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Tuesday
Jun052012

1962

Catch-22

By Joseph Heller

Original and Current Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Matthew Eck writes:

Catch-22 is one of the greatest war novels ever written. Yet we rarely delve into combat and we never really get to meet the enemy. But of course, that’s the point. If a net, as Julian Barnes points out, “is a collection of holes tied together with string,” then Catch-22 is a novel about mortality that is held together by humor. It blends humor and sorrow as well as Don Quixote. These two novels are of the same family tree.

Catch-22 is as much about the world of war as it is about the world of business. You can as easily read it and shake your head at all our wars, as you can read it and shake your head at Wall Street. The novel hums with the harmony of logic and insanity. Gods and devils have their roles as well. They only want to be liked. Notes of spirituality explode like shrapnel throughout. “The spirit gone, man is garbage.”

I first read Catch-22 in college. I would have been twenty-four, fresh out of the Army. I’m sure that I laughed in all the right places and cried in all the right places, but looking at the notes scribbled in it I don’t think that I fully understood irony yet—not that irony is the only thing the novel has to offer. If the professor told me something was full of irony I’d put a giant I next to the section. I don’t think I understood irony at twenty-four like I do now. Then I had my combat patch at nineteen. Now I have three young boys. I worry a little more about war now than I did when I was in the Army. 

I taught the novel a few years ago and was amazed by its technical brilliance. The chapters play against each other at pitch-perfect speed. For such a large novel it maintains its momentum remarkably well. There’s no fluff to be found. The wordplay and the ideas that offer themselves up to a good reader on every page are worth an investment of extra time. I’ll admit though, Heller was lost on more than a few of my students. Maybe we should have spent a day or two on irony. I told them a few stories about my time in the Army. Maybe I should have told them what it’s like to have children and what you’d do to keep them from war. 

The novel begins with love—or the irony of love: “It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” I like to think it’s love because what good is a war without love? Yossarian’s love is one of self and survival. But there’s a spiritual side of the book as well, hence love for the chaplain.

The book begins with the clear distinction between the world inside the hospital and the world outside the hospital. Yossarian is safest inside the hospital and runs back to it whenever he can. The reader is quickly introduced to the world as seen by Yossarian and the world as seen by others. This is where I think its kinship with Don Quixote resides. There’s the world of Yossarian and the world of those trying to kill him, which is everyone as far as he’s concerned.

The novel hums with the perfect balance of insanity and sanity.

There is a great moment in the book where Yossarian is confronted by one of the casualties of war:

He wondered about the pink chemise that she would not remove. It was cut like a man’s undershirt, with narrow shoulder straps, and concealed the invisible scar on her back that she refused to let him see after he had made her tell him it was there. She grew tense as fine steel when he traced the mutilated contours with his finger tip from a pit in her shoulder blade almost to the base of her spine. He winced at the many tortured nights she had spent in the hospital, drugged or in pain, with the ubiquitous, ineradicable odors of ether, fecal matter and disinfectant, of human flesh mortified and decaying amid the white uniforms, the rubber-soled shoes, and the eerie night lights glowing dimly until dawn in the corridors. She had been wounded in an air raid.

“Dove?” he asked, and he held his breath in suspense.

“Napoli.”

“Germans?”

“Americani.”

His heart cracked, and he fell in love. He wondered if she would marry him.

If you leave Yossarian alone long enough he’ll fall in love with someone. I like that about him. Of course she won’t marry him. She tells him he’s insane for wanting to marry her. But there’s that beautiful movement from “Dove” to “Napol” to “Germans” to Yosarrian’s grim discovery that they were American bombs dropped on her in that air raid. The number of civilian casualties in the allied air raids is staggering. Luciana’s lone face amidst a number that most of us can’t even imagine is again one of the great little attributes in Catch-22. Luciana lends the horror of war a face.

Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.

Snowden is of course the ghost that chases us through the book. The humorous strings that hold the grim morality of the novel together lead us toward the loss of Snowden. 

I would like to think that we will one day live in a world without war and the hypocrisy of certain aspects of big business. But until then we have Catch-22 casting its net far and wide. 

Matthew Eck’s debut novel, The Farther Shore, was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection. Among other honors, the novel won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the Society of Midland Authors Award for fiction, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Someone should make a film of that book. Eck received his MFA from the University of Montana. He currently lives in Kansas City. (Photo: Katie Cramer Eck)

Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Winner That Year: Walker Percy for The Moviegoer

Fiction Judges That Year: Lewis Gannett, Herbert Gold, Jean Stafford

The Year in Literature:

  • The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature. 

More Information: Heller was a Fiction Finalist once more, in 1975 for his second novel, Something Happened.

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