Every issue The College Tribune will bring you a featured literary work that you should read in order to solidify your position as an intelligent, order to-be-taken- seriously academic.
(If you’ve stumbled upon this section on your way to Sport, this goes for you as well!)
So get your spectacles out and read on.
Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
Why should you read Catch 22? While it is certainly a very highly thought of book, frequently appearing in the top ten lists of greatest books of the 20th century what does it really mean and why should you read it as opposed to hundreds of other “classics”? What is it that makes Catch 22 so important that it warrants reading over other titles? One way of justifying it would be looking at its influence on the world. Catch 22 is a book which has imprinted itself into the English language. The fact that is has changed the way we speak and write. The catch 22 as a phrase is one which addresses a no win situation, in other words you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Focusing on outside plaudits and coining of a term though don’t allow you to truly appreciate what it is that makes this novel so fantastic. The novel which is set during the second world war at a US airbase on a small island off the coast of Italy follows a 28 year old bombardier named John Yossarian who’s main goal in the war is to stay alive. Hardly an incomprehensible desire, yet it is quite a difficult one to realise when one is fighting in a war and is hardly helped when your squadron is commanded by someone like Colonel Cathcart who “had courage and never hesitated to volunteer his men for any target available”.
The plot of the novel then isn’t one with an overall narrative arc, rather a way of reflecting the lives of the soldiers who fought it while also approaching the harrowing subject matter with a biting satirical wit and an appreciation for the absurd. This appreciation of the absurd while also of course being so critical of the bureaucratic systems which create such absurdity is what gives Catch 22 much of its charm. The titular Catch 22 is memorably explained when Yossarian is asking to be grounded as he is so terrified by the idea of flying anymore missions “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 were 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.” Yossarian’s whistle in awe of the ridiculous yet logical nature of the clause is a way which the author and even the reader manage to be present in the protagonist as looking at it as a source of absurdist humour is the only way for Yossarian not to become insane.
These paradoxes then can be seen as quite central to the novel yet they are not the only source of humour with one notable source of humour being Milo Minderbender the mess hall officer for the island. Milo is a striking satire on the privatisation of war as he with his “syndicate” makes huge profits in the black market and eventually bombing his own airfield as he is contracted to do it by the Germans. He escapes treason charges due to his reason being capitalism which is obviously a biting attack on the McCarthy era which was ongoing while Heller was writing the book.
This book is not just a humorous black satire though, as in contrast to the absurd and ridiculous circumstances that the characters find themselves in there is the contrast with the very real threat of death. As the novel progresses the majority of Yossarian’s friends begin to vanish from the novel while the detestable and insane characters carry on and continue to succeed. The very striking contrasts between the episodes of humour and heartbreak are what make this book not just an intelligent and witty satire but one of the all time great books as it confronts the loss of humanity which is forced onto us in not just times of war but in an increasingly bureaucratic world.
Eoghan O Riain