Catch-22 is a darkly humorous novel by Joseph Heller set in the final days of the Allied campaign in Italy during WWII. It is mainly the story of Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier stationed in Pianosa, Italy and his efforts to stay alive against seemingly long odds. Every time it seems that Yossarian and his fellow airmen have done the required amount of missions their commanding officer raises the number; thus Yossarian comes to see his superiors as more dangerous to him than the Germans he is supposed to be fighting. This is an example of, and certainly not the only one, of the Catch-22 of the title; it is explained in the following quotation related to Orr, one of the other aviators as viewed through the lens of Yossarian:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
-JOSEPH HELLER, Catch-22,
chapter 5, p. 46 (1961).
Throughout the book this logic is shown as the mind-set of the military authorities who seem to spend more time jockeying for position against each other than fighting the enemy; something which is repeated at every level. One General insists on perfect bombing patterns because they look better on a map regardless of their consequences on the ground.
Oddly enough the two most powerful characters in the novel are probably Milo Mindbender and ex-PFC Wintergreen both of whom are low-ranking but seem able to control events around them; Mindbender with his “Syndicate”, a supplier of goods on all sides of the conflict (who at one point is paid to bomb his own men by the Germans) and Wintergreen through his control of the mail system. The Mindbender character is one of the most humorous in the novel, making millions of dollars through his wheeling and dealing while always insisting that he''s doing it for the good of his fellow soldiers and not for himself.
Although the main narrative voice is that of Yossarian, many chapters are narrated by other characters and these multiple points of view are often brought to bear on the same events thus clouding the truth in the novel in a way that is thoroughly post-modern. Another structural aspect, the fact that the events narrated often take place out of order, leaving it to the reader to re-construct the appropriate time-line can also be seen as a hallmark of the book''s early post-modernist style.
Another interesting thing about this work, along with Norman Mailer''s, The Naked and the Dead and Thomas Pynchon''s, Gravity''s Rainbow , is how trenchant a criticism it offers of the one war generally regarded as “The Good War”. These books and what they have to say about war and the bureaucracy that surrounds it is pretty much ignored by boosters of the so-called “greatest generation” most of whom have never known either war or military life themselves.