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Monday, May 22, 2006

Catch-22 Book Review

I could never figure out why I had never been assigned to read Catch-22 in school. A so-called classic, the title is commonly used to reference “a situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions.” (See Dictionary.com.) After laboring through Joseph Heller’s novel for the last several weeks, I’d like to thank every English teacher I ever had for not assigning it.

Yossarian is A bombardier looking to survive war at all cost. His biggest hurdle is his own colonel, named Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions men must fly to complete their service. The bureaucratic rule called catch-22 that seems to offer hope of being relieved of duty is really just one big contradiction – a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, yet merely requesting relief from such duty proves the he is sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved.

Yossarian’s response is to spend as much time as possible in the infirmary to avoid combat. This, of course, becomes another catch-22 as the number of missions is always raised while he’s in the hospital. In fact, if he’d merely flown his missions as scheduled, he might have reached the required number of missions to be relieved of duty.

Laughing yet? Me neither. I’ll admit that dark humor does little for me, but I don’t think that’s the only problem I had with the novel. There’s just no true foil for the endless stupidity of events in the story. Not even Yossarian rages against the absurdity that surrounds him enough to give the reader an anchor of sanity. It’s merely one idiotic thing after another, without the promised hilarity.

Another problem seems to be the whole focus, or non-focus, on the catch-22 rule. It is supposed to be one obscure rule, but the phrase is already being used by the characters to describe instances of what amounts to double-talk. Yossarian’s actions aren’t a true response to the rule, they’re just his way of avoiding combat after learning that catch-22 was of no help in that pursuit. There’s no real reason for the characters to have focused on the rule, except as a symbol of all the other absurdity. If that was the case, it was far from clear.

Heller seemed to want to make a statement about unquestioned command in the military. If so, it was certainly clear enough that he had little time for it. I just think his potential point is lost in the lack of sane behavior to balance the absurdity blind loyalty can create.

The title alone forces me to suggest reading Catch-22 to broaden your horizons. If nothing else, reading it let’s readers know where the famous phrase comes from.

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