WEEK 13: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“Insanity is contagious,” Yossarian, the protagonist of the novel says in the first chapter, “This is the only sane ward in the whole hospital. Everybody is crazy but us.”

At the beginning of the novel, the reader doesn’t know what to believe. Heller builds a world out of a time and place that is rife with fear and arrogance and misconceptions; A world where “men went mad and were rewarded with medals.” At first, I wasn’t sure if I should believe Yossarian and his antics that everyone besides himself was crazy. He believes everyone is out to kill him, which seems like little more than paranoia at first, but at the end of the novel you realize his claim wasn’t so far off.

“There were too many dangers for Yossarian to keep track of. There was Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, for example, and they were all out to kill him. There was Lieutenant Scheisskopf with his fanaticism for parades and there was the bloated colonel wit his big fat mustache and his fanaticism for retribution, and they wanted to kill him too” (171).

While Yossarian is definitely on the eccentric side, and seems to be well aware of his foolery, the most entertaining part of the novel were the various characters who were actually insane. Like Major Major Major Major or Clevinger who “was one of those people with lots of intelligence but no brains, and everyone knew it except those who soon found out.” Or even Doc Daneeka, the doctor in the medical ward who claims “It’s not [his] business to save lives.”

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I loved reading this book. I haven’t laughed so much at a novel in a long time. Heller somehow manages to fix the antics of military men, war, and the popular American rhetoric of the World War II era in his cross hairs and successfully blows them to pieces. As I was reading, it became very clear to me why this book is a classic – Heller has such a dry, sarcastic wit and his characters are textured in a way that is unique and effective. Even his political commentary is delivered with flair and flamboyance:

“Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years or so…A million years? A half million? The frog is almost five hundred million years old. Could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength, prosperity, with its fighting man that is second to none, and with its standard of living that is the highest in the world, will last as long as…the frog?”

This comes from the mouth of a dilapidated man in a dilapidated whore house who gives his lecture whilst receiving nude lap dances from the working girls. The book is really a lesson in how to spot bull shit when it is leaking from someones mouth and how people seem to get themselves tangled in these Catch-22’s. It is a study of power dynamics: the battle waged between the people who start the wars and the people who fight the wards. And it is wonderful and timeless and well-suited for todays modern day debacle(s) as well as it was suited for the post-World War II era it was published in.

And hint, hint: Yossarian lives.

Overall Score: 9.2. Fantastic read.

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