Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition
By Joseph Heller

I just finished Catch-22 as part of the Back to the Classics Challenge.

When I was looking at the different categories on the challenge, and thinking about what books would fit which categories, I realized that there are a lot of really important books that I've never bothered to read.  I decided that I'd canvass a bunch of "you have to read these books before you die or you're a miserable person" list, and I'd put whatever book was at the top of the list, which fit the category, on my challenge.  If you want to see the books I chose, you can go to my Lists Page.  But you're going to have to scroll down past a bunch of restaurants to get there.

I started looking at lists of "must-read" books, and there were quite a few books that were pretty consistently on the top of most of the lists.  For the "war book," the novel fitting that description, which was closest to the top of most lists was All Quiet on the Western Front.  

Well, I've already read that.

So, next was Catch-22.  Terrific!  I loved the idea of reading an anti-war novel as part of the challenge.  And though I know what a "Catch-22" is, as it's come into the popular vocabulary, the idea that a novel thats only fifty years old could have coined a phrase that's so ubiquitous, today was sort of intriguing to me.

I think I even knew the basic premise of what "Catch-22" was in the novel--basically that the only thing that could get a pilot out of flying dangerous combat missions was to be declared insane, but that anyone who tried to get out of flying combat missions was obviously not crazy.

Or, to quote from the novel:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's 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 were sane he had 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. 

Though that's the basic premise of "Catch-22" in the novel, "Catch-22" is also defined and delineated in other ways.  Toward the end of the novel, a character defines it as "they have a right to do anything that we can't stop them from doing."

And even when they're not talking about "Catch-22" itself, that kind of absurd, circular logic pervades the book.   This isn't a quote, exactly, or maybe it is, but throughout the book (and by that, I mean, pretty much in every other sentence), there's a line like, "Everyone respected him because he was so disrespectable."  Or something like that.

For the first third of the book, or so, this kind of absurd humor was really entertaining.  It seemed clever.  But after a few chapters of that, it actually started to make the book even more difficult for me to read.  I think this might be partially because of the language, in fact.  I spent so much time early on paying attention to the language that I didn't take note of who the characters were, what the relationships between them were like, and I didn't really absorb some of the plot points. Of course, since the plot isn't exactly linear--each chapter is a sort of vignette, focusing on a different aspect of the story, at a different place and time, well, that was in the mix, too, as far as why it wasn't the easiest read for me.

Mid-way through the book, though, the story became rather dark.  It's not exactly a light-hearted take on the abusive power of bureaucracy, black-market capitalism and the inevitability of death, even though there's a veneer of absurd humor.

So, even though I had some difficulties with it, I'm glad I chose this book for the challenge.  I can't imagine that another war novel would have been any better for me.