Saturday, August 8, 2009

169. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

December 2008
History: a satirical, historical novel published in 1961.
Plot: Catch-22 depicts the absurdity and inhumanity of warfare through the experiences of Yossarian, a bombardier pilot stationed on the island of Pianosa (near Italy) in World War II. Heller does not tell Yossarian's story chronologically. Instead, the novel revolves around episodes in Yossarian's life (particularly the gruesome death of Snowden, a young airmnan) and employs flashbacks and digressions to jump back and forth between events.
Yossarian is terrified of flying bombing missions and attempts throughout the novel to escape this duty. He is thwarted, however, by his superiors and by "Catch-22," an ever-changing rule that keeps people subjected to authority.
The novel begins with Yossarian in a military hospital faking a liver ailment. He spends his time censoring letters until a talkative Texan drives him from the safety of the hospital. Upon Yossarian's return to active duty, we learn about the various men in his unit. We meet Orr, Yossarian's short, mechanically-gifted tentmate who keeps being shot down during bombing runs but wants to keep flying; McWatt, who likes to fly low and buzz Yossarian's tent in order to terrify him; Nately, a naive boy in love with a prostitute in Rome (who is only referred to as "Nately's whore") who barely notices him; Doc Daneeka, a depressed doctor continuously lamenting the loss of his lucrative practice in America; Yossarian's navigator, Aarfy, who calmly smokes a pipe and talks while Yossarian yells hysterically during bombing runs; Major Major Major Major, the pitiable squadron commander who resembles Henry Fonda and who avoids contact with everyone, leaping through his office window when people try to see him; Colonel Cathcart, a man so obsessed with promotion that he keeps increasing the men's bombing missions so that he might impress his commander, General Dreedle; and Milo Minderbinder, the unit's morally blind mess officer, a financial genius who believes only in unrestricted capitalism and who forms the M & M Enterprises syndicate, which eventually controls almost all black market commerce in the hemisphere.
Yossarian has been promoted to Captain to cover up the disaster at Ferrara, where six days passed without the squadron destroying a bridge; on the seventh day, Yossarian led a mission on a dangerous second bombing run which destroyed the target but resulted in the deaths of several men. During another incident before Yossarian's stay in the hospital, the men become panicked when they learn they must bomb Bologna, Italy, which they believe is heavily fortified. When they finally fly the Bologna mission, Yossarian pretends his plane is malfunctioning and turns back to Pianosa. Yossarian finds upon the squadron's return, however, that Bologna was a "milk run," an easy mission that involved no enemy resistance. Yossarian is the lead bombardier on the next Bologna mission. To everyone's astonishment, they encounter heavy enemy fire, which Yossarian frantically tries to avoid. Many planes are shot down. After the mission, Yossarian packs and flees to Rome on leave, where he spends his time in a brothel.
On a trip with Milo Minderbinder, Yossarian and Orr fly between countries on various trading missions of Milo's devising. They discover that Milo makes enormous profits buying and selling goods, often to and from himself. Milo reasons that the more he earns, the more the syndicate earns, and every soldier owns a share of the syndicate, though they themselves never see any money from it. Soon, Milo's fleet of planes fly everywhere, including enemy territory. For Milo, no country is an enemy because they all belong to the syndicate (except communist Russia). Milo even begins contracting with both sides to simultaneously attack and defend target sites, which leads to the death of many men. Milo does not blame himself for these deaths because he is merely a middleman, someone making a fair profit off inevitable attacks. Milo's main worry is unloading stockpiles of Egyptian cotton that he bought and now cannot sell. To alleviate his financial straits, Milo contracts with the Germans to bomb his own unit, wreaking great destruction. Milo escapes punishment when he opens the books to his military superiors and reveals the tremendous profit the syndicate realized on this deal.
Soon, a series of tragedies hits the unit. McWatt, while jokingly flying low over the beach, accidently kills a member of the squad, Kid Sampson, with a propeller. McWatt flies the plane into a mountain rather than land. Colonel Cathcart responds to these deaths by raising the missions to sixty-five. Yossarian returns to Rome. Also in Rome, Nately finds the prostitute with whom he is in love and, instead of sleeping with her, allows her to sleep for eighteen hours. When she awakes, she suddenly discovers she loves him. Nately volunteers to fly more missions so he can stay near Rome. On one of these, Nately dies when another plane collides with his. When Yossarian tells Nately's whore of Nately's death, she tries to kill him. Yossarian escapes, but he must keep watch because she continually attempts to ambush him.
In response to Nately's death, Yossarian vows to fly no more missions. The men in his unit secretly tell him they hope he succeeds. Then Yossarian learns that Nately's whore and her younger sister have disappeared after the police cleared out the brothel. Yossarian goes AWOL (absent without leave) and flies to Rome, feeling remorse and guilt over his lost friends, including Orr, whose plane went down after the Bologna mission.
Yossarian begins looking for Nately's whore and her kid sister. In a passage reminiscent of a descent into the Underworld, Yossarian walks the streets and witnesses scenes of horrific brutality. He returns to his room, only to find that Aarfy has raped a woman and then thrown her out the window, killing her. Aarfy's indifference appalls Yossarian. Yet when the police arrive, they arrest Yossarian for being AWOL and apologize to Aarfy for the intrusion.
On Pianosa, Colonel Korn, Cathcart's assistant, informs Yossarian that they are sending him home. Yossarian is a danger to his superiors because he has given the men hope that they, too, can stop flying missions. Yossarian's release comes with one condition: he must become his superiors' "pal" and never criticize them. Yossarian agrees to this "odious" deal. On his way out, Nately's whore attacks him, stabbing him in the side.
While sitting in the hospital, Yossarian recalls in full Snowden's death. During a mission, Snowden is wounded and Yossarian tries to treat him, discovering a large wound in Snowden's upper leg. Snowden keeps complaining that he is cold, even after Yossarian bandages the wound. Yossarian cautiously looks for another wound and removes Snowden's flak suit. Snowden's insides pour out. This moment traumatizes Yossarian, causing him to watch Snowden's funeral from a distance while sitting nude in a tree. Snowden's death has taught Yossarian a secret: "Man was matter. The spirit gone, man is garbage. Ripeness was all."
Major Danby from Yossarian's unit comes to see him. Yossarian tells him that he is refusing the "odious" deal, but Danby informs him that if he refuses to cooperate, Korn and Cathcart will court-martial him on a variety of charges, some real, most invented. Still, if he takes the deal, Yossarian would violate the memory of his friends and would hate himself. The squad's Chaplain Tappman rushes in and informs them that Orr was not killed when his plane crashed, but rowed to Sweden in a life boat. Yossarian realizes that all of Orr's crash landings were practice runs for this escape. Yossarian decides to escape as well, first to Rome to save Nately's whore's kid sister, then to Sweden. He is afraid but feels very good. As he leaves the hospital, Nately's whore jumps out, misses him with a knife, and he runs.
Review: Catch-22 is a novel about the absurdity and self-perpetuating insanity of bureaucracies, particularly military bureaucracies. It's a comedic attack on the rules that such organizations make and self-centered people who make them. It's also a surprisingly poignant and powerful anti-war novel, one that questions the foundations of patriotism and obedience that lead soldiers to fight.
Opening Line: “It was love at first site.”
Closing Line: “The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.”
Quotes: "He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive."
"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own 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 was 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle."
Rating. Difficult

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