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Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 11:34 GMT
What is Catch-22? And why does the book matter?
BBC News Online users voted to read Catch-22 for World Book Day 2002. What is Catch-22? What is the book about? And why has it become such a modern classic? Owen Booth writes.

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"Catch-22 n. 1. a situation in which a person is frustrated by a paradoxical rule or set of circumstances that preclude any attempt to escape from them. 2. a situation in which any move that a person can make will lead to trouble [C20: from the title of a novel (1961) by J. Heller]" [Collins]

Regular surveys of the most significant novels of the 20th Century, whether chosen by literary critics or the book buying public, tend to produce the same set of titles.

Joyce's Ulysses, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, 100 years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

But only one of the titles regularly appearing in those critics and readers' top tens introduced a phrase to the English language that would go on to have a life of its own, and which sums up a concept that seems to have been around forever.

Joseph Heller
Heller: Died in 1999
Joseph Heller began work on Catch-22, the story of a US airman's attempts to survive the madness of the Second World War, shortly after returning from the conflict himself.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States, Heller had joined the US Air Force in 1942 at the age of 19, going on to fly 60 bombing missions against enemy targets over Southern Europe.

After the war, while working as an advertising copywriter, he spent seven years writing a novel that reflected his experience, and what he saw as the insanity of military life.

The book - which was originally titled Catch-18 - tells the story of Captain Joseph Yossarian, a member of a US bomber crew stationed on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa. Yossarian is convinced that the military is trying to get him killed, and that those around him are insane, and he spends the book trying to get out of flying any more seemingly suicidal missions.

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.

Joseph Heller, defining Catch-22
Yossarian is surrounded by a cast of bizarre characters, including Colonel Scheisskopf, obsessed with winning military parades at the expense of just about everything else, the newly promoted Major Major, who spends most of the war trying to hide from his men, and the profiteer Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder, a pure capitalist whose only ambition is to make money out of the war, and who ends up charging a commission on every military engagement.

Using satire, black humour and seemingly undefeatable logic, the book argues that war is insane, that the military is insane, and that, quite probably, modern life itself is insane too.

Truth and fiction

At a time when, as Philip Roth complained, ''the American writer in the middle of the 20th Century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality - the actuality is continually outdoing our talents'', Heller was one of the first to find a way to deal with the apparent madness of the modern world.

As Yossarian struggles against the self-serving bureaucracy at the heart of the military machine, Heller argues that the individual will always struggle against the vested interests (such as Minderbinder's rapacious capitalism) that control the world. And, perhaps, that madness is an entirely relevant reaction to this.

Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer: Grittily realistic
Yossarian's dilemma is summed up by "Catch-22" of the air force's code of practice, "which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind".

What this means, as the book's Doc Daneeka explains to Yossarian of another flyer's situation, is that "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 Lives

Anti-Vietnam War slogan
In other words, the only sane reaction to war is to recognise its madness. But in doing so, and proving his sanity, Yossarian makes himself eligible to fight. As Yossarian puts it: "That's some catch, that Catch-22". The doctor, whose job is to save lives only so that they can be put in danger again, can only agree that "it's the best there is".

When Catch-22 was first published in 1961, it received mixed reviews. American readers and critics alike were more used to grittily realistic World War II novels by writers like Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw and James Jones. They didn't seem to know what to make of Heller's highly original take on the conflict (although the book was a minor hit on its release, six months later, in Britain).

Public imagination

As the US's involvement in Vietnam grew, however, Heller's exploration of the insanities of both war and the "military-industrial complex" gradually caught the public imagination, and the book became a word of mouth success.

Stickers declaring "Yossarian Lives" started to appear among other anti-war slogans. A new generation of Americans - many of them facing the prospect of being forced to fight a war they didn't understand - found themselves identifying with Yossarian's situation and the phrase "Catch-22" soon became a part of the popular consciousness.

Speaking about the nerve he had touched, Heller would later say "a large part of the public sentiment was my own. They saw an absurd quality, a mendacious quality in many of our political leaders and business leaders".

Summing up his intentions in writing the book - which has now sold more than 10 million copies - he pointed out that "everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy. Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts - and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society?"

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See also:

14 Dec 99 | Americas
Joseph Heller: Literary giant
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