This book came to me via English A level, and if nothing else it is quite remarkable that it survived the A level study process; Passage to India became a sorry casualty of the literary dissection that disengaged teenagers can muster. We had a sufficiently groovy English teacher who had steered us in the direction of Heller’s masterpiece, and the book dazzled me. Unlike everything else we were made to read the book has never left me, I think I re-read it every two or three years, and every time it comes at me completely differently.
Of course, studying it for A level fortunately did not touch on how funny it is, bleakly blacky, laugh out loud funny; I’m not sure the examiners would have been able to set a question to measure Heller’s comic cloth. Catch 22 seems to be the work of an absurdist, but so much of what he writes chimes with memoirs of the war in the Med – the humour amongst the men, the bureaucratic tangle of military organisation, and most of all the arbitrary nature of life and death in combat, all fit into Heller’s comic vision of the business of being in a bomber crew during the Second World War. It is conventional wisdom that his book was really “about” Korea and Vietnam, those wars gave the book relevance when it was published, but as the Second World War becomes something we can perhaps be more dispassionate about historically, I’d suggest that Catch 22, (Heller’s deliberate anachronisms notwithstanding) can be firmly placed in the time it is set.
The eponymous Catch – to be grounded you’d have to be crazy, but to ask to be grounded would mean you were sane – sums up Heller’s style – his prose is, like the air force, a parade of relentless contradictions.
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.
When I first read it the cut-up narrative style was kind of baffling – there was a story lurking, waiting to be revealed, what happened to Snowden over Bologna. Heller tells this story like a shaggy dog joke, seeding the incident as he goes, knowing perhaps that the best way to explain the event’s aftermath is to delay revealing it, the way we shy away from a bad memory even while dealing with its effects. But again: this is a funny book, a laugh out loud book, and because it is so funny it takes you closer to the truth than a more straightforward “war is hell” tome, sidling up the hysterical horrors of war without browbeating your conscience: Yossarian’s conscience is doing the work for you. This book changed my life because it made me feel if you can do funny like this – complex, operating on several comic and ironic levels all at once, about this – life, death, war, youth, madness, then comedy is the highest art form of all. Heller was asked why he hadn’t written anything as good as Catch 22 he replied: “No. But nor has anyone else”. Hard to disagree.