Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Catch-22, 1961

Joseph Heller's Catch-22 indeed is one of the best war novels, or even one of the best novels of the twentieth century, for that matter. The novel recounts the events surrounding an American bombing squad based in Italy in the late stages of World War II. Yossarian, the main character, desperately wants to get grounded for fear of his life, and tries to approach the unit's doctor about that. He's told that he can be grounded and sent home but "there's a catch" (and that's also where the title of the book comes from): Catch-22 is the situation in which any pilot that asks to be grounded is in a "no-win" or "double-bind" situation:

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 was 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.

Through a repetitive prose often bordering on slapstick, the hilarious antics of the characters and also the absurdity of the military hierarchy and the processes involved in it are laid out. Heller can turn from light-hearted comedy to gory war drama in a second, and all characters in his book have been affected by the insanity of war in some way: some become reclusive, others manic, still others psychotic like the protagonist himself.

Read Joseph Heller's Catch-22

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