I wish I could tell you why I’ve been holding off on recognizing this month’s Story of the Month, but I have no good reason. I suppose I was simply intimidated, both by the novel’s sheer genius and how I could possibly give you an adequate taste of the book, enough to tempt you to find a copy and have yourself a good read. But it was the idea of neglecting this book, of not promoting, that finally pushed me to stop making excuses and simply to choose it. So, without further ado, allow me to present That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for May 2010: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
I read this book the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. It was on the required list for my AP (Advanced Placement) English course. And, to be honest, if it hadn’t been I might never have picked it up. It is a novel that takes place during World War II, not one of my preferred subjects to read about. But the novel is told and built up in such an interesting way that suddenly the subject matter became more accessible to me. Plus, the cast of characters is nothing short of entertaining.
Catch-22 focuses in on the 256th squadron of the Army Air Corps where they are stationed in Italy during WWII. It predominantly follows a young bombardier named Yossarian, but it touches on the rest of the men in the squadron, as well as a host of other characters located in and around their base.
The most difficult aspect of this novel is simply that there are so many characters with quirky names, from the protagonist Yossarian to Appleby to Major Major Major Major (yes, that’s his official name), that it is often difficult to keep track of what is happening to which character. So I suggest using a reference, such as Cliff’s Notes or Spark Notes or Wikipedia, with a character list and a breakdown of each character, in order to keep them all straight. If you can do that, then you can enjoy this book!
But now that I have all the disclaimers out there, let me tell you what a truly genius piece of literature this is. Catch-22 is all about the “lunacy of war” and the actual catch-22’s that go with it. For example, there is the issue of trying to get a Section 8–a discharge from the military on the basis that the person is, for lack of a better term, insane. Heller writes that if a person is wants to get out of the military (which is a sane thing to do), then he is too sane to warrant a Section 8. However, if a person tries to act (or actually is) crazy enough to want to stay or even to extend his service, then he could receive a Section 8, but he wouldn’t be sane enough to take it. So, really, Heller is saying that there’s no way out. There are countless other catch-22’s in the story, including trying to make an appointment to see one of the military officers and the number of flight time to log in order to get discharged, but the most pervasive and memorable example is that regarding the sanity of the men in the squadron. As you read through the novel, you start to wonder if Heller is right after all: Is war truly this insane? And is there any way out of it?
Perhaps one of the reasons I liked this book so much was because it reminded me of a television show I grew up watching with my dad: M*A*S*H. Yossarian reminds me a lot of Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce. And most of the other Catch-22 characters can be loosely compared to those from M*A*S*H. Of course, the TV show is a much more comical look at the “lunacy of war,” but it is also about the camaraderie of the men and women in uniform. Catch-22 is also comical, but it is much more in the realm of dark humor and satire than the TV show could allow. The novel truly gets as dark as war can be, or at least as dark as civilians could suppose it to be. It shows us the side of war we know exists but, since it isn’t easy or pleasant, we tend to overlook it or wish to overlook it. But that is no reason to overlook Catch-22.
Although many times I felt like the book was over my head, I was certainly impressed to read an undoubtedly intellectual and mentally-stimulating book for a change. So give it a chance. Give it a read. Just know going into it that it is a complex novel–both in the sheer volume of characters as well as sensitive subject matter it covers. It is probably more complex than anything you’ve read in a while. So perhaps that is precisely the reason it is time for you to stop making excuses and to simply choose to read it.