November's Book: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
During WWII, Yossarian is stationed with his Air Force squadron on the island of Pianosa near the Italian coast in the Mediterranean Sea. Yossarian is under the thumb of superiors who promise that after flying a certain number of missions—initially, I think it’s around 30—he'll be released from his duties and finally able to go home. But every time he gets close to completing the required missions, the Colonials raise the number. (By the end the number is 80). Yossarian, after searching for any excuse to leave, discovers that people who are diagnosed as crazy aren’t obliged to fly missions.
Now, this is sort of difficult to explain. Yossarian declares he’s insane but the Colonials don’t let him stop flying missions. They say that anyone who would want to fly is insane, and anyone who says they’re insane in an attempt to stop flying is showing a rational concern for his safety and is, therefore, deemed sane to fly. Confusing, right? He becomes trapped by the one catch—Catch-22—a law of paradoxical, circular reasoning and is left to rot in a world beset with death, illness and bureaucratic corruption.
The novel is told in a number of tangential-like chapters which steer from the action of the front line to the ‘everyday relationships within bureaucratic authority’ said Heller. The postwar masterpiece, like other works in the peace-not-war movement of the 60s, illustrates a very unflattering image of war by stripping all romantic pretenses away from battle and shining a light on the manipulative rhetoric of the colonials who used patriotic platitudes like ‘Die for the love of your country’ to justify exploiting soldiers’ services for self-serving gambits.
Yossarian is both the most luny and paradoxically the sanest. He believes a dead man haunts his room, suffers severe panic attacks in threatening situations—unlike the other soldiers who can maintain a certain calm in the face of death—and is afflicted by a mighty sex addiction. But he also has an acute discernment. Yossarian critiques the power-driven political rhetoric of wartime which becomes the satirical driving force of this nightmarish comedy.
From the outset, Heller’s prose is circular and repetitive—much like a catch-22—a style which allows him to paradoxically delve into the grotesque and hilarity of human nature, touching on the vulnerability of men with a finessed sensitivity, humour and insight.
A few people in the book club said it was a hard book to follow. Given the logical irrationality of the book, maybe we're not supposed to get it, and by not getting it, we’re actually getting it, and to say that we get it, is not getting it? Or is that a catch-22?