Saturday, 5 March 2016

Book #07

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller


At the heart of Catch-22 resides the incomparable, malingering bombardier, Yossarian, a hero endlessly inventive in his schemes to save his skin from the horrible chances of war.
His problem is Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions that he's committed to flying, he's trapped by the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, the bureaucratic rule from which the book takes its title: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes the necessary formal request to be relieved of such missions, the very act of making the request proves that he's sane and therefore, ineligible to be relieved.

This was either my fourth or fifth attempt at conquering this novel. I could never come to grips with the prose, the non-linear time structure, or the abject sense of chaos the entire premise conveys, and I don't think I was alone in that mindset. This time, those were the things I loved most about Catch-22, and Heller's commentary on the madness of war was able to grasp and hold me.

Rather than describe the transgressions and obscenities of WW2, Heller shows us the nonsensical, insane, and entirely ludicrous side of war. The bureaucratic decision making processes are hilarious, yet terrifying. The reasoning of the soldiers puzzling, yet justifiable. He gives us a jumble of events, characters, and rules, and allows us to pick these apart with what feels like only a minuscule amount of assistance.

The narrative is haphazard, chronologically unsound, and utter bedlam. There's foreshadowing, backshadowing, confusion and frustration. Heller sets up jokes and delivers the punchline 200 pages later. He kills off characters in the beginning and tells us their stories at the end. He tells us he's killing them off, then leaves us in suspense until he does. The madness of Pianosa is delivered perfectly by baffling the reader from the outset.

All of Heller's characters are crazy in their own ways, yet developed to the point of adoration. Their logic is utter nonsense, but justified by various facets of Catch-22's ruling. Their dreams and aspirations are as unachievable and ridiculous as the next, yet all pursue these with conviction burning away any concepts of the obvious. They argue with each other in absurdities; completely groundless and crazy reasoning supports the bureaucracy and is accepted by all in this institution of war.

These insane, irritating eccentrics, however, are all as delectable as can be imagined. Heller's foreshadowing of characters deaths, or his heartless killing of them, came as a blow every single time. His tone changes from light to dark abruptly, and this in itself foreshadows catastrophe. You're immersed in comedic commentary, laughing at his black humour, before being catapulted into the atrocities of frenzy. Utterly unsettling, this gives a real stomach lurch, and can only be reminiscent of Heller's wartime experiences.

I'm glad I finally allowed this genius novel into my life. I learned to roll with the chaos. Become consumed by the madness, and you'll understand perfectly how to appreciate this novel.

No comments: