Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

A review of the historical war novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

There aren’t many modern contemporary fiction novels which spawn a completely new coin of phrase, but Catch-22 – released back in 1961 by author Joseph Heller – is certainly one of them. Now referring to a situation which is nigh on impossible to escape, Heller’s Catch-22 remains a relevant, sharp and funny anti-war novel, if a little long-winded for some, but still an irrefutable satirical masterpiece to this very day.

Once you get past Catch-22’s rather convoluted exposition, it holds up as an absurd treatise the insanity of war, recounting the soldier Yossarian’s wrestle with the grim reality he faces on the battlefield during World War II and, in so doing, strikes a bitterly amusing but sobering chord. Ultimately, Yossarian’s haphazard yet simultaneously futile efforts to avoid his own death hit the buffers of military bureaucracy – much in the same ‘gallows humour’ spirit as Robert Altman’s film, M*A*S*H – which lends itself very willingly to comedy. Although, many may feel this flies in the face of the received wisdom that all Second World War soldiers must be heroes.

In fact, Catch-22 appears to regard Yossarian’s cowardice as the only sane recourse in a situation where the act of killing is prized above all other action, positing a moral argument that all living things have a compulsion to live, and to do (or celebrate) otherwise is completely illogical. It’s this yin and yang of what constitutes one’s own sense of sanity in a world which has gone topsy-turvy that Heller’s book hinges upon, and it’s also where most of the dark humour springs up – after all, only in the midst of war is it acceptable to regard the sane people as mad and the insane people as bound for glory.

As satirical novels go, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is an untouchable classic – it’s a seminal piece of work for the baby boomer generation, without a doubt, but it has dated somewhat, to the point where some younger readers may find it impenetrable. For those willing to put the effort in, however, there is still much humour to be found, and Heller’s central message about war and the nature of sanity still rings a surreal yet stark alarm to human nature’s propensity for barbarity. To put it more simply: If you’re the sort of person who’d rather wave a placard than pick up a rifle, then Catch-22 is definitely for you, and I can’t really say it any clearer than that.

Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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