It was World War II and Captain Yossarian was panicking because everyone was trying to kill him. He served as a US Army bombardier and each mission he flew brought the deadly anti-aircraft fire from the Germans. In addition, his commanding officers repeatedly raised the required number of missions before Yossarian could go home.
So Yossarian approached Doc Daneeka to seek a discharge by reason of insanity. This was allowed, but there was a catch: Catch-22. Catch-22 states that recognizing the dangers of war is the act of a rational mind, so requesting to leave the war was proof of sanity and made one ineligible for discharge on those grounds.
From Joseph Heller's 1961 novel Catch-22:
"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."
This is the first of many absurd rules enforced and defended by the military bureaucracy. The soldiers are illogical, the orders are nonsensical, the officers are incompetent, and the rules are meaningless but must be followed.
"Catch-22" recounts these absurd incidents, rules, and conversations - often with laugh-out-loud hilarity. The logic presented is often circular and usually contradictory. The most common spoken phrases are "Are you crazy?" and "You're crazy!" and in many cases, they are crazy. Virtually every character suffers from some degree of neurosis or psychosis.
Heller introduces some of the most memorable characters in literature, including:
- Milo Minderbinder, an unchecked capitalist who is so greedy, he accepts contracts from the German to bomb his own air base and to help them shoot down American fighter planes.
- Major Major Major Major, who will never agree to see anyone in his office until after he leaves his office.
- Doc Daneeka, who dismisses the complaints of his patients because they don't compare to the agony of his being drafted and having to give up a lucrative practice.
This is not an easy novel to read. Dozens of characters come and go, and each has an interesting story, and many have a disturbing backstory. In addition, the story is told non-chronologically, often looping back on the same events, providing more detail with each pass. I found it nearly impossible to determine the actual order of events. Multiple readings help understand the details of the story, but re-reading is not necessary to enjoy Heller's language and the overall messages he strives to convey. These situations are absurd because war is absurd. And you would be crazy to think otherwise. Individual scenes could stand on their own as a short story; but together they weave a classic as each of the numerous threads come together.
After three readings, Catch-22 remains one of my favourite novels of all time. I found myself teetering between Heller's hilarious dialogue and the poignantly tragic circumstances he portrays.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.
"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.”
Catch-22 is an anti-war novel, written before anti-war novels were cool. It succeeds brilliantly.