As I make my way through the classics I never read in school, I have to say that I’m a little grateful for waiting so long to see what all the fuss is about. Especially with a book like Catch-22. Though it might have been beneficial to read this while, say, studying World War II simultaneously in, say, AP US History class, I think that not having school on the brain really let me enjoy this masterpiece. Obviously you know it’s a masterpiece; teachers, friends, parents, all of those people have told you so. I don’t need to be another parrot about it, so instead I’ll just share my experience of reading it.
It took me awhile. And there’s a lot I still don’t understand. Like one of my least favorite books of all time, I, Claudius, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 seems like it contains a new character on each page, so much so that it’s simply too hard to keep track of and get to know each of them. Furthermore, each chapter has the title of a different character’s name, but each chapter is not really about that character. Or maybe it is. I couldn’t deduce the pattern or message. At times it seemed like the chapter titles represented who the other characters were talking about in the chapter, or how the other characters perceive the chapter title character, or who Heller had in mind for the chapter but never really got to, or who should have been in the chapter but intentionally wasn’t. I don’t know. I say with confidence that I’ll reread this book someday and look out for more character details, and try to get to know more than just the chaplain and Yossarian.
Heller is a hilarious writer. He takes Hemingway subjects and puts a Salinger twist on them, or rather a Heller twist on them, I suppose. The horrifying is coupled with the hysterical, and the resulting combination has this rough, unexpected texture. He at least attempts to come up with memorable names, such as the aforementioned Yossarian, Minderbinder, Cathcart, Major (who is a Major), and Korn. More memorable than those names was his ability to incorporate running jokes, quips, and personality oddities. Though it was hard for me to remember even those unique names, it was impossible to forget a story about a soldier who always carried crab apples in his cheeks so he’d always have them there. He also asserts his envious vocabulary; I found myself googling several words during my commute one day and finally just left my phone out so I wouldn’t have to keep retrieving it and channeling rain man (or so I thought it looked to the fellow passengers in my BART car). For those about to take the SAT, here are a few Heller doozies: rubicund, concupiscent, otiose, mucid, and stertorous.
As I moved through this book, and as I think was Heller’s intention, I grew more and more frustrated, more and more curious about the end, and he had to have done that at least partially on purpose to mimic the impossible, torturous loop of the catch-22 itself. Yossarian and his fellow comrades were held hostage by their own supposedly patriotic country, stuck in a promise to commit as many missions as their superiors felt was necessary, always willing to fight and die for their country, and never permitted to live their lives to the fullest. They experience hallucinations, flashbacks, nonexistent memories, and actual true things, horrible things, but after the war, it won’t matter. None of it will be true or false. And so I’ll leave you with the usual smattering of quotes, which are conveniently all illustrations of the very paradox of this book, the expected unexpected, the inevitable evitability, the constant state of contradiction that those soldiers led in country. I hope it’s gotten better, but I’m almost certain it hasn’t.
p. 17 // “And if that wasn’t funny, there were lots of things that weren’t even funnier.”
p. 19 // “It was truly a splendid structure, and Yossarian throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the world that had gone into it was his.”
p. 29 // “It made him proud to observe that twenty-nine months in the service had not blunted his genius for ineptitude.”
p. 70 // “He knew everything about literature except how to enjoy it.”
p. 85 // “Some men or 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.”
p. 178 // “He could start screaming inside a hospital and people would at least come running to try to help; outside the hospital they would throw him in prison if he ever started screaming about all the things he felt everyone ought to start screaming about, or they would put him in the hospital.”
p. 249 // “The Germans are being driven out, and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see Italy is really a very poor and weak country, and that’s what makes us so strong.”
p. 412 // “During the day, they avoided him, even Aarfy, and Yossarian understood that they were different people together in the daylight than they were alone in the dark.”