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Jill wanted me to recommend a book for you to read at bedtime. One of my all time favourites has to be the finest anti-war novel ever written, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
It concerns itself with the antics of a group American servicemen and woman stationed on an Airbase in Italy during the latter part of World War II.
When I first read the book, more years ago than I care to remember, I initially had a great deal of difficulty with the author’s sequencing technique. Like Jerome K Jerome’s “Three men in a boat”, the book is composed of a series of digressions with scant regard being paid to any logical timeline. Prior to Catch-22, I had been used to books with a beginning, middle and end that tended, for the most part, to arrive in that order. Not so with Heller. Throughout the book the author uses references to how many missions the crews have to fly before they can go home (a number which keeps continually increasing) as the only indication of sequence. It sounds complicated, and it is, but in its own chaotic way, it works.
The whole work is based upon a series of very clever, logical sounding premises that are repeated over and over throughout. Let me quote Catch-22 (meaning “gotcha” # 22) from the book itself. It is introduced during a conversation between Yossarian and Doc Daneeka; the Squadron Medical Officer. They are discussing their friend Orr’s mental instability:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. 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 was sane he would have 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. "That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed. "It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.
I am left breathless by a mind that can create something like Catch-22. Heller is quite simply a genius, in fact probably too clever for me because Catch-22 is the only one of his books which I think that I understood!
The book is chiefly concerned with the fact that we as individuals have respect for authority ground into us from a very early age. Not just in our disciplinary systems but throughout the whole fabric of society. In Catch-22 Heller brilliantly shows that the faceless “them” that we look to for guidance in society are just as fucked up and unsure of themselves as the rest of us. They are, in a word, human, with all of the resulting frailties and limitations, which that implies. In the 1940’s, authority was accepted without question, however, in Yossarian, Heller has juxtaposed a kind of 1960’s free spirit into the mix. As a result he becomes Heller’s vehicle to illuminate the absurdity of war and the authority that created it, by the simple expedient of the observation of the blindingly obvious. As a result the book is often cruelly funny and almost Pythonesque in its use of satire. It will have you laughing out loud with its morbid humour. Yossarian is a frighteningly sane character in an insane World. As the authoritarians grow more desperate in their need to exercise control over the masses, so Yossarian’s ability to see the absurdity of each situation sees him through.
Populated by a whole army of outrageously insane characters the book is an absolute delight. Catch-22 is so intense that you can easily miss the almost thrown away pivotal point in the book, which lends the lie to Yossarian’s behaviour throughout the tale. I won’t give it away but watch closely for the final interplay between him and Snowden. Afterwards, the book takes on a much darker hue and Yossarian begins to view the conflict in a completely different light as his reluctance to fly and his need to escape become more and more desperate.
You always expect that Heller will drop you; wrung out and saddened at the end of the book, so it comes as rather a surprise to find the final passages both optimistic and uplifting. It leaves you with a smile rather than a grimace. Despite being recognised as a masterpiece of modern literature (which normally would send me running straight for the door) it is also s remarkably accessible book. You don’t need a degree in hard sums just to figure out what’s going on. I love this book and try to read it at least once a year. What a sad bugger I must be huh?