Well, the one thing that you can say about this book is that it introduced a new phrase into the English language – Catch-22, which basically means that you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. If we are to say that this is its only achievement then I have to say that it is one pretty awesome achievement because it seems to have pretty much become a staple of our language. In fact people who have never even read the book, let alone heard of it, probably know of and use the phrase. The thing is that upon this second reading of this book I have come to realise that it has not only has it coined a much used phrase into our language, but it has also have a significant impact upon modern literature. Okay, I might be wrong, but I would go as far as suggesting that Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf, and even The Simpsons, have been heavily influenced by the book (as well as Kurt Vonnegut, though he was more of a contemporary of Heller).
Before I continue I am going to have to warn you that there will be spoilers. If you are reading this review because you want to know whether to read this book or not then I will simply tell you to stop reading this review right now, grab a copy of the book, and read it instead. The fact that it has coined a much used phrase simply goes to prove that it is a part of the canon of modern American literature. Seriously, you don't need a review to convince you to read this book because simply want to find out whether you want to read this book or not is evidence enough that you should read this book.
Anyway, now that all of the people that have not read this book are no longer reading this review (I hope) I can now start talking about the content of this book without worrying that it is going to spoil it for anybody. So, if I were to categorise this book I would, without hesitation, refer to it as absurdist literature in the vein of Waiting for Godot. Okay, Samuel Beckett isn't funny, but this book is, but that doesn't necessarily mean that absurdist literature falls into either category – it can be comedy - and in the same vein it can be quite serious. So, while Catch-22 is absolutely hilarious, it uses comedy it expose the hopelessness and meaninglessness of modern society as well as the stupidity of modern bureaucracy.
As I was reading this book I resisted the temptation to jump to a couple of other websites Wikipedia and Sparknotes) to see what they had to say about the themes that are evident in this book, namely because I wanted to work it out for myself. I ended up giving into temptation and going to Sparknotes (which is supposed to be the internet version of the Cliff Notes) and discovered that I had indeed worked it out for myself. However, I do have to point out that while Spark Notes is trying to paint itself as this hip and cool place for school students to go to study their highschool texts, when I read the commentary on Catch-22 I have to say that I found it really dry and boring. In fact I reckon they should sack the guy that writes their notes and hire some of the Booklikes reviewers because we would end up creating much better content than the people they are currently paying.
So, what is the theme of the book? I can sum it up in one simple work – bureaucracy. In fact the whole premise of the book is the absurdity of the bloated bureaucracy. I remember watching a movie back in the 90s called The Net where everybody was pretty much enslaved to what the computer said. If the computer said something then it had to be true simply because the computer doesn't lie. Well, that may be the case but the computer is also as stupid as the person who is entering the information, and to be honest with you there are a lot of stupid people entering information into computers these days. For example here in Australia they have this register called the Written Off Vehicle Register (WOVR). If a vehicle has been entered into that register then it has basically been written off and is not allowed to be driven on the road. So, if you have this perfectly fine car that has nothing wrong with it, and somebody accidentally enters the rego (license) plate onto the WOVR, then it doesn't matter whether your car is roadworthy or not, as far as anybody is concerned (namely the police) it shouldn't be on the road. Don't even ask me about the hassle you have to go through to get your car removed from that register.
The thing is that bureaucracy is as smart as the stupidest clerk in the room, and we see this time and time again. For instance Yossarian moves the bombing line on the map, and all of a sudden everybody believes that the allies have scored a significant victory. Another example is that one of the main characters, who hates flying, but has to clock up a number of hours, is placed on a list of people on a plane, despite the fact that he isn't on the plane. So, when the plane crashes everybody believes that he is dead, despite his protestations to the contrary. It doesn't matter what he says, or does, because is name was on that piece of paper, and because the plane crashed, he is now officially dead.
The way time is construed in this book is really interesting. For most of the book the action is set in this almost timeless universe. It is as if nothing changes – at all. In fact we find ourselves constantly jumping backwards and forwards in time to various events. Heller doesn't use the strict timeline that most authors use because he is creating this timeless aspect of it - much like Groundhog Day. Nothing changes and everything goes on as it has gone on before. The only way that we know that we have jumped forward, or backward, in time is the number of missions that the soldiers have to fly. However as we get to the end of the book, and the main characters begin to die off, time suddenly starts to become important and we start to move forward. It is as if things are starting to change, and the world that we had become used to, where everybody goes about their lives, is no longer there. It is as if we are longing to return to that Groundhog Day because everything is familiar. All of the sudden those characters that we have grown to know and love are no longer there and the world, bleak as it was beforehand, becomes ever more bleaker.
The final thing that I wish to note about this novel is that it is very character centric. Each of the chapters (with the exception of I believe three) are named after specific characters, and have these characters as the main focus. However, while the focus may be on a specific character we always have Yossarian and his mates intruding into the chapters to remind us that there is cohesion to the novel. The main protagonist is Yosarian, a soldier who no longer wants to go up in a plane, namely because of one disastrous mission that he went on, and is in and out of hospital, looking for ways to be able to get home. This is where Catch-22 comes into the picture because we are told that to get into hospital you must have a fear of something, but if you fear death, which is the basis of most fears, and because it is natural to fear death, then there is nothing wrong with you, so you must fly more missions.
It isn't the story that makes this book – there is none – it is the characters, and I have to say that the characters are truly great characters, such as Major Major, who was born with the last name Major, was given the first name Major by his father, and then discovered that he had the middle name Major, and because of a smart-alek computer, was promoted to Major on the first day of joining the army. So, having the title Major Major Major Major he cannot be promoted, or demoted, because there is only one Major Major Major Major in the entire US army and nobody is going to do anything the jeopardise that.
Anyway, I could go on, but I think I have written enough, and will leave with only one thing – if you haven't read this book then go and read it because you really don't know what you are missing.
For those who are interested, I have written a blog post where I explored some of these ideas much more fully.