Stephen's Reviews > Catch-22

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
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A shiny new batch of awesome for my "all time favorite" shelf. It has been awhile since I’ve so throughly enjoyed reading a novel that has, at the same time, left me as intellectually awestruck as Joseph Heller’s classic sermon on the insanity of war.

What a sublime, literary feast. To prepare:

1. Start with a surrealistic, Kafkaesque worldview basted in chaos;

2. Knead in a plot reminiscent of Pynchon, taking particular care that the bizarre, placidly disjointed surface fully camouflages the powerfully nuanced, and deceptively focused central message;

3. Marinate the whole thing in a dark, hilarious satire that would have made Vonnegut beam like a proud papa.

4. Bake at 350, season with zesty prose, and serve.

Voila...a singular, absurdilarious serving of inspired genius that I can not recommend more highly.

This novel was so much more than I was expecting.

Despite its pervasive, laugh out loud humor, Heller’s story is the most horrifyingly effective depiction of the insanity of war that I’ve ever read**. I’m not referring to the evil and vile atrocities perpetrated in war that have been so extensively catalogued throughout the annals of literature. Rather, Heller's insight is geared to showing us the illogic of war, the out-of-control nihilism, and the chaotic, existential absurdity of it.

**Note: this observation is coming from someone who’s never been closer to war than the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, so season the above with grains of salt as necessary.

It's brilliant.

PLOT SUMMARY:

I think any attempt at a plot summary is doomed to inadequacy, so let me just briefly frame the story. The novel follows the exploits of the fictional 256th fighter squadron, stationed on the fictional island of Pianosa, during the height of WWII. With a large cast of characters and a non-chronological narrative that switches viewpoints constantly, Heller creates a delicious cauldron of madness and bureaucratic ineptitude that is just heaven to follow.

Our chief tour guide through the nuthouse is Captain John Yossarian, bomber pilot, whose main ambition in life is to “live forever or die in the attempt”. Yossarian’s life wish is so strong that he doesn’t even distinguish between the “enemy” and his superiors. As far as he's concerned, the enemy “is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on.” To avoid the final finality of death, Yossarian concocts a series of ingenious (and hysterical) methods for staying alive, including poisoning his own squadron and redrawing a the combat map during the “Great Big Siege of Bologna” so as to alter the bombing target.

Despite his often less than moral shenanigans, Yossarian acts as the conscience of the story and helps to keep the rampant lunacy and chaos in context. His is the voice of indignity and righteous anger against the war and the cold, faceless bureaucracy that perpetrates it. Even against the God that allows it such horrors to exist in the first place.
‘Don't tell me God works in mysterious ways,’ Yossarian continued, hurtling on over her objection. ‘There's nothing so mysterious about it. He's not working at all. He's playing. Or else He's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about - a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?’
‘Pain?’ Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife pounced upon the word victoriously. ‘Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers.’
‘And who created the dangers?’ Yossarian demanded ... ‘Why couldn't He have used a doorbell instead to notify us?’
THOUGHTS:

Loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it…and loved it.

The writing is brilliant, the characters are unique, engaging and memorable, and the story will scar you with wonder and awe. I can’t believe I hesitated so long to read this, and I intend to sit down with this many times in the years to come.

For those that have experienced this before, and for those who just want a stroll down memory lane, here are a few pearls that showcase this novel’s rather large package of absurd, satircal win.

**“Fortunately, just when things were blackest, the war broke out.”

**"I'll tell you what justice is. Justice is a knee in the gut from the floor on the chin at night sneaky with a knife brought up down on the magazine of a battleship sandbagged underhanded in the dark without a word of warning."

**“Colonel Cargill could be relied on to run the most prosperous enterprise into the ground. He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody.”

**“Colonel Cathcart was indefatigable that way, an industrious, intense, dedicated military tactician who calculated day and night in the service of himself.

And a personal favorite (all leading up to the very last line):
The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.
Finally, I wanted to share one last piece of awesome with you. The following is the contents of the letter sent by the base commander to the wife of one of the main characters.
Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. And Mrs. [no spoiler]: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father, or brother was killed, wounded, or reported missing in action.
Priceless…and what’s even funnier is that the set up of the joke occurs about 200 pages before.

Masterful.

6.0 stars. HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION!
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Reading Progress

August 29, 2010 – Shelved
April 3, 2012 – Started Reading
April 12, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 70 (70 new)


Kevin Xu I love Catch 22! Its a classic, but it took me three tries to actually get into the book.


Anne  (Booklady) Molinarolo Stephen, this is excellent!


Richard Derus *grin*

You totally nailed this one.


Evan Leach Great book, great review.


Stephen Evan wrote: "Great book, great review."

Thanks, Evan.


message 6: by Stephen (last edited Apr 12, 2012 04:26PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Stephen Richard wrote: "*grin*

You totally nailed this one."


I appreciate you saying that, sir. I had so much I wanted to say about this that couldn't decide how to approach the review. My brain felt constipated so I'm glad what I wrote wasn't complete...you know.


message 7: by Trudi (new)

Trudi Wow, is it really that awesome? I've missed/resisted reading this my whole life. Ditto Slaughterhouse Five and Catcher in the Rye. Don't ask me what the mental block is, but it's definitely there. Okay, you've made me reconsider. Now I'm really curious :)


Richard Derus That's the kind of God you people talk about - a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements?

See, here is the proof of the logic "get out of the way and let the story shine" as regards reviews. You choose a few quotes that really nail the experience you had of the book. Put 'em in the review. Stand back and let the chips fall where they may.

So, in conclusion, may I just reiterate: Nailed.


message 9: by Leon (new) - added it

Leon Aldrich Until I came to GoodReads, I never believed in channeling. You know. The ability to harness the personae of a dead spirit, then manifest that energy between the other world and our own.

I could be wrong. But I think Stephen has been channeling Mark Twain in his reviews. No one can have that much writing talent on their own, right?


message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

I thought you didn’t believe in God. I don’t, she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.” Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. “Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us.’ he proposed obligingly. You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?


message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction then all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed with how unimpressive he was.


message 12: by Gary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary This book never ceases to make me laugh on whatever page I open it up to.....Everyone must read this book.


Wendy If you liked this book, check out its predecessor The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek. Heller admits he drew a lot of his zanyness from this long, hilarious, and sadly unfinished novel.


s.penkevich Marvelous review! I like the comparisons to other notable authors at the beginning. I wish I remembered more about this book, been a long time.


Algernon (Darth Anyan) time for a reread. thanks for the reminder


message 16: by Mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mark Once again great review and great to have those handy quotes to entice me back for a re-read....sorry that almost makes you sound like you're pimping for Heller but you know what i mean


message 17: by Fey (new) - rated it 5 stars

Fey Brilliant review for a brilliant book :)


message 18: by Search (new) - added it

Search WOW! what a review!


message 19: by Kirstine (new)

Kirstine I couldn't get through this book back when I first tried, 16 months ago, and I didn't succeed the second timr either, but perhaps I'll give it a third try. Now that I've read (and loved) Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps it'll be easier for me to get into it.
And you do make it sound great. Fantastic review.


message 20: by Kate (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kate I enjoyed it the first time I read it, but your review makes me want to go back and read it again to see if I like it even more this time around. Awesome review btw.


message 21: by Sesana (new)

Sesana Great review, Stephen! I picked up this book, somewhat reluctantly, a few years back. One of those "I guess I should read this..." books. Two hundred pages later, I realized I just couldn't put it down. And so I didn't.


Jason Koivu Great review for a great book, Stephen!


Stephen Trudi wrote: "Wow, is it really that awesome?"

In my opinion, Trudi, it is really that awesome. As far as classics go, I go into some with lowered expectations (Frankenstein, The Catcher in the Rye and 1984 all come to mind). These invariably have been the ones that knock me on my ass. This is another one of those. I hesitated to read it, didn't expect much, and got floored by it.

BTW, if you listen to audiobooks, this one is performed, not just read, performed to perfection. I would highly recommend it.


Stephen Leon wrote: "Until I came to GoodReads, I never believed in channeling. You know. The ability to harness the personae of a dead spirit, then manifest that energy between the other world and our own.

I could be..."


*bows*

Thanks, Leon. That's too kind of you.


Stephen Steve wrote: "I thought you didn’t believe in God. I don’t, she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God ..."

Classic quotes, Steve. I love that I can open this book to any random page and find something terrific.


message 26: by Stephen (last edited Apr 13, 2012 08:55AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Stephen Wendy wrote: "If you liked this book, check out its predecessor The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek. Heller admits he drew a lot of his zanyness from this long, hilarious, and sadly unfinished novel."

Never heard of this, Wendy, but I will check it out. Thanks.


message 27: by Stephen (last edited Apr 13, 2012 08:56AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Stephen s.penkevich wrote: "Marvelous review! I like the comparisons to other notable authors at the beginning. I wish I remembered more about this book, been a long time."

Thanks, s. Those 3 popped into my head at various points while I was reading it and just seemed to fit.


message 28: by Clif (new) - rated it 3 stars

Clif Hostetler In my review I tried to communicate my discomfort for laughing at absurd and ironic descriptions of war contained in this book. I had the haunted feeling that comes from laughing at what at first appears to be funny, then to realize that it's actually a horrible tragic disaster for another person. I did appreciate to book's ending that contained a combination of emotion and questions regarding moral integrity which transcended the war story.


Stephen Nice review, Clif. While I liked the book a whole lot more than you did, I thought you made some excellent points.


Stephen Mark wrote: "Once again great review and great to have those handy quotes to entice me back for a re-read....sorry that almost makes you sound like you're pimping for Heller but you know what i mean"

Thanks, Mark. I am happy to pimp for Heller.


Stephen Sath wrote: "Brilliant review for a brilliant book :)"

Thanks, Sath. I certainly agree that the book is brilliant, and appreciate the kind words.


Stephen Fantasist wrote: "WOW! what a review!"

Thanks. I'm glad you liked it.


Stephen Sesana wrote: "Great review, Stephen! I picked up this book, somewhat reluctantly, a few years back. One of those "I guess I should read this..." books. Two hundred pages later, I realized I just couldn't put it ..."

That is exactly what happened to me. I put off reading it for a long time, and then couldn't put it down.


message 34: by [deleted user] (new)

Lol, that was good. I have no idea what I gave this four stars. Since I read it, I've referenced it/ made fun of people with it more than anything. Had to been a mistake, one of my favorite books ever.


Craig Brennan Just finished reading it myself and thought it was fantastic! Great review Stephen.


Duffy Pratt I read this about 30 years ago and absolutely loved it. I tried to re-read it about 10 years later and couldn't make it through. I don't know exactly what it was, but I remember thinking that I already knew all the jokes, and all I was left with was the pain of it all. I'm not sure what I would think now.


Kelly H. (Maybedog) Thanks for the reminder to add this to my own faves-of-all-time list! I so love this book.


Stephen You are very welcome, Kelly. An amazing book.


Anne  (Booklady) Molinarolo Stephen, I'm so glad you loved this novel! I really enjoyed it too :)


Stephen Thanks, Anne. It was a terrific experience.


message 41: by Shovelmonkey1 (new)

Shovelmonkey1 Well done Smarty pants. I've somehow ended up with two copies of this on my bookshelf and I'm yet to read either!


Stephen Thank you, good lady. I would read it quickly before your two copies get together and breed out of boredom and neglect. You could end up with a whole family of copies, and then where would you be?


Marts  (Thinker) Great review Stephen, actually this one I have to re-read, I've got a printed version but I also recently got it on my e-reader so my reminder is constantly with me...


Stephen Thank you, Marts. I'm glad you liked it. I hope you enjoy the re-read.


message 45: by Regina (new)

Regina Stephen do you remember which audio book version you listened to? My library had two versions. I checked out the one narrated by Jay O Sanders/Recorded Books.


Stephen That is the one I listened to, Regina.


Steve Williams Great review, ashamed to say not read the book but I will be now! Sooner rather than later hopefully.


message 48: by Christian (new)

Christian Your review makes want to read it


message 49: by Peter (new) - rated it 1 star

Peter I had the same experience as Duffy. I wasn't sure why, but I think she/he(?) provided a clue in saying she(?) felt like she'd heard all the jokes before. Is the book so lacking in depth of characterisation that it is reduced to one long book of jokes? And jokes are rarely funny on a second hearing. I'd be interested to see how you feel about it on re-reading it in five years time.
Great review though, exactly how I felt about it the first time I read it.


Bianca Thank you for this great review, I really liked it :)
And I adored the book!


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