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The Big ReadCatch-22

Joseph Heller

Average Review Rating Average Rating 7/10 (1 Review)
Book Details

Publisher : Vintage

Published : 2008, 1961

Copyright : Joseph Heller 1961

ISBN-10 : PB 0-09-947046-2
ISBN-13 : PB 978-0-09-947046-5

Publisher's Write-Up

At the heart of Joseph Heller's bestselling novel, first published in 1961, is a satirical indictment of military madness and stupidity, and the desire of the ordinary man to survive it. It is the tale of the dangerously sane Captain Yossarian, who spends his time in Italy plotting to survive.

'Blessedly, monstrously, bloatedly, cynically funny, and fantastically unique.'

Financial Times

'The greatest satirical work in the English language since EREHWON.'

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Reader Reviews

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Review by Nadine (300605) Rating (7/10)

Review by Nadine
Rating 7/10
It has taken me three attempts to read Catch-22. The first time, I gave up in bewilderment after four chapters. The second time, my beloved was reading it at the time and he took our only copy away just when I thought I might get into it. This time, I finally did it. It took me two months. I came to the conclusion that it is a very good book - it just requires a certain amount of effort.

Most of the book revolves around a World War II bombardier in the American forces. He is sick of flying combat missions and wants to go home. He tries every trick in the book to get out of flying, but is repeatedly thwarted. His superiors keep raising the number of required missions just when he thinks he's finished, and he can't even go home on grounds of mental instability because Catch-22 prevents it. The Flight Doctor says that to get out of flying missions, all you have to do is ask to be declared insane. The eponymous Catch, however, is a bureaucratic clause stating that anyone sane enough to try and preserve their life by getting out of combat duty, must be sane enough to carry out said duty and therefore cannot be signed off. I believe that the phrase didn't exist before this book was published, so it is a mark of its popularity that the term has come to mean any snag that trips you up no matter which way you turn.

It has to be said that the plot is rather hard to grasp. The story is told as a series of seemingly unrelated events, in no particular order, with flashbacks to events that happened at some unspecified point in the past and glimpses of events which apparently haven't happened yet, all joined together with random incidents, descriptions and anecdotes. It's absolute chaos.

It isn't until you've virtually read the whole book that any of it makes any sense, and even then, you need a good memory to piece together all the different threads of storyline and relate them back to significant events earlier in the book. You also need to be good with names, because there are a great many characters, and they are introduced in such rapid succession that it is easy to get lost very early on. Most of them are only ever referred to by their surname and/or military rank, and I constantly had to backtrack to try and remember where I'd heard of a particular Corporal, Captain or General before.

But befuddlement aside, I can see why Catch-22 has become a modern classic. It pokes fun specifically at the Military establishment, but in a way that someone without the slightest scrap of military knowledge, or indeed interest, can appreciate. Many of the situations can be applied to any hierarchical organisation, and some characters cannot fail to strike a chord of recognition because they turn up everywhere in real life. I, for example, know a Colonel Cathcart at my current place of work...and an ex-PFC Wintergreen...and a Major Major.

The edition that I read did not have an "about the author" page so I may be completely wrong about this, but I really think that Joseph Heller must have served in the US forces. I fail to see how he could otherwise describe the American Military with such authoritative contempt. Some of the reasoning behind important military decisions just seemed too daft to be made up, and while the book is undeniably satirical, I couldn't help wondering where the factual basis ended and the satire began.

To finish on a high note, it is worth emphasising the most engaging
characteristic of Catch-22: The Funny Bits. Perhaps I didn't laugh as often as I thought I would, but when I did laugh, I laughed hard. The comical moments tend to sneak up on you. It can be anything from an innocuous character description inducing such a vivid and hilarious mental image that a violent snort escapes you before you've even registered what you've read, to a description of comical circumstances that borders on slapstick. Every genre of comedy is represented here, but it is always subtle and efficient. One of my favourite examples is a description of a particularly fearsome senior officer, whose humpbacked nose “came charging out of his face wrathfully like a Big Ten fullback”.

This a book that would definitely stand a second read. In fact, I suspect it is one of those books that gets better with every re-read. It will certainly make more sense the second time around. One day, when I have made a dent in my “books to be read” pile, and if I have the stomach for it, I will tackle it again. So far, it hasn’t quite earned a place in my favourites list, but who knows? It might just grow on me.
Nadine (30th June 2005)

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