It’s been a source of embarrassment to me that I never actually finished reading Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I read the beginning many, many years ago, but that’s about it. So, with the Hulu adaptation of it due to be released this week, it seemed like a good a time as any to cross this off my to-do list.
Still, I decided to read it more because I felt I should and less because it seemed like there was any pressing reason to do so. I’ve always known more or less what the crux of it was, so it’s been less of a priority for me — what can a 50-year-old story have to say that’s worth thinking about now? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
If you’re not familiar with it, Catch-22 tells the story of Yossarian, an Army Air Force captain and the lead bombardier stationed on a small island near Italy during WWII. It’s a war satire, and the term Catch-22 (used to describe no-win situations) was coined by Heller because of this book. It’s a story about bureaucratic absurdities and the paradoxes of war.
There’s a jarring contrast in the tone of book, which is sort of absurdist and humorous, and the content of the book itself, which deals primarily with an army pilot who simply wants to survive the war. Yossarian is a man who does not really want to die for his country — is that really so crazy, asks Catch-22?
While Yossarian comes off as playfully but determinedly trying to save his own skin in the beginning, as the book progresses, it’s clear that Heller’s comedic tone and playful dark humor are a diversion from the more serious issues the characters are facing.
Catch-22’s events are the result of the multitude of failures — failures of the bureacracy, failures of courage, failues of character, and the many Catch-22’s that crop up. Plus the nature of war itself is also at issue. Catch-22’s satire of these shortcomings and how they interplay with each other is relentless. And as incisive as it is, it’s also, quite frankly, kind of depressing.
I didn’t realize until now how deeply cynical Catch-22 is. As much as I have respect for this book, I’m not sure reading it could exactly be described as enjoyable.
The characters in the book all operate in a tangle of cross-purposes with any sincere, well-meaning intentions easily defeated by bureaucratic absurdities. While the book is largely devoid of anyone resembling a hero (with one exception), the officers and army leadership get the most withering portrayals, all acting solely out of self-interest and cowardice.
In Catch-22, Heller pens a quote that is just as true and relevant now as ever, and it sums up perfectly what bothers me about the world and the many, many immoral and self-serving people in it: “What does upset me, though, is that they think I’m a sucker. They think that they’re smart, and that the rest of us are dumb. And, you know, Danby, the thought occurs to me right now, for the first time, that maybe they’re right.”
One of the strongest aspects of the book, regardless of your level of interest in war satire, was the structure of the book and the way the story is old. The story is told somewhat achronologically with various flashbacks filling in the details. What initially seems to be kind of a zany, satirical story about a mischievous army captain slowly reveals itself to be a lot more (and quite a bit darker).
I thought Heller’s way of providing a timeline was particularly clever — while various events are revealed out of order, the book gives us updates on the number of missions that Yossarian has gone on and the number still he still needs to hit in order to be released, which keeps changing. It serves as a way to point out his inability to escape from the situation, but also provides a guide to the chronology of the story.
Read it or Skip it?
As far as “classic” literature goes, Catch-22 is not a particularly difficult read and worth reading at least once at some point. Still, it’s not exactly a beach read. I wouldn’t recommend it for general pleasure reading, since it’s a bit of a downer for most of the book.
Also, I would add a caveat that while I still think it’s worth reading and the points it makes are all still valid and important (pretty much all its criticisms about bureaucracy, capitalism and self-interest will ring true for anyone who has ever worked in an office before), the book is not quite as topical now as it was when it was released. As discussed in this very well written article, part of the reason Catch-22’s caught on and became so ingrained in our national consciousness had to do with the political environment when it was released. It was ideal reading material with the Vietnam War debate heating up and anti-establishment-ism on the rise.
(In 2019, the biggest questions about war probably have more to do with whether the use of drones is ethical, whether sending our country’s poorest populations off to die for us and then failing to take care of them is ethical and what type of role the U.S. should be playing, especially when it comes to distributing arms to other countries. )
However, Catch-22 is a book that wants to challenge your worldviews and does so adeptly with a hard dose of dark and absurdist comedy. Its place on the “best books” lists is well deserved, even if it is a very cynical ride. I’m glad I finally got to read this, and I’m interested to see how the adaptation goes — though I’m thinking I’ll follow up this book with some lighter fare!
Did you read this book? If, so was it for school or on your own? What were your thoughts? See it on Amazon.
Incisive review! I’m interested in seeing how Hulu adapts the novel. So many shows are nonlinear today, so the novel seems like it’d lend itself well to the series format.
Thank you! I haven’t seen the show yet but based on the reviews, it sounds like they made it somewhat more linear, which sounds like it’s probably easier to follow but also seems like of disappointing to me. I’m going to try to find some time to watch it soon!
Interesting. I read this for my A-levels in comparison with Captain Corelli’s mandolin. I think I was the only person in the class who read it cover to cover.
It is dark and sad and funny and ludicrous all in measure and I think it was a very apt measure of the madness of war and the sheer nerves that air crew lived on- considering many didn’t make it through the expected flights each flight could be their last was it any surprise that a kind of nihilism emerges? I wouldn’t necessarily choose to read it again but it’s one of those, glad I did books.
Yeah, I think I ended up with the same feeling that it’s definitely worth reading once and thinking about, but probably not something I’ll end up diving back into again. Even knowing that it’s supposed to be a classic, I was still surprised how well it seemed to capture both the absurdity and darkness of war though.
No I never read it. I really need to it’s a classic. Do you know when the show starts?
It’s worth reading once for sure! The show is available on Hulu now! I haven’t watched it yet but I want to find some time to do it soon!
I did read the book many years ago, it was the only thing available at the time! The book did keep me reading, I wanted to know what would happen, and yes, it is mostly a downer. I think the book is still relevant and has important insights into the absurdities of war culture. I should read it as a fully-formed adult..hmm, maybe.
Yeah, I think it’s probably a very different book it you’re reading it as a kid vs. an adult. It does seem like a hard book to want to read twice since it is kind of a downer.
I’m not sure if this book will ever make it on my tbr list; it doesn’t seem like a book I’d enjoy. However, I did enjoy reading your review!
Thank you! Yeah, it was a better book but a less enjoyable book than I was expecting. Definitely not one I’d recommend to everyone, though I do think most people could get something out of it, if that makes sense.
Nice review. I had no idea there is a new adaptation coming. I will be looking for it. Thanks for the post.
Thank you! Yes, the adapation is on Hulu now, but I haven’t watched it yet. Thanks for reading!
I read this book last month I didn’t really think it was that good, a bit too repetitive for me and annoying at times.
hmm yeah I could see how it could get repetitive — thanks for our thoughts!
I read it in high school (1964) was drafted into the US Army in 1965, went to Vietnam in 1968 and began living the book. You made a good point about the topical nature of the book. There are different concerns today and the US military is an all “volunteer” force. Many volunteer out of economic necessity. I stayed with the military for a full career, enjoying and exploiting the ridiculous bureaucratic absurdities a military structure offers. The book affected my life and worldview greatly although I don’t think it influenced my decision to remain in Southeast Asia. The ridiculous can be found anywhere.
Hi Ron, thanks so much for sharing that — I was definitely curious what people in the military would think of it, so I appreciate your input. It’s interesting to know that you feel the book truly affected your worldview. Thank you for your insightful comment!
The same has happened with me with The Book Thief. And Catch – 22 is on my TBR. Though I do plan to pick up The Book Thief, again!
I actually haven’t read The Book Thief, but I saw the movie. Not sure if I ever plan on reading it, though I know lots of people really love it.
Really interesting to read your review. I have never read the book but although I often considered it, I prefer to read books I will enjoy.
Yeah, I don’t know if Catch-22 is for everyone. I do think it genuinely has something interesting and important to say, but I don’t think I’ll revisit it again in the future, or at least not for a long time. Thanks for reading!
It’s one of those books I’m happy to know about but I don’t care if I ever read it or not :)
I never finished it either, and always felt bad about it. Glad I’m not the only one. Though I should finish before I watch it! It always felt like a long episode of MASH to me…
The author of this review has CLEARLY never been in or even loosely affiliated with the United States Department of Defense in any way. Had they had even the most passing familiarity with how even the smallest sub-division of this bloated bureaucracy operates to this day, they would consider the book both totally relevant and absolutely hilarious. The “dark” aspect is apparently lost on those of us for whom the darkness is just part of the job. It is dark. But, that’s just the nature of the entire setting of this book. Those who are familiar with it (and apparently there are fewer of us now than there were when the book was written) will scarcely note it, focusing instead on the absurdity of it all. For veterans, this is a comedy. If you’ve ever been in, considered being part of, or been inclined to opine about the military, you must read this book. No recruiting film could prepare you better for what you will experience on a daily basis.
(The movie has been around for decades. I have not seen Hulu’s version – it may well just be the original movie aired in a new media form. Regardless, as always, the book is superior to the movie. Read it first. See the movie later if you must.)