What’s the catch? For Captain John Yossarian and the rest of the characters in Joseph Heller’s classic novel it was Catch-22, a semi-unofficial rule best explained by the author. From chapter five:
Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
This was a hard book to follow. The events portrayed in it aren’t introduced in a chronological order, nor in a flashback format, really. Heller devotes some chapters to Yossarian’s experience of events from his life in general and on the job. The rest are used to relay those events as witnessed, explained or misunderstood by other officers and friends. It all gels in the end, apparently, if you can get that far. Only one in our group did and it wasn’t me. I only skimmed the end chapters without getting too involved with them. I lost interest in the book around chapter 35 but I did consider quitting sooner. It was most enjoyed by the one guy who’s actually experienced life in the American military. I’ll have to refer to the Yossarian write-up on Wikipedia to make sense of it.
Yossarian wants to get the hell out WWII and Pianosa, the remote little island off Italy where he’s stationed. Unfortunately, every time he gets close to completing the required number of bombing runs, his superior officer, Colonel Cathcart, ups the mission number needed to earn the flight home. (It starts at 25 but by the end of the book it’s up to 80.) He’s a liar, a malingerer, a saboteur and a very desperate individual. It’s debatable whether he’s actually crazy, or the only sane man in a crazy situation. Most of what he does is a reaction to the situation he’s been put in and has no other control over.
When a friend and one of his crew, Snowden, gets struck by flak that pierced their plane during a run, Yossarian does what he can to save the man but the injuries are far too severe.
Snowden’s death embodies Yossarian’s desire to evade death; by seeing Snowden’s entrails spilling over the plane, he feels that “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.”
The experience on the plane dramatically changes Yossarian’s attitude towards life. He now looks only to protect his own life and, to a lesser extent, the lives of his close friends.
And whatever faith he might have had in the military before that point vanishes in a heartbeat. He can’t save anyone anyway. Most of the people he’d consider friends die in the book, or disappear without a trace.
Some of our meeting focused on other characters that featured in the book. One we talked about was Milo Minderbender who runs the mess hall in a strange yet very efficient way. As the book progresses, we learn that he’s a crafty entrepreneur who nearly always manages to make a profit. (At one point he’s paid by the Germans to bomb his own squadron and gets away with it.) This led to discussion about capitalism in general and satirical points Heller was trying to make about war being a business like anything else.
This is probably a book that does need to be read a few times in order to get a sense of where Heller wanted to go with it. I don’t think I’d try it again though. There were some parts I did laugh out loud over: the absurdities of bureaucracy and the bit where Yossarian bitches about God’s incompetence. Other parts were surprising and truly cringe-worthy, like McWatt’s daredevil behaviour and what ultimately resulted from it. Reading about the finale, I see I missed a lot of critical events. Ah well. If I couldn’t generate enough interest in the story to stick with it to the end… Some books are just like that, and it doesn’t matter if they’re considered classics.