This book is a lament for the world we live in. It knows there is no victory over death. The best you can hope for, in Joseph Heller’s view, is to persevere. He is not a cynical writer, as some may claim, because a cynic doesn’t have sympathy with anyone else. Heller is more the way I picture God: he’s smitten with the human race. All the poor luckless bastards of the world are Heller’s people: the inefficient and the inopportune; the people whose minds have cracked; whose spines have dissolved; those who can scarce face the thought of living… They are the heroes of Catch 22. Here is an epic for the bungled and the botched. There are no great deeds, and no innocents are saved. The hero wins because he refuses to die.
John Yossarian is an American bombardier stationed on the small Italian island of Pianosa during the Second World War. He has decided he does not want to fly any more combat missions. Yossarian tells his superiors that he has gone insane. Unfortunately, he has not reckoned on the insanity of the United States Air Force, and the almighty, elliptical power of Catch 22, which stipulates that: flying combat missions is crazy, so, ipso facto, there are no sane bombardiers. Faced with hypocrisy and contradiction everywhere he looks, Yossarian turns to sex and idleness as his only shelter. But as everyone knows, sex and idleness offer only a temporary boon. The world only spares us from unfairness when we shut our eyes.
This book is very hard on the reader. It’s not just the absurdist style it’s written in, with its undone chronology and stubborn refusal to create proper people and proper sense of place; it’s the not just the jokes that ware themselves out across page after page, or the way women are treated with a level of misogyny bordering on the profane; it’s the hard truths that make it a hard book to read: life as an endless series of repetitions, punctuated by death. That’s a bleak ontological premise for a comedy, and if it wasn’t for the book’s raddled heart, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was written out of spite. But for every maddening loop the loop in the narration, there’s always an equal tenderness, some sad bit of wisdom that makes you smile in wry admiration. Like Catch 22 itself, you’re always struck by how true it is to life, even as the book toys with your suspension of disbelief, and warps the fabric of reality.
You can argue that Heller creates a disjointed world deliberately, to nurture feelings of unease and disarray. But this isn’t a horror story in the sense that he’s out to frighten you. Re-reading the book, I was reminded of something David Foster Wallace once said, about the duty of fiction: “to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable”. It’s back to my point about the book’s essential humanity. Because it’s the world that’s bewildering and cruel, and this book is a cry of anguish. Jean-Paul Sartre once said: “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”. John Yossarian chooses to point out the inequity of life. It’s beyond his power to make life fair. But he can choose to be the righteous voice of dissent.
Yossarian’s grievance is with the world. War is just a pretext. The same systems that reduce men to a handy means of delivering bombs, or the same systems that create the need for organising wars in the first place, are the same systems that govern any aspect of life where people are asked to engage in tasks that put their souls at risk. The modern office shows military precision in the way it grinds people down. Efficacy is deadly when it supersedes all else. Most people are not impermeable to stress. But the world harries us, and makes endless demands, even as we crumble. In Catch 22, the “grim secret” that gets revealed to Yossarian is that: “Man [is] matter… The spirit gone, man is garbage… Ripeness [is] all.”
My God sees the world like Joseph Heller: full of people in torment; only some with the wit to stay alive. In a chapter from Catch 22 entitled “The Eternal City”, Yossarian wanders the streets of Rome, trying to save a lost girl, as a parade of nightmares accosts him on every street. He fails to save anybody. But unlike, say, the way Cormac McCarthy might write this chapter; as testament to man’s indigenous rage, Joseph Heller writes from the viewpoint of the bewildered. Catch 22 does not say, like Blood Meridian: Here is the hard truth of the world. Now quail, sinners! Quail! Catch 22 says: Here is the hard truth of the world. You’re all trapped. You’re all weaklings. Just thank God, Joseph Heller is on your side.