Catch-22

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 gave the English language one of its finest war novels and black comedies, as well as a now-common figure of speech. Upon publication in 1961, the unusual work met with mixed reviews: Some called it brilliant; others, shocking and offensive. In any case, Catch-22 was a landmark protest novel that introduced absurdity and surrealism into mainstream American literature.

The protagonist of Catch-22, Yossarian, is a US Air Force bombardier based on the small Italian island of Pianosa during World War II. His squadron is run by comically inept generals who promise the airmen that they will be sent home after they complete a certain number of missions—but then keep increasing this required number of missions so no one can leave. The war’s bureaucratic absurdity is embodied in the simple but insidious Air Force regulation that gives the novel its title. “Catch-22” states that a soldier can be exempted from combat missions if he is deemed insane, but if he actually puts in a request for this exemption, he is clearly sane enough to fly.

The novel is populated with an unforgettable cast of misfits and oddities. Squadron commander Major Major Major Major (so named because his father thought it would be funny) is promoted all the way to the rank of major by a computer glitch on the first day of his career. Mess officer Milo Minderbinder runs a ruthless black-market syndicate and will do anything for a profit, even signing a contract with the Germans to bomb his own squadron. And medic Doc Daneeka, after being “killed off” by a paperwork error, is unable to convince anyone that he is really still alive—least of allhis own wife, who appreciates the monthly payouts from his life insurance policy.

Catch-22’s narrative jumps forward and backward in time with no warning and few contextual clues, mimicking the chaos of the war and leaving the reader completely disoriented. Meanwhile, the squadron’s carnival-house antics make the novel uproariously funny—until things start to turn sinister. A master of black comedy, Heller reveals plot details gradually and offhandedly until it becomes clear that what seemed hilarious at the outset is actually deadly serious once the full truth is known. Heller said that Catch-22 was not really about World War II in particular but about the absurdity of bureaucracy and authority in the modern world in general. Indeed, this message gave the novel a cult following among antiestablishment, countercultural movements of the 1960s.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. Catch-22 was originally titled Catch-18, but after Leon Uris’s novel Mila 18 appeared earlier in 1961, Heller decided to change the name at the last minute.
  2. Heller flew dozens of bombing missions in American campaigns in Italy and North Africa during World War II
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