By Joseph Heller
“Keep your stupid licensed physician’s mouth shut and listen to what they told me up at the hospital. I’m crazy. Did you know that?” “So?” “Really crazy.” “So?” “I’m nuts. Cuckoo. Don’t you understand? I’m off my rocker. They sent someone else home in my place by mistake. They’ve got a licensed psychiatrist up at the hospital who examined me, and that was his verdict. I’m really insane.” “So?” “So?” Yossarian was puzzled by Doc Daneeka’s inability to comprehend. “Don’t you see what that means? Now you can take me off combat duty and send me home. They’re not going to send a crazy man out to be killed, are they?” “Who else will go?”
That’s the catch. Only insane men would be willing to fly the missions that Yossarian and his crew are assigned during World War II. But asking to be sent home proves that they are unwilling to fly the missions and therefore sane. And if they are sane then the Doc can’t send them home on medical leave. Catch-22. It’s a book, and now a common phrase coined by Joseph Heller that refers to an impossible situation with paradoxal rules. It’s amazing we didn’t have a word for that before because the world is full of catch-22s as Heller’s book points out in the most absurd fashion possible.
Catch-22 centers on Yossarian, a flight captain during World War II. It does not relate events chronologically, and it has no plot. The squadron is out of control. The generals only care about what makes them look good on paper, the mess hall captain runs an international food syndicate, and every one is crazy. It is loud, depressing, hilarious, and thoughtful all at once. It will make you laugh and cry, often just moments apart. It is one of the hardest books I’ve ever read, and I think it was a good book. I’m still not sure.
Heller’s style is incredibly unique and very impressive. It took him nearly eight years to pen the entire novel, which isn’t surprising when you consider how the story jumps around in time and conversations. Each chapter focuses on an individual character rather than moving forward chronologically, and he tells stories about characters who already died earlier in the book. Sometimes the story is hard to keep track of, but he writes that way with purpose. The world is out of control! And Heller wants you to know that. His prose grabs your attention much like a mob of drunk men singing in the street: you don’t exactly enjoy it, but you can’t help staring.
It is also a very depressing book. Set during World War II, it includes a lot of death, meaningless sex when the men go on leave, and pointless debauchery. The way Heller writes about death is very disturbing. There are plenty of books about war and death, but there are times when you expect people to die and there are times when you don’t. Heller throws those rules out the window. One moment you’re laughing at how out-of-control the squadron is, the next moment Yossarian’s best friend is dead. Just like that. Mid-laugh, a life is just snuffed out. He treats life and death with such flippancy, it makes you uncomfortable. You almost feel guilty.
Despite all of that, it’s hard to stop reading. You need to know if there’s a point, if Yossarian survives, if anybody ends up happy. In the midst of all the confusion, you can’t help but hope that something will finally make sense. There is a point. There is hope. But I’ll let you figure out what that is yourself.