Joseph Heller's Catch-22 took some years to write and his concerted effort and talents paid off in what justifiably remains his most famous and read novel. It is a great satire on war (in this case World War 2, though it applies equally to all wars), and it is a classic work of fiction. Please don't let the word 'classic' put you off or make you consider that in any way it is daunting or actually dull to read (the same applies to the great 18th, 19th and other 20th century 'classic' novels, whether - to name a few off the top of my head (all of which are published in very cheap, reliable editions with good introductions and further recommended reading) - Crime and Punishment, The Trial, Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and The Way We Live Now. The term simply means that the fiction conveys a great story and is beautifully, compellingly written, so that it draws you in throughout the read and bathes you in its fascinating characters and their experiences, such that you don't ever really want to look up and 'return' to the real world until you've finished the last page. It is also astonishing to reflect that this was Heller's first published novel, which is a marvellous achievement in itself.
I've now read the novel twice, once in my early teens, and just the other day, in my early 40s. Set during World War 2, from the American viewpoint, and mostly in an American Air Force base on the small island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean (with a number of chapters based in Rome and Bologna), what I appreciated as a teen remained a joy in my latest reading: the novel's acerbic, mordant, beautifully phrased descriptions - and always terrific dialogue - of its superbly, vividly realised principal male characters (it is for the characters alone, their action, description of, and dialogue, that makes this a novel classic). Each chapter, save a few - 'Bologna', 'Thanksgiving', 'The Cellar' and 'The Eternal City' - is essentially focused on conveying one individual person and personality, history and quirks of his or her experience of their world and their relationships with and perception of a number of the other characters.
Quite rightly, given the satire is most focused on two key themes - the absurdity of war in its treatment of those who actually have to do the fighting, and the madness of government-made war bureaucracies and those in command - all of whom, in all their conforming to ridiculous Defence Department hierarchies, politicking and subterfuge, egomaniacal devotion to getting the right 'numbers' to 'look good' to their seniors, rather than actually ever considering and acting on the real nature of what they're doing and its impact on those who serve - Heller devotes three separate chapters to Milo Minderbender, a mess officer and innate neo-liberal (Milton Friedman-type neo-liberal economics, I mean!).
From being a humble mess officer in Pianosa's American Air Force base, Milo quickly becomes an unashamed war profiteer, and is Catch-22's most brilliantly realised character, because of his mad greed, unswerving self-belief that whatever he does, is inherently, unquestionably right and just for the war effort in general, and America, the Allies, and peace - i.e., everyone and everything; and his Machiavellian genius in the machinations and genius-like manipulation of government bureaucracy (such as making deals with the German enemy and bombing his own air force base to improve the profit of his 'M & M Syndicate [or Enterprises]' ['M & M' standing for 'Milo & Minderbender']. About the Syndicate, he says "What's good for M & M Enterprises will be good for the country", and to which he says all men, whether listed or those with rank, have an automatic equal share; on this latter note, amusingly and absurdly, when an irate Major insists on getting his 'share' immediately, Milo writes the word 'A Share' on a worthless scrap of paper, tears it off and hands it to him, but the action commands the respect of all the men - as do all his actions, commanding not just respect, but commandeering with the approval of Colonels and Generals, many other military resources, including countless B-52 bombers for his business, and the awe of the American and German higher command and governments and war departments, besides others, never mind the fact that he becomes the elected mayor of Palermo and several other towns and cities in Sicily and Italy, simply 'because he had brought Scotch to Sicily', even though the locals are too poor to buy Scotch, it becomes a part of Milo's import-export business).
Besides Milo, you get to relish a kaleidoscope of the most marvellous characters in fiction, drawn - as with all Heller's male characters in Catch-22 - with relentless brio, precision, satire and an author's love for the absurd, painful and pitiable - especially, but not only, the main character, Yossarian, who, more than any other in the novel (besides Hungry Joe), recognises the madness of his situation, and the fascistic, OTT demands of Colonel Cathcart who increases on a regular basis the number of bombing missions his men have to fly (so they never get rotated out of duty and return home for a period, as is their normal right). For your reading plesaure, there are also the formidably terrifying Major ____ de Coverley (so terrifying, everyone is too scared to ever ask him what his first name is), the pathetic Major Major Major Major (the first three being his cursed actual name, the last being his rank), the self-pitying Doc Daneeka who insists his suffering is always worse than others, even though he's never had to face combat duty, ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen (whose understanding and control of the communications of memoranda make him more powerful than even the generals), the sad, lonely Chaplain, the wonderfully named Lieutenant (later General) Scheisskopf, the apparently clownish and inane but actually clever Orr, who loves stuffing his cheeks with either crab apples or horse chestnuts... and who successfully plans and implements an escape to Sweden and freedom in a liferaft from his B-52 bomber; and there are more larger than life personalities, besides.
My only criticism about the novel now, and sadly it's significant - and one that unfortunately I hadn't realised as an early teen (my sad excuse being that my growing up internalising sexist social conditioning didn't help!) - is how very poorly all the women are portrayed in the novel: none of them whatsoever has any real independent life of thoughts of her own. They are only perceived through the male gaze; in fact, only the Chaplain's wife comes close to being appreciated lovingly as a real woman - so that all of them are never anything more than sexual objects of male lust, and unquestioningly adopt and present themselves as such objectifications soley for the men's gratification. It is tremendously sad that one of the classic works of satire and 20th century fiction is so abysmal and an utter failure in its effort - or rather, perhaps, Heller's own sexism/ignorance/apathy - to portray or understand women in a three-dimensional way; none of them display wit, intelligence or qualities of character; most are, quite literally, simply 'whores' or characterised as such (in fact, one chapter is simply titled 'Nately's Whore'), though of course without ever a real insight or inkling of the challenges and trials faced by women as a result of the real world of prostitution. (For those who would excuse Heller for his sexism - conscious or otherwise - because he published the novel in 1961, before the so-called second wave of feminism - I would counterpoint with the fact that there have been many great works of fiction pre-1961, in which there are credible and convincing, fully realised female characters: not just Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina, but such diverse novels as The Female Quixote: or The Adventures of Arabella (Oxford World's Classics), Evelina: Or the History of A Young Lady's Entrance into the World (Oxford World's Classics), Their Eyes Were Watching God, Cecilia: or Memoirs of an Heiress (Oxford World's Classics), Mrs. Dalloway (Wordsworth Classics), Wuthering Heights (Wordsworth Classics), Jane Eyre, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, A View of the Harbour (Virago Modern Classics), and Moll Flanders (Wordsworth Classics) besides countless others.)
While I do recommend this novel to readers who've never read Catch-22, I would suggest that if the above caveat cannot be tolerated (and this would be entirely understandable), it may perhaps be best to avoid reading it. On the other hand, this would sadly leave you unaware of the many other worthy joys of character, description and dialogue of this great work of satiric fiction. And it has one of the most simple, charming opening lines of any fiction: 'It was love at first sight.'show more