This week at work, I was looking over a reporter’s story, about the recent death of the inventor of the MetroCard, and stumbled across this: “15 cents of every fare dollar collected goes to collecting that fare.” Huh? I asked him to change the line, for the sake of all that isn’t meta about business reporting, but it stuck with me, as this is how pretty much all of Catch-22 is written.
Keeping that in mind, you can imagine the nerves I’ve had this week over finishing what is only the third book in my endeavor–so I’ll take my pats on the back now for having done it. The truth is, Catch-22 was the perfect type of book for this project—entertaining and compelling but without being a page-turner, the kind of title that in another time (i.e a month ago) would have languished on my shelf after the first 100 pages, just because.
There’s a lot to say about this book, which it seems most people I talked to have either never read or can’t remember because they haven’t picked it up since high school. I’m pleased to report that, for me at least, Catch-22 lived up to the hype that comes with picking a modern classic. I can see why the book has its reputation, which isn’t something I can say for every equally reputable thing I’ve ever read.
So, I would take this time to pause and outline the plot, except…there really isn’t one. Catch-22 primarily follows Yossarian, a World War II bombardier stationed off of Italy, as well as a dozen other reappearing characters. There’s the colonel who keeps increasing the number of missions his squadron needs to complete to be discharged, so as to impress the higher-ups and potentially earn a mention in The Saturday Evening Post. There’s the mess hall operator who starts what’s essentially an international cartel of fine foods and military equipment, whose business acumen goes so far afoul of his patriotic duty that he is at one point paid to bomb his own men. There’s the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, killed during a mission before he even reported for duty (a sitcom-level fluke) and subsequently reported by officers to have never reported for duty at all, lest they take the blame for his demise. And so on — the cast is utterly absurd, and the way the book is written highlights that absurdity perfectly. Sort of like an endless loop of that “Who’s on first, What’s on Second” baseball skit.
Indeed, what you come away with after Catch-22 is the sheer absurdity of war itself, which is I imagine what made it so subversive in 1955. The details with which history concerns itself–the enemy, the battles, the victories–are almost wholly absent from this book. It could be any war, anywhere, fought by anyone. The men involved in the military are more caught up in the politics of success, posing for photo ops and vying for the possibility of promotion, than they are concerned with victory over the Germans. And Yossarian, who is painted by the other characters as a loose cannon with potentially crazy ideas about war and patriotic duty, is in many ways the sanest one. One exchange, between Yossarian and another soldier about Colonel Cathcart’s yet again increasing the number of missions needed for discharge, sums this up perfectly:
“You know very well that I don’t approve of Colonel Cathcart any more than you do.” Clevinger paused for emphasis, his mouth quivering, and then beat his fist down softly against his sleeping bag. “But it’s not for us to determine what targets must be destroyed or who’s to destroy them or—“
“Or who gets killed doing it? And why?”
“Yes, even that. We have no right to question—“
“—no right to question—“
“Do you really mean that it’s not my business how or why I get killed and that it is Colonel Cathcart’s? Do you really mean that?”
“Yes, I do,” Clevinger insisted, seeming unsure. “There are men entrusted with winning the war who are in a much better position than we are to decide what targets have to be bombed.”
“We are talking about two different things,” Yossarian answered with exaggerated weariness. “You are talking about the relationship of the Air Corps to the infantry, and I am talking about the relationship of me to Colonel Cathcart. You are talking about winning the war, and I am talking about winning the war and keeping alive.”
“Exactly,” Clevinger snapped smugly. “And which do you think is more important?”
“To whom?” Yossarian shot back. “Open your eyes Clevinger. It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.”
Clevinger sat for a moment as though he’d been slapped. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed bitterly, the thinnest milk-white line enclosing his lips tightly in a bloodless, squeezing ring. “I can’t think of another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy.”
“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.”
Coincidentally, Clevinger dies.
There is only one downside to reading Catch-22, and that would be that the type of war highlighted in this book is somewhat anachronistic in 2010. The central message–that the men behind American military strategy are besieged by the same petty bullshit that the rest of the world is, they just happen to be playing with life and death–still resonates, but the specific circumstances of planes and bombings and a war in which America is playing the part of backup support, is a little removed from the wars we’re fighting today. I’m not sure what Joseph Heller would write if he could re-imagine Catch-22 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but some part of me very much wishes he could (he died in 1999). Given the news last week about our use of third-party security companies, I think it would be something about the irony of a war fought out of (essentially) revenge and greed, yet executed by a very impersonal and inefficiently complex network of hired guns. In any case, just a thought.
Catch-22 is timeless, as the topics of war and authority are wont to be. The length is somewhat intimidating, even if you’re not trying to get it knocked out in a week, but I’d say the payoff is there. Having not spent an inordinate amount of time considering the mindset of men at war (which I’m also not entirely sure is the same today as during wars of the 1940s) Catch-22 was incredibly thought provoking for me.
Even though there are literally dozens of quotes I could share, I’ll leave you with one, from a conversation between an old Italian man and Nately, a young American officer; because in between all the scenes of painfully dark comic relief in this story, are the kinds of truly poignant moments that make a book great.
Nately was instantly up in arms again. “There is nothing so absurd about risking your life for your country!” he declared.
“Isn’t there?” asked the old man. “What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”
“Anything worth living for,” said Nately,” is worth dying for.”
“And anything worth dying for,” answered the sacrilegious old man, “is certainly worth living for.”
AUTHOR: Joseph Heller
PAGES: 463 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Closing Time, Picture This
SORTA LIKE: Fahrenheit 451 meets Stripes
FIRST LINE: ”It was love at first sight.”