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Joseph Heller: Catch-22

There are not too many books on this site that any educated English-speaking person absolutely should have read. I am not sure that I subscribe to the cultural literacy idea put out by Hirsch and others, not least because it is, to a great extent, very subjective. I have not read J K Rowling nor the Da Vinci Code nor, unlike others, have I read any of the books on Jackie Collins’ five guilty pleasures list. And that, for many people, makes me culturally illiterate. Given that Hirsch’s list has, as its representatives of the twentieth century novel, Samuel Beckett, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Boris Pasternak, Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre and Isaac Bashevis Singer, it is clear that there is going to be lot of dispute about what should be considered cultural literacy. All this preamble is to state that I do believe this book should definitely be on the list not least because its title became a word in the English language. The only other book on this site that I can think of, off the top of my head, which did that is Lolita, another USA book which should also be on the list.

The book was originally going to be called Catch-18 but this was changed because of Leon Uris’ book Mila-18. Other numbers were also apparently considered till 22 was chosen and one that, of course, works for reasons that it is impossible to explain. Though it has come to have a more general meaning, in this book it refers to a specific situation in the military. One of the ways to get out of the military was to be insane. To be declared insane, you had to ask to be declared insane but, if you asked, you obviously weren’t insane. Of course, the book is full of other apparent contradictions and that is the beauty of the book – the sheer illogicality of life as represented by the US military. Indeed, as Yossarian explains, Catch-22 means that they can do anything that you can’t stop them from doing.

The hero of the book is Yossarian, a US Air Force pilot, who has flown nearly fifty missions, and wants to quit before he is killed. His commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart, who is out for personal glory and wants to become a general, pushes his men to fly more and more missions. He does that by continually raising the number at which they can be sent home and it is this that eventually persuades Yossarian to try the insanity approach though he tries other ways of escaping. There are some that do manage more or less to survive. The main one is Milo Minderbinder, a mess sergeant, who is the epitome of capitalism and for whom the only authority is profit. He is equally happy trading with the Germans as with the Americans. He has no qualms about bombing his own base if he gets paid for it. When he finally gets arrested he gets a high-powered lawyer and proves his case by showing that it is capitalism that made America great and he is merely applying the tenets of capitalism.

Heller peoples his book with a host of other characters, most of whom are larger than life, from Orr the survivor to the wittily named Major Major Major Major, who is promoted to Major from Private by a computer with a sense of humour, to the even more wittily named Lieutenant Scheisskopf (German for shithead) who moves through the ranks to General with his parade ground obsessions. The book is fast moving, often without a clear sense of time or even place, but that is part of its success. It is very funny and a vicious attack on the military which should be ready by everyone.

Publishing history

First published 1961 by Simon & Schuster