09 February 2011

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Thoughts and Reflections:
I admit this novel boggled me. It is a strange combination of farce, general nothingness, and
incredibly heavy topics. Never once was I able to trust what I was reading, for one sentence would be contracted in the next. Often the tale would ramble off on something seemingly unimportant and nonsensical. I was never quite able to laugh at the seemingly humorous instances, for they were wrapped up in a great tragedy. Yet, at other times, the situation was completely overwhelming.

Much of the book kind of had the flavour of the old television show M*A*S*H, which satirised life in a mobile medical unit during the Korean WarThe book came first and I wondered if the television show drew from the book at all... Just a thought...

The author satirised a myriad of aspects such as working to fly the set amount of missions and having that amount incessantly raised, the death of one's companions, the inadequacies and over-bureaucratic nature of the American military, the war itself, profiteering and profiteers, military ambition and rank, soldiers and prostitutes, and the medical system. 

The author relentlessly mocks the military bureaucracy and how individuals get caught up in its chaos. A man is dead, but they can't declare it because he never properly reported for duty. Another man is alive, but thought to be dead and is not able to sort out his situation. One man is declared insane and sent home when he is perfectly sane and has only been confused with a different man. And so on... Many of these instances were both funny to read, but I had sympathy pains for those involved. 

Towards the end of the novel, the plot became increasingly serious, even gruesome and nightmarish. Topics were discussed without being satirised, such as the value of human life and the right to kill. At this point, I had an even stronger compassion for the protagonist and at last began to appreciate and understand the novel. The author depicts the dilemma of realising the needs of others, whilst being totally unable to help, having only ineffective words to attempt to comfort someone that is suffering. For instance, Yossarian desperately tried to help a dying man, but is unable to save his life and can only console him by repeatedly saying, "there, there." However, despite this nightmarish section, the ending offers a sense of hope. This strange ability of humanity to survive, even survive seemingly impossible situation provides the protagonist with a sense of hope and opportunity. Not surprisingly, the author closes the book with a befuddling, strange, funny, and somehow happy ending.

All in all, I did enjoy the book. About 3/4 of the way through, I was sort of ready for it to end, but found the final chapters captivating and thought provoking.  Most of the book is fairly nonsensical. Some of the instances that were discussed, though satirically described, were very difficult to absorb. Other instances were seemingly purely for humours-sake. Others were just embarrassingly painful. I feel as though I may have missed some of the meaning of many of the events. I would say the book is worth a read. It is a love-hate journey for certain, but I theorise that that was the author's intention...

Brief Synopsis:
The protagonist, Yossarian, a crass, lecherous, an emotional train wreck, prone to temper tandtrums and far from a stable individual, was rather endearing. His situation was a difficult one: a WWII bombardier on the Italian front who flies mission after mission, losing a few compatriots along the way, and desperately hoping to fly a set number of missions and go home. Unfortunately for him, that set number of missions is repeatedly raised. He is on the brink of insanity and trying just about everything to get himself grounded and return home. The protagonist is a fellow that is struggling against a great wrong, or many wrongs, amidst a war. 

Each chapter is named after one of the many characters in the story. However, the chapter may not actually provide that characters story, but the story of another character. Each chapter, however, paints a bit more of the overall picture and always gives a bit more information on the protagonist. 

Point of Interest:
A Catch-22 is a logical paradox arising from a situation in which an individual needs something that can only be acquired by not being in that very situation. As such, the acquisition of this thing is logically impossible. For example, in order to be proved crazy to be grounded from flying combat missions, one must be declared unfit. In order to be declared unfit, one must ask for an evaluation. Asking for an evaluation is proof of sanity.

About the Author:
Joseph Heller was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York in 1923. He worked a string of odd jobs after completing high school before joining the US Army Air Corps in 1942. He was sent to the Italian front in 1944, where he flew 60 missions as a B25 bombardier. Afterwards, he studied English at the University of Southern California and NYU, going on to receive an MA in 1949 from the Columbia University. He spent a year at Oxford University and taught at Pennsylvania State and Yale. He married in 1945 and was first published in 1948 when the Atlantic printed some of his short stories. Catch-22 was published in 1961. 

Things I Enjoyed about this Novel:
1. Yossarian, the protagonist. He was complex character that was a web of controversies: unquestioningly insane and the most sane individual on site; totally immoral yet somehow honourable; he was hateful and angry as well as kind and considerate. 

2. It's hard to say what I loved, because almost every event or character was both endearing and hateful. I enjoyed the discussion of the ridiculous military bureaucracy, but I was also uber frustrated with it. Likewise for the discussion on war profiteering... It's hard to say what I enjoyed, but overall, I did enjoy the novel.

3. The ending. The author somehow balances the nightmare of war and the incredibly frustrating experiences of the protagonist with a sense of hope and humour. 

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