Book #127: Catch-22 (1961)

catch22author: Joseph Heller
language: English with some Italian
length: 984 minutes (16 hours, 24 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 Feb 2017

It looks like my other trend at the moment is going through classic twentieth century literature (following 1984), with the help of Audible, which pushes such books on me.

Catch 22 is such a ubiquitous phrase in English, it’s hard to go into this without a preconceived notion of what it means – plus the inevitable question “What’s Catch 21?”, to which I think the answer is, there isn’t one. Joseph Heller pulled the phrase from nowhere, it seems. But I don’t have a very clear idea after reading the book, as it seems to apply to a lot of situations, and may not even exist. Essentially it’s about men trying to get out of the military by exploiting the rules.

I think if I’d read this in high school, as so many others have, I probably would have hated it. I mentioned this a couple of years ago when I listened to a recorded version of Hamlet – I think the intervening ten or eleven years’ maturing have made a big impact on my ability to enjoy these books. I also enjoyed the delivery of the audiobook narrator in this case. Choosing to read a book and being forced will also have a different impact on me.

It’s hard to summarize everything that happens in the book, as it does drag on a bit toward the end. It’s set during the second world war, and is a satirical look at military incompetence. Every other line is something else comedic, people taking their orders too literally, or a dilemma of some kind. It’s quite relentless, and it’s very frustrating to hear the conversations playing out. But I found it very funny too.

I was reminded strongly of Full Metal Jacket (which I’ve seen only the first half of) with the depiction of the military officers. I wonder where this depiction came from originally. Is it real? I have a hard time seriously believing that.

There are also so many characters in the book it can be hard to keep track of – but they all have some kind of backstory or joke attached to them, and the book tries to jump around the different characters. In the first part it does this a lot more and also jumps around time too, making it difficult to follow what happens – in the later parts it starts following a more linear narrative, and near the end more characters start dying, once we’ve become emotionally attached to some of them, and the book takes on a more serious tone.

I liked Yossarian as a character, and I sympathized a lot with his ever-more-futile attempts to get discharged. I liked the weird mid-book section where he follows Milo around a bunch of other countries, who turns out to be hailed as a leader in half the places they visit. I liked the chaplain’s constant internal debates. I liked the commander constantly increasing the required missions for frivolous reasons. I liked the bits (despite the obvious and rampant misogyny) where they go to Rome and interact with the “whores”, but can’t understand each other’s language. I think there were a lot of good moments – if not always tied together very well.

But I’m sure others have made a more coherent summary of this book than I could ever. I’m not really here for that. I want to recommend this book – for the main part, on the strength of its wordplay and characterization. I also liked that the book would call back on a throwaway joke it made earlier – I think this shows a mastery of literary style on Heller’s part, along with his obviously high command of the English language.

What do you think? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who had to read this in school. Is it true that these books are better appreciated once you have a bit more life experience under your belt?

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One Response to Book #127: Catch-22 (1961)

  1. Pappa Chalmers says:

    I read this while I was at school in 1973-4. My father picked it up and read it and thought it was brilliant and so did the Depute Head. So I may have started something. I think it was probably over my head and it’s a book for adults.

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