Book review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 (Catch-22, #1)Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Some weeks ago I found that I sleep better when I read something, but I did not have any books of my own anymore. I used to have a collection of mostly science-fiction and fantasy books, a size able part of which was handed down to me by my father. Another part -the cheaper ones- I had collected myself. But I did them away. Some I gave to good causes, others to friends and others I threw away as they were in a bad shape. It felt odd to completely remove all books from my house, as they had been my companions for years, but I figured that most of them I could get digital and read them that way. As fate would have it: my digital reader broke down.
So I went to the local library and got me whatever book they had that looked interesting to read according to the cover blurb. At first I tried some Dutch books, both written in dutch or translated from other languages, but I have always read English books, so after that brief encounter with my native language I moved over to the English section of the library, which was good size smaller, which made it easier to choose.

One book that I found was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I had heard of it before, but never what it was about. So I decided to read it with some trepidation as it is considered literature and I am not much of a well-read reader, being more interested in non-fiction or fringe books. However I thought that the reading of a good book would rub off on me and I would write better for it. I write, because it is my desire to tell stories and writing is one way of doing it.
Catch-22 left me somewhat confused in whether I liked it or not. I have that more often of late, in that I do not quite know what to make of a book or a movie. It is why I have two characters doing my movie reviews. I am sometimes of two minds, or even more.
Catch-22 is the story of group of American bomber crew based on an imaginary small island of the coast of Sicily at the end of world war II. The most important MacGuffin of this book is the war or better the missions the men have to fly over Italy. When I read about that I immediately knew what that meant. The air missions in World War II were notorious for their casualty rates. At the height of the war this could even mean a loss of over 10% of the crews involved for one mission only. In the wikipedia you will find that the average rate of a Bomber Command mission was 2.2 percent throughout the war. Since a normal tour of duty was considered to be twenty missions this amounted to a 44 percent casualty rate at least if we use Bomber Commands figures to illustrate the situation. In Catch-22 the amount of missions they have to fulfill is an absurd fifty at the start of the book and that number increases during the book. Facing almost certain death makes that some of the men involved go to great lengths to get out of the war, one way or another, or die trying. This is what basically drives one of the main persons: Yossarian. One way to get out of the war would be to be declared crazy. And this is where the title comes in: Catch-22 is basically an logic fallacy: you can not get out of the war on the grounds that you are crazy, because that is the desire of a sane man.
This illogic you will find throughout the book, not only in the attempts to escape the war, but for instance in the desire of an atheist assistant of a chaplain to replace that chaplain, because he thinks he can do a better job at what the chaplain is supposed to do.
Next to this Catch-22 the whole book is a bit of a jumble of scenes and situations who only seem related because the men all belonged to the same unit. It reminded me somewhat of Mash, but more absurd and more satirical, but also less focused. Mash is of course of a later date then Catch-22 and it is probably inspired by Catch-22, but I name it because it give me a neat bridge to one of my problems with the book.
Catch-22 reads as an absurd satire and when it was released that might have been a novelty. However nowadays, over sixty years after the book was first published, we have seen a lot of absurd and satirical series and movies. Mash is one, the Monty Python series another. South Park and Red Dwarf all added their satire. The consequence is that Catch-22 is not much of an eye opener as an satirical book. There are little story lines that stuck with me, such as the guy Milo who manages to set up an expansive free trade network all over Europe and the Middle East using (bomber) airplanes of both sides to trade with anyone for a profit. Free market capitalism unites people in their thirst for greed. It sounds like a thing to wish for until Milo shows his mettle by having the American bomber crew bomb their own airfield, because he has been contracted to do so. In the mean time his greatest worry is how to get rid of the complete Egyptian cotton harvest that he acquired but nobody wants to buy from him, thus threatening him with bankruptcy. One attempt is to sell it off as cotton candy by dipping it in chocolate.
Perhaps because the satire and absurd situations are not very new or exciting there are two problems that suddenly comes to the foreground: the plot and the characters. There is hardly any plot. In fact you might cut up each chapter and see it as a separate standalone episode, just like an episode of Mash. Now Mash was at least consistent in that most of the time the same cast was used, but in Catch-22 this is not the case. Different people are central to different chapters without any apparent organization or reason. But even in this there is no consistency as there is even a chapter named after a person who hardly features in that chapter.
All of this might of course be a subtle way of telling a story with a deeper meaning, but if that was the case it is lost on me. If it was to tell that war is hell and life is absurd, then it might have been a novel way back then, by using satire and ridiculous situations, but nowadays it is hard to get more than a ‘Meh’ reaction. It has been said over and over again. And personally I somehow find Monty Python’s killer joke sketch a lot more funnier then the situations in Catch-22.
The last problem I want to mention with this book are the personalities involved. I simply could not connect to any of the people. They behaved in absurd and sometimes hurtful ways and because of the haphazard plot line the focus kept shifting from one to the other.

Catch-22 is for me an ok book, but the lack of a consistent plot and someone to identify with made it hard to keep on reading. I did therefore not finish the book but stopped two thirds in.

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