My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I had absolutely no idea what was going on for the majority of this novel. It was kind of like stumbling around in the dark, but every once in a while blinding white lights would turn on and I would see everything, think I was good to go, but then without warning, Heller would turn the lights off again and I would run face first into a wall. So, yeah. That’s what reading Catch-22 was like for me. However, even though I was confused pretty much up until the last ten chapters, this is one of the most interesting satirical works I’ve ever read. Heller is definitely up there with the Neoclassical satirical greats like Swift and Voltaire, and while this novel is most often discussed as a classic anti-war text, I see it more as an indictment of the bureaucratic state in general and a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that the state or government can ever be anything but grossly incompetent and dehumanizing.
I do think this is a great book and deserving of its place in the canon of great war literature. This is one of those books where I can appreciate it on an artistic level. I can definitely see why it is revered in so many circles, but for me personally, I wasn’t really all that in to it. I had to go back and re-read chapters a few times, and it was almost impossible for me to keep track of all the different generals and colonels and all the bombardiers who all get their own chapter and end up either cut in half, blown to bits, or smothered to death by a cat. And then every time a new chapter starts time re-sets and I wasn’t sure if it was before or after the event that caused Yossarian to walk around naked (backwards half the time). Like I said: reading this book is like walking around in the dark, stubbing my toe as I go.
I also noticed quite a few parallels between Catch-22 and Voltaire’s Candide, but the most interesting one was between the character of the chaplain and James the Anabaptist. Both these characters have a moral compass or at least believe in ideals and Christian charity, but their ideals end up and do nothing for them in the end. And, of course, the chaplain is an Anabaptist and goes around reminding people of that fact every time someone calls him “father.” In Catch-22 there isn’t any room for conscience or for actual honesty or sincerity. In Candide, James the Anabaptist drowns and in Catch-22, the chaplain basically joins in with the rest of the bureaucrats in trying to get Yossarian to take the final deal that will allow him to go home. If I were still a mean, nasty AP teacher, I would totally make my students write an essay comparing these two works. I’m sure they’d hate me for it (and I’d hate myself for assigning it because then I’d have to read them all).
Parts of this book are laugh out loud hilarious, and parts of it are just jarringly horrifying. The chapter where Doc Daneeka is declared dead because of fouled up paperwork is mind-blowingly funny. And the scene where Kid Sampson gets chopped in half by airplane propellers came right out of left field. It was so meaningless, and perhaps that is Heller’s point all along. Our soldiers are real people and no amount of rhetorical dressing takes away from the fact that a big incompetent bureaucracy has control over whether they live or die. However, on the whole I had to work pretty hard to get though this one and that in and of itself knocked it down a star on my never-to-be disputed rating system.