Joseph Heller's rollicking satire is a must-read novel about the absurdity of bureaucracy and war. We follow a squadron of pilots, their leaders, chaplains and medics through the nonsensical chaos of World War II. Milk runs and bombing formations, fake illnesses and hospital stays, and vanishing, cowardly leadership amid ever-lengthening service requirements are just some of the repetitive indignities suffered by Captain Yossarian and his squadron. The story manages to be hilarious and heartbreaking as it runs the edge of reality so closely one imagines it is all, likely, truth, or at least a hair's breadth from it. And, as truth, it is devastating.
The implications of the novel hold true today much as they did 50 years ago. Bureaucracy rewards the liars, frightens the cowards and bullies the pliable. To take a stand against the organization, be it political, military, corporate, or social, a person must be crazy, and if a person is crazy, then what they have to say is summarily disregarded; who in their right mind listens to a crazy person? Heller's Catch-22s are simple and elegant. He arms the reader with clear-eyed logic in the face of civilization's ubiquitous smoke and mirrors. The underlying message is important: no one is looking out for your best interests except you.
I had a history with this novel before I read it. I bought my first copy ten years ago. It sat in my to-read pile in a tall stack next to my bed. It surfaced slowly and was next in line to read when I came home one night and found a large cockroach sitting on top of it. I had never seen a cockroach in my apartment before that night, nor did I see one after. When I turned the light on, the cockroach scurried behind the stack of books and I shoved the books up to the wall to kill it. So Catch-22 had dead cockroach all over it, on the side with the pages, opposite the spine. I couldn't bring myself to throw a perfectly good book away, but nor could I read it. Dead cockroach.
Ten years later, I completed my first novel. People read it and commented repeatedly that it reminded them of Catch-22, and had I read it? No, I hadn't. But I had a copy, with dead cockroach on it. I admitted to myself, after ten years, that I was never going to be able to read a book knowing it once had dead cockroach on it, so I cleaned it up and donated it, along with a ton of other books, to the local library, and then I went out and bought myself another copy. Having just finished it tonight, I understand now why that cockroach was sitting on top of it (to get my attention) and why I am very glad I never read it (I'd never have written my own book if I'd read Heller's first; no need to improve on something that's practically perfect), and I now wonder if Heller's muse has been paying me a visit for these last seven years. The content is different, but the observations about the absurdity of life and bureaucracy certainly resonate; and we're both fascinated by Zippo lighters.