Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Catch 22 is a truly great novel, but it’s difficult to digest. I listened to the unabridged audio book narrated by Jay O. Sanders and I’m very glad I did. The book is arranged into 42 chapters each named after a character in the novel. These chapters contain many anecdotes about the characters and their lives in a bomber squadron on the island of Pianosa, off the coast of Italy, towards the end of the Second World War. The book is not arranged in chronological order and many of its anecdotes and sub-plots are impossible to place on a linear timeline. There are a few key events and plot markers that help position everything but it gets pretty complex trying keep track of all the events and characters. The Audio book really helped in this respect. There is a lot of dialog in the book and the narration by Jay O. Sanders was excellent. His use of accent really helped distinguish between the characters and keep everything in its place.

Catch 22 is a satire of the first order it ruthlessly skewers bureaucracies everywhere through the use irony and paradox. Although set in the Second World War none of the characters really care about the wars progress. The higher officers care only about their own promotion and the men care only about their own survival. Catch 22’s “hero”, Yossarian, is “an intelligent person of great moral character who has taken a very courageous moral stand” – He believes the war is madness, he is surrounded, on both sides, by madmen who want to kill him and he wants no part of it. Yossarian’s struggle to wrest control of his own destiny from the machine is the central theme of the book.

Several satirical anecdotes from the book are so perfectly aimed that they are instantly iconic. The books title – Catch 22 – has obviously entered the language as the name for a bureaucratic paradox. Many other equally memorable themes are presented: I will be unable to look at an official form again without feeling the urge to sign it Washington Irving. Doc Daneeka’s “death” at the hands of paperwork has been relived countless times to lesser degrees wherever bureaucracies flourish. Mudd the dead man in Yossarian’s tent who cannot be removed because he died before he had officially arrived. The book is full of such delicious ironies.

While deeply funny catch 22 also contains many superbly observed descriptions of high emotion. Chapter 15 “Piltchard & Wren” Has an astonishing account of a bombing run over Bologna. Given that Heller was himself a bombardier in the Second World War this description has the ring of truth. Another deeply disturbing description is that of Snowden’s death which is alluded to early on and gradually expanded until it is fully disclosed right at the end.

Catch 22 seems to me both a great American novel and a deeply un-American treatise. Heller’s description of Milo Minderbinder’s seduction by laissez-faire capitalism and his inevitable decent into profiteering at the expenses of his own comrades is a damning indictment of the capitalism. When Milo bombs his own airfield in a deal with the Germans. Heller reaches his darkly satirical climax and makes his deepest cut into the American dream.

All in all this book makes it onto my top ten list, somewhere around the middle.

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