I’ve been slogging through Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, for about a month now. I bought it who-knows-how-many-years ago, feeling a certain obligation to it. There’s usually a reason why terms, like catch-22, and books enter our cultural lexicon, and I usually want to be a part of that experience. Particularly now that I have graduated from college and grad school, the burden to teach myself what’s important to read and study is greater than when it was the purview of teachers and professors.
When I was studying in England, I read a lot of things I’d been putting off, maybe because I didn’t study them in high school or college, maybe because they seemed interesting. Also, I’ve acquired dozens of books over the years that I’ve summarily pushed to the side to read something newer and seemingly more interesting. This is how I ended up with Catch-22 and how I finally read it. I’ve caught up on a little Vonnegut, I’ve read The Great Gatsby, and I’ve read too many “easy” books to avoid Heller’s alleged classic any longer.
Here’s the thing: I almost cannot bear the book. It’s not quite what I anticipated, which is usually a good thing when it comes to a book or movie. Short plot synopsis: Yossarian, the protagnist, is a WWII bombardier based in a relatively tranquil part of Italy sometime in late 1944/early 1945. He’s achieved the required number of flight missions until a capricious colonel increases the requirement by five more missions. Yossarian is scared of dying mid-flight, which is not unreasonable, based on some of his fellow aviators’ deaths, and tries to get discharged. This is where the term catch-22 arises from, as it’s a fictitious military term wherein you can be discharged if you’re crazy, but if you are aware of your craziness, it disproves your insanity. So Yossarian is stuck flying, while an aggravating cast of characters surrounds him.
The book is a post-modern exercise in extreme irony. Almost each chapter revolves around a situation in which a character creates a problem based on circular reasoning, and other characters try to maneuver around it. A new circular dilemma appears in each chapter, but piled on top of each other, the book mostly reads like moderately disguised repetition.
But I don’t like to give up on books. I will finish almost any book I start, no matter how bad (e.g., Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him). I’m too invested, time-wise, in Catch-22 to give up now! The book feels very much like a young writer’s wry, canny debut novel, wherein he tries out as many tricks as possible; maybe Dave Eggers is this generation’s exemplar, except I like Eggers.
I guess my takeaway from Catch-22 is that classics can serve to teach you the voice of an age, to connect you to repulsive characters despite your aversion to their personalities and behaviors, and to get the hell away and read more contemporary books.