It was a dank, miserable San Francisco morning in December when I happened to stumble across a browbeaten copy of Catch-22 at my local library. Huh, I remember thinking, another war novel. I had recently, taken by Hollywood’s rebirth in its infatuation with wars, read a slew of novels on that subject. For every “Saving Private Ryan” I watched, I read an All Quiet on the Western Front, for every “Thin Red Line”, I picked up a copy of Hiroshima. So despite being aware of its reputation as a rather peculiar novel, I was reluctant to try another violent and gory story. Nevertheless, I gave it a shot. What the Hell, I decided, if any book promises to be vulgar, bitter, uproariously funny, and a masterpiece unlike the likes of which the literate public has ever seen, there might yet be a chance of it entertaining me. Two weeks later, I was still recovering from the shock of reading one the best books of my life (a compliment that I pay to only a few books, such as Toni Morrison’s Song Of Solomon).
Catch-22 was one of those rare novels that I could immediately relate to. I madly fell in love with the character of Yossarian, the witty yet psychotic protagonist of the novel. Yossarian feels estranged from the society he lives in. He is alarmed to find out that the accepted norm of human behavior nowadays is to kill one another. He is even more alarmed to find out that he is the only one to find it alarming in the first place. Yossarian realizes that he is completely entangled in a web of ‘oxymorons’ and catch-22s. Furthermore, his life is in the hands of his superiors, a class of men so estranged from the minds of their subordinates that they may as well be considered the enemy. Yossarian epitomizes every insecurity one might feel. Through his actions, we get to experience every moment of enlightenment, moment of cowardice, moment of common sense, moment of victory, or moment of defeat one might have in life. In my mind, he is me. The only differences I see is that his society is that of a military base in Pianosa, while mine is that of a war-hungry and vengeful America, his superiors are military generals, while mine are government leaders, and his web is spun by the odd behavior of humans due to the lunacy of war. My tangled web is spun by the odd behavior of humans due to the lunacy of popular culture and belief.
Joseph Heller, the author of this bizarre novel, is no ordinary writer. As an avid reader and amateur writer, I often not only read the novel, but also analyze the writing style. What strikes me about Heller is that, unlike most writers, each chapter, page, or even word seems to resonate with his name. He doesn’t follow the accepted norm of a story unfolding in coordination with the space-time continuum. Heller’s chapters don’t follow a timeline at all. One part of the book might be talking about a past experience that will be narrated in a later chapter. His panache is unmistakable, and, like it or not, with each passing page, the reader begins to grow more infatuated with his words. Don’t get me wrong, Heller writes in a heavily stylized, repetitive way that becomes severely afflicted with mannerisms. Some might call his writing annoying (indeed, I was struck by a critic’s comment that Catch-22″ doesn’t even seem to be written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper”). The novel is peppered with such a large amount of lame jokes and banal dialogues that it is very easy to look past the astute observations Heller makes about society. The biggest argument I can make defending Heller is that his writing style grows under your skin. Like Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness, Heller’s writing is totally incomparable to others. Perhaps that makes him the best author out there, or perhaps that makes him the worst. Either way, Heller accomplishes what most egocentric writers (including myself) want to achieve. He is remembered.
Catch-22 has an overwhelmingly difficult task: in the measly span of 450 pages, it tries to ridicule all the idiosyncrasies of life. And, believe me, coming from someone who has spent 16 years trying to ridicule those very same principles, it is a hard job to tackle. The book is set in an Allied Air Force base during World War II, and it centers on the lives of several American pilots. Heller begins the serious and painstaking job of making fun of the world by bringing up the first of his many catch-22s. Yossarian, in a desperate attempt to stay grounded, goes to the doctor at the base, Doc Deneeka, and asks if there is anyway for him not do any more flights over enemy territory. The good doctor replies that the only way to be relieved from duty is to be certified insane. So certify me insane, I paraphrase Yossarian’s plea. Nothing doing, smiles the doctor knowingly, for if someone tries to be certified insane, then he must be completely sane. In that case, the pilot must be told to fly. Yossarian, like me, is dumbfounded as to how to argue with logic like that.
Another instance where we see how living by the system is totally moronic is when Yossarian utilizes one of his prized assets, a liver condition, to receive extra amounts of fruit. When the mess officer, a completely deranged pilot with no morals named Milo whom I have the utmost respect for, asks if the condition is bad, Yossarian answers that it is just bad enough. In actuality, it couldn’t be better. After more prodding, Yossarian admits that he doesn’t actually have a disease, just symptoms. Garnett-Fleischaker symptoms to be exact. When Milo asks if he should be careful about what he eats, our favorite cynic responds: “Very careful indeed, a good Garnett-Fleischaker syndrome isn’t easy to come by, and I don’t want to ruin mine by eating fruit.” Huh? This is just one example of the kinds of points Heller is trying to put forth in his novel. Most people think from inside the square, blindly following the norm and never straying from its path. An enlightened few, however, come to realize that the norm makes no sense at all. To those special few that think outside of the square, like Yossarian (actually, in Yossarian’s case, the square is so far away that it is a point in the horizon), they begin to rebel from society’s expectations. Yossarian comes to realize that if he follows the whims of his superiors and peers, the Germans will kill him. If he doesn’t, then his superiors and peers will kill him.
One big reason that I related to Catch-22 with such gusto was that I managed to draw many parallels with my life and the message Heller puts forth. In a world contaminated with religious wars between Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, and USA and extremist Muslim groups, this novel offered a startling amount of clarity. Why is there so much hate and ignorance in the world? Why don’t the world leaders realize what kind of reaction war has on the generation that has to experience it? Catch-22 offers some sort of insight into the minds of those against war and violence. By reading it, you may be able to understand how I think. This novel, of course, goes a lot deeper than being only against war. As a teenager growing up in San Francisco, I have become disillusioned by the empty and shallow culture that has been stuffed down my throat. I have gravitated towards friends that realize that appearances and popularity aren’t all that matter. Most people who know me realize that, although fitting into the social category of being popular, I don’t believe in living MTV’s version of adolescence. Similarly, I refuse to live my life by following the accepted norm. I would much rather, just like Yossarian, live life outside the square. Hey, it may be cold out here, but at least we get to see what life may be like living inside some other geometrical shape.