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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 13:09 GMT
Why is Catch-22 difficult to read?
Many people find Catch-22 a hard book to get into. Author and academic Stephen Fender reveals why.

American novels set in World War II came in two generations. The first, published within a few years of the war's end, include, Mister Roberts (1946), by Thomas Heggen, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1947), and From Here to Eternity (1951), by James Jones.

In the literary sense they were realistic, with linear narratives; a one-to-one correspondence of characters and events in the story to what purport to be "real" events in the world, and an absence of heroics and supernatural action.

By contrast the second generation, Joseph Heller's, Catch-22 (1961) and Slaughterhouse Five (1969), by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., can only be described as surrealistic. Now the narratives are no longer linear. Serial sequence is disrupted by flashbacks, and (in Catch-22 especially) flash-forwards. In Slaughterhouse Five, through a tricky mixture of history and science fiction, all times and places are known simultaneously.


Catch-22 brings this sense of dislocation down to the local level of modes of reference. The very first words are puzzling in this way. "It was love at first sight." What was? The love between Yossarian and the chaplain. But then the subject is dropped in favour of Yossarian's.

Early in Chapter 2 we get a reference to "the" "dead man in Yossarian's tent". What dead man? why "the" not "a", since this is the first we've heard of him? It's not until Chapter 10 that the dead man is even named - and then his name turns out to be "Mudd".

From the first paragraph, the syntax of Catch-22 works so as to challenge conventional priorities. Normally a subordinate clause or phrase is less newsworthy than the main sentence.

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut: Fellow surrealist
But here, look at the clauses beginning with "who..." . They introduce information more surprising, certainly less explained or prepared for, than the comparatively humdrum news of the main sentence. Or look at the paragraph beginning "And to the chaplain's horror... " just over two pages from the end of Chapter 25.


Here the coincidences, all obsessively tied together as though of equal importance, are like paranoid mental constructions - which is the point, of course. Yossarian thinks everyone is out to kill him. Is he paranoid, or rational? In the world of Catch-22 it doesn't matter.

A pilot could be grounded if he were crazy, but if he asked to be grounded, that would prove that he was sane, and he couldn't be grounded. "'That's some catch, that Catch-22,' [Yossarian] observed. 'It's the best there is,' Doc Daneeka agreed."

Catch-22 is a reminder that the novel satirises not only the mad bureaucracy of World War II service life and the greed of globalised business, but also the Red Scare of the late 1950s.

Real Life

The House Un-American Activities Committee used to subpoena witnesses to ask if they were, or had ever had been communists. If they said yes, they were required to shop others they knew to be members. If they invoked the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, in order to avoid having to testify against themselves, they were smeared in next morning's papers as Communists anyway.

It was Catch-22 in real life.

The joke about Catch-22 recurs as a running gag. But as the novel proceeds the gags lose their funny side. Milo's "enterprises", initially comic because his is the only organisation that actually works in this world, reach an outrageous climax when he arranges for his own airfield to be bombed.

But always stalking the joke of Milo is the death of Snowdon, revealed piecemeal in increasingly tragic detail, and the mystery of the naked man in the tree - taken by the chaplain as the Second Coming - but finally disclosed as Yossarian protesting Snowdon's painful death.

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