In Novel on September 25, 2004 at 1:13 am

catch_22-thumb.jpgCatch-22 (1955)
by Joseph Heller

Great book! A darkly humorous story about the insanity of war and the absurdity of military bureaucracy. Set near the end of WWII at an American military based at Italy, a bombardier named Yossarian tries everyway to scheme his way out of war as he saw no way out of the never-ending dangerous flying missions. Yossarian insanely (or was he the actual sane one?) claimed that everybody tries to kill him and all he wanted was saving his own skin. Each chapter is told from alternating characters’ point of views. Slowly the out of sequence narrative reveals how Yossarian came about this state and what he’d eventually end up doing (and yes you’d eventually root for him as THE hero even though his self-preservation seem very un-heroic at first).

Long book report essay ahead (hey I only write essay on books I really like ^^;;):

The book title coined the term Catch-22 for the dictionary. Catch-22 means a tricky situation that works on a circular contradictory logic so that the goal will became fruitless and self-defeating. This is how military kept their soldiers no way out from never ending battles. For example, if a pilot is proved insane then he can be grounded. But the catch is: if the pilot request to be grounded, that means he was sane enough to have such awareness thus he can’t be insane, so no pilot can ever get excuse. Every character in the books is suffered from this catch, even Yossarian use this circular logic to get around his superiors. A lot of the dialogues passages in the book are done in this dizzying circular logic, almost like something out of a Monty Python sketch.

Reading Catch-22 reminds me a lot of Blackadder 4 (coincidently I started the book and the BA 4 at the same time) + Monty Python + Robert Altman’s films. The beginning was a bit difficult to get through as I was not familiar with military terms and there’s a HUGE cast of colorful characters. It was overwhelming to learn who is who at first . But once I got used to the writing style, I grew very attached to the characters. Especially when the scattering plots started to connect together, it got very addictive. The ending was the ultimate paid off, it was very emotional (at least I was, got so sad and so angry), very moving, powerful and satisfying.

Basically the author question what is commonly considered as “good”, ie: the “sacrifice for greater good” heroism, is bad under a system that’s so skewed and illogical. People kept risking their lives and died for reasons that are simply stupid, meaningless, illogical and unimportant. What moral choice would one make under such circumstances?

Yossarian says, “You’re 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. “It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.”

“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.”

Yossarian is the opposite to what’s common celebrated as “hero” who would sacrifice for greater good. He relentlessly came up with all sort of schemes so he can avoid risking his life. Commonly this would be considered cowardly self-preservation. But he’s the one who make sense because the system and values he’s surrounded by are so ridiculous. His self-preservation is the moral stance he took: when lives are lost so casually discard like garbage, to preserved life became the most moral and heroic thing to do.

Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.

This is the crucial defining moment of the heart of the book. When a fellow bombardier Snowden was injured by his own suits as the plane lost control, the overwhelmed Yossarian thought he was doing a good job comforting and tending Snowden’s not-so-serious leg wound. But as Snowden mumbled on “feeling cold,” Yossarian was then too late to discover he was tending the wrong wound: Snowden’s chest was blasted completley open with horrifying bloody guts and tomato stew that he ate earlier were pouring out. The utterly shocked and hopeless Yossarian then realized, human lives are garbage.

Other major characters are equally interesting. There’s the Chaplain, whom Yossarian fell in love at first sight at the opening sentence of the book (so do I ^^;;). He’s a sweet gentle virtueous man who started doubting his faith, as religion became just another tool for the political game. And under comedy of errors, he was accused of a crime he didn’t commit and his innocence is irrelevant under bureaucracy. And he’s surrounded by values such as: killing is the virtue. He felt better when he fake illness hence commited to hospital to join his healthy friends ‘hiding in hospital’, like a naughty schoolboy who sneak around the rule for the first time…as a way to say “screw you guys”. At the end he’s the one who supported Yossarian and his final “decision”, and restored his faith through Yossarian.

Another character is Milo, at first you’d loved him but then grew to HATE him! He’s the caricature of the American capitalist free enterprise who seems to be doing the “screw the bureaucracy” thing by making money off them. But he spinned out of control. He made money from everybody (friends and foes) and willing to support whichever is profitable. He once led the Germans bomb the American base for a deal, where a lot of soldiers were killed. He also rip-off everybody in a seemingly harmless way (like looted all emergency supplies to sell) but eventually proven fatal at critical moments. Despite all the fatal harm he caused for his own ‘friends’ he still got excused and accepted all because he made money. And he thinks he’s so RIGHT (and the heads agree). Milo represents the insanity of placing high value on profit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: