of it, I was part of a near-movement in fiction. While I was writing Catch-22, J. P. Donleavy was writing The Ginger Man, Jack Kerouac was writing On the Road, Ken Kesey was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Thomas Pynchon was writing V., and Kurt Vonnegut was writing Cat’s Cradle. I don’t think any one of us even knew any of the others. Certainly I didn’t know them. Whatever forces were at work shaping a trend in art were affecting not just me, but all of us.

Joseph Heller

Subversive, mental, devastatingly hilarious, mind-numbingly tragic!

Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” is one hell of a ride. It’s a profound blackout of all senses, it’s debilitating and reassuring at the same time. It mocks and befriends the gentle reader’s sensibilities. It stretches and erases the past, the present, the future. Time is a construct much like fate for its myriad of characters. It’s resentful of blind hierarchy, ridicules overt patriotism but is benevolent towards the human condition, towards the forces that drive men to war in droves, towards inherent innocence and righteous passions.

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.

“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.

“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.

“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”

“And what difference does that make?”

Tensions are palpable, always. Between subordinates and their superiors, between men and institutions crafted by abstract notions of loyalty and sacrifice within the context of a war which has no end in sight. The war itself is relentless, looming, calculating and devouring one life after another. Yet there are unknown threats, perils with no name, mercilessly pulverizing the grand human spirit.

These invisible threats lead to struggles within oneself, as best embodied by Yossarian (a bombardier), who throughout the novel seeks to escape the ever-increasing missions delegated to him. He is perhaps not the main character but a focal one around whom the entire ensemble stands and acts.

The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.

Context of the entire novel is at times elusive or even utterly impenetrable. Any given event, which drives the plot forward, just touches the boundary of reason only to evade the reader and leave them in a cloud of suspicion and self-doubt. What just happened? Did it really happen? It surely couldn’t have. It couldn’t be. One such instance is of the tragedy that befalls Kid Sampson. Ripe with uncertainty, sprinkled with acerbic humor and an underlying dark tone, that one freak accident electrifies and stuns the reader to the bones.

This book should be a mandatory read in all government and private institutions and trainings of military or bureaucratic nature. But this once again is a utopian thought for the novel rebels against the very human condition which makes such institutions so viable and crucial a part of society. I might have to revisit this brilliant novel in my book club.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Instances of Catch-22s

    • There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.
    • Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was 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.
    • Men went mad and were rewarded with medals.
    • “Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
    • There were generally fewer people inside the hospital who were seriously sick. There was a much lower death rate inside the hospital than outside the hospital, and a much healthier death rate. Few people died unnecessarily.
    • “You put so much stock in winning wars,” the grubby iniquitous old man scoffed. “The real trick lies in losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost. Italy has been losing wars for centuries, and just see how splendidly we’ve done nonetheless. France wins wars and is in a continual state of crisis. Germany loses and prospers. Look at our own recent history. Italy won a war in Ethiopia and promptly stumbled into serious trouble. Victory gave us such insane delusions of grandeur that we helped start a world war we hadn’t a chance of winning. But now that we are losing again, everything has taken a turn for the better, and we will certainly come out on top again if we succeed in being defeated.”

“Be thankful you’re healthy.”

“Be bitter you’re not going to stay that way.”

“Be glad you’re even alive.”

“Be furious you’re going to die.”

“Things could be much worse,” she cried.

“They could be one hell of a lot better,” he answered heatedly.

  • Everyone was always very friendly toward him, and no one was ever very nice; everyone spoke to him, and no one ever said anything.
  • With a devotion to purpose above and beyond the line of duty, he had then raised the price of food in his mess halls so high that all officers and enlisted men had to turn over all their pay to him in order to eat. Their alternative—there was an alternative, of course, since Milo detested coercion and was a vocal champion of freedom of choice—was to starve.
  • Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.
  • “Danby, must I really let them send me home?” Yossarian inquired of him seriously. Major Danby shrugged. “It’s a way to save yourself.” “It’s a way to lose myself, Danby. You ought to know that.”

On Hierarchy’s Weakness

  • Under Colonel Korn’s rule, the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did.
  • Lieutenant Scheisskopf was an R.O.T.C. graduate who was rather glad that war had broken out, since it gave him an opportunity to wear an officer’s uniform every day and say “Men” in a clipped, military voice to the bunches of kids who fell into his clutches every eight weeks on their way to the butcher’s block.
  • “Nobody is infallible,” Colonel Cathcart said sharply, and then continued vaguely, with an afterthought: “Nobody is indispensable, either.”
  • Colonel Cathcart was drawn hypnotically toward the window with a massive, dull stare of moody introspection.
  • He believed that the young men who took orders from him should be willing to give up their lives for the ideals, aspirations and idiosyncrasies of the old men he took orders from.
  • A virgin audience like Colonel Scheisskopf was grist for General Peckem’s mill, a stimulating opportunity to throw open his whole dazzling erudite treasure house of puns, wisecracks, slanders, homilies, anecdotes, proverbs, epigrams, apothegms, bon mots and other pungent sayings.
  • “My only fault,” he observed with practiced good humor, watching for the effect of his words, “is that I have no faults.” Colonel Scheisskopf didn’t laugh, and General Peckem was stunned. A heavy doubt crushed his enthusiasm. He had just opened with one of his most trusted paradoxes, and he was positively alarmed that not the slightest flicker of acknowledgment had moved across that impervious face,
  • He mentioned often that if the people who worked for him met him halfway, he would meet them more than halfway, with the result, as he always added with an astute chuckle, that there was never any meeting of the minds at all.
  • General Peckem thought of himself as aesthetic and intellectual. When people disagreed with him, he urged them to be objective.
  • While none of the work we do is very important, it is important that we do a great deal of it.
  • “Yossarian, they can prepare as many official reports as they want and choose whichever ones they need on any given occasion. Didn’t you know that?”

On Institutional Cowardice

    • If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them.
    • He was a very bad marketing executive. Colonel Cargill was so awful a marketing executive that his services were much sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes.
    • “It’s a terrible thing when even the word of a licensed physician is suspected by the country he loves.”
    • His fee for attacking the bridge for America was the total cost of the operation plus six percent, and his fee from Germany for defending the bridge was the same cost-plus-six agreement augmented by a merit bonus of a thousand dollars for every American plane he shot down. The consummation of these deals represented an important victory for private enterprise, he pointed out, since the armies of both countries were socialized institutions.
    • Who would shield him against animosity and deceit, against people with ambition and the embittered snobbery of the big shot’s wife, against the squalid, corrupting indignities of the profit motive and the friendly neighborhood butcher with inferior meat? Orr was a happy and unsuspecting simpleton with a thick mass of wavy polychromatic hair parted down the center. He would be mere child’s play for them.

“If you run into trouble, just tell everybody that the security of the country requires a strong domestic Egyptian-cotton speculating industry.”

“It does,” Milo informed him solemnly.

“A strong Egyptian-cotton speculating industry means a much stronger America.”

“Of course it does. And if that doesn’t work, point out the great number of American families that depend on it for income.”

“A great many American families do depend on it for income.”

“You see?” said Yossarian. “You’re much better at it than I am. You almost make it sound true.”

“It is true,” Milo exclaimed with a strong trace of the old hauteur.

“That’s what I mean. You do it with just the right amount of conviction.”

  • “Let them send me home because I flew more than fifty missions,” Yossarian said, “and not because I was stabbed by that girl, or because I’ve turned into such a stubborn son of a bitch.”

Anti-war Sentiments

  • “The enemy,” retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, “is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.”
  • That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war. Just about all he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.
  • These three men who hated him spoke his language and wore his uniform, but he saw their loveless faces set immutably into cramped, mean lines of hostility and understood instantly that nowhere in the world, not in all the fascist tanks or planes or submarines, not in the bunkers behind the machine guns or mortars or behind the blowing flame throwers, not even among all the expert gunners of the crack Hermann Goering Antiaircraft Division or among the grisly connivers in all the beer halls in Munich and everywhere else, were there men who hated him more.
  • This time she wept with no other emotion than grief, profound, debilitating, humble grief, forgetting all about him. Her desolation was pathetic as she sat with her tempestuous, proud, lovely head bowed, her shoulders sagging, her spirit melting. This time there was no mistaking her anguish.
  • “The men were perfectly content to fly as many missions as we asked as long as they thought they had no alternative. Now you’ve given them hope, and they’re unhappy. So the blame is all yours.”

Hilarity

  • He was working hard at increasing his life span. He did it by cultivating boredom. Dunbar was working so hard at increasing his life span that Yossarian thought he was dead.
  • Doc Daneeka had been told that people who enjoyed climbing into an airplane were really giving vent to a subconscious desire to climb back into the womb.
  • Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.
  • It had taken God only six days to produce the whole world, whereas his wife had spent a full day and a half in labor just to produce Major Major.
  • One day ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen struck open a water pipe while digging in one of his holes and almost drowned to death before he was fished out nearly unconscious. Word spread that it was oil, and Chief White Halfoat was kicked off the base.
  • He had lived for almost twenty years without trauma, tension, hate, or neurosis, which was proof to Yossarian of just how crazy he really was.
  • Corporal Whitcomb feels that you fellows haven’t had a fresh idea in nineteen hundred and forty-four years, and I’m inclined to agree with him.
  • A bomb pattern is a term I dreamed up just several weeks ago. It means nothing, but you’d be surprised at how rapidly it’s caught on. Why, I’ve got all sorts of people convinced I think it’s important for the bombs to explode close together and make a neat aerial photograph. There’s one colonel in Pianosa who’s hardly concerned any more with whether he hits the target or not.

Character Descriptions

  • It was a desolate, cratered face, sooty with care like an abandoned mining town.
  • Her allure stemmed from her accessibility; like Mt. Everest, she was there.
  • The girl screeched in feminine outrage and waddled comically after the scheming ten-year-old pimp, her grisly, bleak, violated scalp slithering up and down ludicrously around the queer darkened wart of her face like something bleached and obscene.
  • Deep otter-brown lines of preoccupation etched themselves permanently into his careworn face and gave him a harried look of sobriety and mistrust.
  • Hungry Joe likes lingering diseases, but he likes the fulminating ones even more.
  • Yossarian screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over his eyes. His teeth were chattering in horror. He forced himself to look again. Here was God’s plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared—liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch.

Gems to Contemplate

  • Then, Yossarian, it finally happened—the beginning of the end. They began to follow us around from in front. They would try to guess where we were going to stop next and would begin drilling before we even got there, so we couldn’t even stop. As soon as we’d begin to unroll our blankets, they would kick us off. They had confidence in us. They wouldn’t even wait to strike oil before they kicked us off.
  • He knew, for example, that it was called paramnesia, and he was interested as well in such corollary optical phenomena as jamais vu, never seen, and presque vu, almost seen. There were terrifying, sudden moments when objects, concepts and even people that the chaplain had lived with almost all his life inexplicably took on an unfamiliar and irregular aspect that he had never seen before and which made them seem totally strange: jamais vu. And there were other moments when he almost saw absolute truth in brilliant flashes of clarity that almost came to him: presque vu.
  • “Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years or so.”
  • Just pass the work I assign you along to somebody else and trust to luck. We call that delegation of responsibility. Somewhere down near the lowest level of this coordinated organization I run are people who do get the work done when it reaches them, and everything manages to run along smoothly without too much effort on my part.
  • Almost on cue, a nursing mother padded past holding an infant in black rags, and Yossarian wanted to smash her too, because she reminded him of the barefoot boy in the thin shirt and thin, tattered trousers 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?

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • One fist clenching the red-handled rip cord, one fist gripping the emergency hatch release that would spill him earthward into air at the first dreadful squeal of destruction. That was where he wanted to be if he had to be there at all, instead of hung out there in front like some goddam cantilevered goldfish in some goddam cantilevered goldfish bowl while the goddam foul black tiers of flak were bursting and booming and billowing all around and above and below him in a climbing, cracking, staggered, banging, phantasmagorical, cosmological wickedness that jarred and tossed and shivered, clattered and pierced, and threatened to annihilate them all in one splinter of a second in one vast flash of fire.
  • They were lovely, satisfying, maddening manifestations of the miraculous, instruments of pleasure too powerful to be measured, too keen to be endured, and too exquisite to be intended for employment by base, unworthy man.
  • Yossarian was alone in a ponderous, primeval lull in which everything green looked black and everything else was imbued with the color of pus. The breeze rustled leaves in a dry and diaphanous distance. He was restless, scared and sleepy. The sockets of his eyes felt grimy with exhaustion.
  • Then Yossarian had McWatt climb and keep climbing higher and higher until they tore free finally into a calm, diamond-blue sky that was sunny and pure everywhere and laced in the distance with long white veils of tenuous fluff.
  • They were the most depressing group of people Yossarian had ever been with. They were always in high spirits. They laughed at everything.
  • The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice.
  • At the field a heavy silence prevailed, overpowering motion like a ruthless, insensate spell holding in thrall the only beings who might break it. The chaplain was in awe. He had never beheld such a great, appalling stillness before.
  • It was dark in the hospital and perfectly quiet. He had no watch to tell him the time. He was wideawake, and he knew he was a prisoner in one of those sleepless, bedridden nights that would take an eternity to dissolve into dawn.

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