Back in 1961, Joseph Heller, working as a copyrighter for an advertisement company in Manhattan, published his very first novel, Catch-22. He had been writing it for the past eight years, but had secured a contract to publish it as early as 1955, after the first chapter of the book was published in the literary magazine New World Writing, under the title “Catch-18.” Heller was 30 years old when he finished the novel, and the contract had been for $750 as an advance, and the same amount again upon publication. Fifty years later, Catch-22 has been translated into 20-odd languages, has sold well over 10 million copies and was featured in just about every list of the most important novels of the XX century. Not bad for a first try, right?
Improbably, however, Catch-22 was far from an immediate success, triggering largely unflattering reviews, among others from The New Yorker, and lingering somewhere in the middle of the table of book sales during 1961. The breakthrough would come the following year, with the release of the title in the UK as part of the catalogue of the publishing house, Jonathan Cape. The reception among British audiences was staggering, climbing to the top of the best selling list almost immediately and turning Heller from an average seller (30,000 copies in the first year was hardly a flop) to a cult figure, a must-read, a worldwide phenomenon, that has found its way to the core of English-speaking culture: its language.
A “catch-22” situation is one in which a person has no way of coming out on top, a “no-win” situation, a dilemma in which all alternatives are equally damaging. The expression, of course, found its way to common parlance from Heller’s creation, where a group of airmen stationed in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Italy, during World War II are forced to take part in a progressively larger amount of combat missions before they are allowed to go home. The number of flights they are required to complete increases at the same pace as they fly them, which means that just as soon as any of them reaches the limit, or comes close to it, it is increased again. Thus, given the circumstances, the only way for a serviceman to merit the ticket home is if he were to be deemed crazy by the Group doctor, who is only allowed to carry out an examination upon anyone who shows up voluntarily. The catch is that showing up voluntarily with claims of madness to stop flying combat missions is considered a rational act of self-preservation, which means the soldier cannot be crazy, even though the Group doctor is perfectly aware that anyone willing to fly yet another dangerous mission into enemy territory must be insane and, therefore, would theoretically qualify to be sent home.
The perfect efficiency of catch-22 makes it a valuable tool for the army, and therefore reoccurs time and again throughout the plot of the book, especially during the opening 200 pages of the novel, where Heller’s voice is most poignantly critical of the intricate bureaucratic maze that holds together a military establishment, where, for instance, a quintessentially mediocre person, such as Major Major (that’s his name!) rises quickly through the ranks until reaching the status of Major, based on no merit whatsoever, other than the fact that the US Army could not pass on the unique opportunity of boasting having a MajorMajor Major. The result is a genuinely hysterical storyline that moves at a torrid pace, developing an unnatural environment of ineptitude where reverse logic is the rule and where madness is the rod by which normalcy is measured.
Made complicit through unrestrained and uncontrollable laughter, the reader willfully suspends judgment as she witnesses the erection of a wholly implausible picture through the deployment of an entire army (quite literally) of quirky characters, all of whom contribute uncanny anecdotes while interacting with each other in an entirely dysfunctional way. Heller’s satirical tone is exquisitely balanced between scorn and humor, granting him license to build the peculiar atmosphere of a combat post where every character must be slightly deranged to risk their life for a higher, collective, cause.
One of Heller’s greatest accomplishments in Catch-22 is that, despite the non-linear plot, the constant repetition of the story, and the recurrence of certain narrative strategies, such as the multiplicity of narrative voices, each butting into the other one’s tale, his satire remains entertaining throughout, steering away from the dangers of becoming excessively repetitive, or unnecessarily bitter.
At the same time, however, the light, somewhat jocund treatment of World War II is progressively transformed to mirror the evolving mental frame of the characters in question. Thus, what seems like an extremely funny book for 200 pages becomes a more sluggish read, as Heller loads the narrative with burdening devices, such as four, five, six adjectives in each description. Still, a book about the greatest conflict the West has ever seen only enters its first moment of true sadness some 350 pages into the tale, when the Group suffers its first meaningful casualty. From that point onwards, the true extent of the tragedy of the war gains prominence, as, one by one, the protagonist’s buddies begin to fall, victims to ill fortune, the enemy, or their own incompetence, and leaving poor old Yossarian (the main character) on his own.
Without giving the end away, and in a totally simplistic interpretation, Yossarian’s final crossroads faces him with the choice between the sort of “immoral logic” that throughout Catch-22 has led to the preposterous circumstances it so vehemently condemns, or hopeless individual sacrifice. Boldly, he decides to step outside the framework within which his story has developed, finally escaping the loop of madness into which he has enticed the reader. After close to 500 pages of extravagance, Yossarian’s moment of acute lucidity comes when he finds the courage to act rationally.
Nevertheless, Heller’s greatest legacy, and the reason why Catch-22 is, fifty years on, still one of the most important books written in English, is not the moral of his story but rather the boldness and the inventiveness of the narrative strategy he formulates. Written between 1953 and 1961, Catch-22 incorporates the sentiments of a generation that stood at a crossroads in the social history of the United States. Rather than channeling the generalized sense of frustration and the quest for individuality into a tale of coming-of-age, like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, or an outlandish road trip, such as Kerouac’s On the Road, Heller extrapolated the circumstances that caused such yearning and created a brilliant metaphor to reproduce society at large, and the sense of utter incomprehension that prevailed in people of Yossarian’s generation (a generation that included Dean Moriarty (On the Road) and Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye)).
Heller’s sense of dissatisfaction, not with his experience during World War II, but with his place in the American society of the 50s, is taken further – as far as the way to tell a story. Therefore, the dynamic, cartoonish and seemingly chaotic (only seemingly – upon closer scrutiny Heller’s structure is much tighter and thought through than, say, Pynchon’s, a few years later) discourse developed in his novel is not only unusual: it is, at its core, subversive. Heller might not have been the first writer to use such artifices in a work of fiction, and he might nor have been able to follow the prowess of Catch-22 with anything comparable later in his life (to borrow his words, though, “who has?”). But he was certainly capable of synthesizing the different tensions, ideas, ideals and contradictions of an unbelievably complex generation into a similarly complex, but equally mesmerizing, book. To Heller, the greatest miracle possible in the environment of Catch-22 is to fight impotence, to take control of the situation and to assume moral responsibility for our actions: a message that, surely, resonates loudly these days.
Despite its age, Catch-22 remains uncannily modern in form and in content. That is why, still today, it is much more than a classic: it is, and rightly so, cult.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2011.