There are literally hundreds of thousands of books in the stores, but very few of them will become classics. The book reviewed this week is a classic, from which a whole new genre of novels ensued. It is Joseph Heller’s masterpiece Catch 22 (ISBN 978-0-099-53601-7, Vintage publishers, 1994), a book that has been reprinted many times, and will continue to be so.
It was first published in 1961, and 50 years later it is still significant. Even the phrase Catch 22 has been adopted by the Western world to denote bureaucratic situations which become a lose-lose position for an affected person, and which is beyond the capabilities of the people involved to change it. Bureaucratic ‘double-speak’ taken to its ultimate end, where the content of a decision no longer matters, only the maintenance of the status quo.
Yossarian, a Bombardier in the US Air Force stationed on the island of Pianosa is the “hero” (in reality the “anti-hero”), with the setting being 1943 during WW II. Yossarian could be considered paranoiac, but it should always be remembered that just because one is paranoiac does not mean that nobody is out to get you!
The other members of Yossarian’s squadron are brought into the novel, with classic sketches such as the Mess Sergeant Milo Minderbender who runs the ultimate PX scams, using US planes and pilots to ferry his contraband to Europe and Colonel Cathcart, Yossarian’s nemesis, who continually raises the number of missions that must be flown before any airman can be sent home.
Others introduced are The Chaplain, who remains an innocent amongst the guilty, Major Major Major Major of whom the name makes sense in a military sense for a person christened Major Major Major, Doc Daneeka who wants to be put on the flight manifest but not actually go up so he can claim flight allowance but is actually afraid of flying, General Dreedle who wanted to shoot one of their own officers and had to be reminded that he was not allowed to shoot his own men, and the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, who officially was not there.
The book can be thought of as a tragi-comedy in black satirical humor, with the chapters introducing the individuals as humorous items, but then as you go further into the book, the tenor becomes blacker and thought producing.
Just in case you think I have exaggerated the importance of this book in contemporary literature, The Modern Library ranked Catch-22 as number 7 on its list of the greatest English language novels of the twentieth century. The Radcliffe Publishing Course ranks Catch-22 as number 15 of the twentieth century’s top 100 novels. The Observer listed Catch-22 as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time. TIME puts Catch-22 in the top 100 English language modern novels, and The Big Read from the BBC ranked Catch-22 as number 11 on a web poll of the UK’s best-loved books.
If you have not read this book before, do it now. The review copy came from Bookazine Royal Garden Plaza and the RRP is B. 385. The ultimate literary bargain.