by Darragh Fitzpatrick

Fifty years after its initial publication, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 remains one of the great satirical books of all time. It serves not only as a wonderful piece of satire, but as a critique of the absurdities of bureaucracy and, to a lesser extent, war. Indeed, it is the absurdist nature of the novel that conveys the underlying message so effectively, without sacrifycing comic value.

Set on the Italian island of Pianosa in the latter stages of World War II in Europe, Catch-22 follows a US Army bombardier squad condemned to flying life-threatening missions at the whim of faceless generals. Although the book largely centres around John Yossarion, a bombardier desperately trying to escape these missions, it describes events on and off the island through the perspective of many different characters. This means that various accounts of one event are offered by Heller, one of the novel’s key distinguishing features.

The non-chronological order of the plot is another distinct technique employed by Heller. Heller frequently jumps back and forth between events so the plot develops quite slowly. This does not diminish the story’s appeal as Heller uses the scattered timeline to add fresh bits of information that ultimately create a clearer picture of the plot, often to humourous effect. This method also allows events on the island to be concisely explained to the reader by revisiting preceding events that gave rise to the current situation.

Almost all of Catch-22‘s characters are gross caricatures of the people Heller encountered when he served as a bombardier during World War II. One character, Milo Minderbinder, is so committed to making a profit for his “syndicate” that he bombs his own squadron. Instead of being vilified for killing his own men, Milo is celebrated for making money for his syndicate in which everyone “has a share”. The surreal nature of Milo’s lust for profit is typical of the book’s theme; a satirical device used to criticise an evil (capitalism with no allegiance but profit in this case).

Such is the book’s influence that the term Catch-22 has entered the English language. Heller’s Catch-22 is a logical paradox that appears in numerous guises throughout the book. It is regularly used by the military bureaucracy to justify their actions. One instance of its use occurs when a bombardier seeks exclusion from flying missions on grounds of insanity; since the bombardier does not want to fly life-threatening missions, this is used as proof that he is sane and therefore cannot be grounded due to insanity.

Catch-22 is ultimately a very enjoyable read that rewards the reader with dark humour and hilariously distorted characters. Beneath the satire lies a criticism of administrative powers that remains as relevant today as when the book was first published in 1961.

Darragh blogs about football at ‘Ball Between Two‘. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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