Review of Catch-22 by Joesph Heller

First read:Before the list came out (about 1992)
Reviewed on:8/14/98
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

I don't remember exactly when I read this book. I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan. I read it a second time very shortly after the first, and the second time around I made a written list of characters, like they tell you to do when you're in elementary school. Of course, I'd been familiar with the phrase "A catch-22" all my life. I have no idea why I picked the book up. Maybe I thought it would be a book chock full of wordplay? Or, more likely, I was browsing in a used bookstore and just bought it on impulse. I strongly associate Catch 22 with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which I'd read years earlier. I'm not sure why, except that maybe they both deal with the subject of being a sane person in an insane place, a feeling that I certainly can relate to.

The book was incredible. I was a little distracted in places, like when the military thought the living doctor was dead, that were ripped off for the television series M*A*S*H. But the writing was fascinating. It seemed like the plot was jumping around while I was reading it, but in retrospect it had a very clear beginning, middle, and end. I can't overemphasize how brilliantly Heller structured the book. You feel like you are reading vignettes, and each one is funny. Suddenly you shake your head and realize that all of Yossarian's friends are gone, that the situation in the camp is significantly worse than it was at the beginning, and that Milo Mindebender is now running the world. How did all of this happen right under your nose?

The most amazing thing about this book was that I was led to laugh at the war for the first of it, and even though there are serious parts, and deaths, I was still pretty relaxed. The War is really just a backdrop for the satirical goings-on. Then when Yossarian goes back to Italy at the end, and sees terrible thing after terrible thing, the whole writing style changes. Things are described in detail, and there is no more satire or smiling. Everything becomes dreamlike and horrible. Then when Yossarian winds up back at the camp, the writing style changes back to the way it was. But the book reads differently from that point because I, the reader, was changed by what I saw in Italy, and the satire suddenly wasn't as funny as it used to be. At the end, when the General and his Smithers proposed their "odious" deal, the Italy chapter really made me feel the revulsion Yossarian felt.

I rented the movie a few years ago, on the recommendation of my friend, Andy. It didn't do the book justice, but it was a good attempt.

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