I bought Joseph Heller’s famous novel from Waterstones in February, along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which I’ll review a bit later on). As I passed it through the till, the friendly shop worker nodded in satisfaction and said, ‘ah yes, two books everyone should have on their shelves.’ Now that I’ve read both, I think she was definitely on to something. (Spoiler-free review.)
Catch-22 is set during the Second World War. It was written in 1953 (published in 1961) so slightly retrospectively written, but I believe the intention was to create a satire that highlighted the ridiculousness surrounding some of the service requirements for those fighting in the war. It follows an air squadron based on the tiny island of Pianosa, although Heller mentions at the beginning that he took some creative licence with the setting; in real life the island is not nearly big enough to accommodate a military complex. The main character is Yossarian, a US army bombardier, but the plot zooms in and out on various characters throughout the novel, from the generals to the majors to the doctors to the prostitutes in nearby cities. Each chapter is titled with a different character’s name, indicating that they are the focus for that section of the book. There are a LOT of characters and without this clear structure it could be a lot more confusing than it was, particularly considering the plot doesn’t progress in chronological order, but Heller manages to balance the characterisation with the amount of story exposure each character got very nicely.
For me, it was one of those glorious instances when you’ve heard of a book and you know it’s famous but you know absolutely nothing about it, so you can read it from a fresh perspective. I didn’t expect anything from Catch-22, but one thing that took me surprise was just how side-splittingly funny it was. In fact I was often guffawing out loud while reading it on the morning commute, standing in a packed tube, which got me some strange looks. The whole thing revolves around paradoxes. Catch-22 is itself a paradox, referring to a rule in which the solution to a problem is rendered impossible by the very problem itself (there always being a ‘catch’). Describing something as a catch-22 has entered our vocabulary, which is a huge credit to Heller – certainly he must have been excited to hear it bandied around prior to his death in 1999. The main definition of Catch-22 in the novel revolves around a clause to escape military duty: a man does not have to fly dangerous missions if he is crazy, but acknowledging the danger means he is sane, therefore has to fly the missions. If he flies them anyway, he was probably crazy and didn’t have to, but he if complains that he cannot, he is deemed sane and therefore flies them. Essentially, there is no way to avoid flying the missions. Confusing yet astoundingly simple and definitely a no-win situation for those restricted by it. As the novel progresses, we discover more and more rules that fit the Catch-22 definition.
I’ve noticed that quite a lot of people – mainly young men, actually – consider it one of their favourite books. It seems to be the one iconic novel that everyone has read. It’s certainly a lot more accessible than a lot of the classics, with its rapid pace and witty dialogue, and it has a rich, interesting cast of characters (albeit mostly male). Upon its release, it became something of a cult novel for teenagers and college students, so perhaps it is a novel you read and fall in love with when you’re young – and, indeed, male. I had someone tell me recently that they consider One Hundred Years of Solitude a ‘boys’ book’ – I personally reckon this is complete bollocks, but I’ve started to feel aware of what kinds of book seem to be targeted towards men and what kinds towards women. In the 1960s this may have had an exclusively male readership, and it’s not hard to see why (it’s another spectacular failure of the Bechdel Test). There are very few female characters who are even given the virtue of a name; one of the principal female characters, for example, is known throughout as Nately’s Whore (Nately being one of the men in the squadron). That said, as a female reader, I didn’t feel alienated by the plot or characterisation (which just goes to show, yet again, that MEN AND WOMAN AREN’T ACTUALLY THAT DIFFERENT).
The story itself is fantastically wacky. Some sections are rooted in realism and others descend very quickly into absurdity, which I suspect was part of Heller’s satirical intentions. The horror of war is contrasted with the hilarity of the situation, which is just the kind of mash-up I’m rather fond of, as strange as that sounds. That said, towards the end the horror becomes more prevalent, although I won’t say too much for fear of spoiling it. There is a lot of emphasis on how the individual reacts to the war. Yossarian often ponders the point of being in the war in the first place and the effect that he is having on it. I’ve always believed that soldiers are remarkably selfless people (which explains why I blubber so much at any World War One memorial) but the message came across fairly clearly in Catch-22. Who is the real enemy? Yossarian wants to live, and if his superiors are preventing him from opting out until he dies, then in his eyes, that makes them the enemy, not the Germans. He questions the very idea of dying for your country and how much of a difference it makes overall, and despite what could be seen as quite a selfish attitude, it’s easy to sympathise with him. Again, I don’t want to go into the ending because I don’t want this to be a spoiler-laden blog post, but it has a very different outlook to the beginning.
So, on to the famous film, released in 1970 and directed by Mike Nichols.
It took me a little while to get into the film, I must say. The sound of the planes in the background is draining, and the early scenes aren’t overly gripping. Yossarian, too, seemed badly cast and hysterical. I don’t doubt that Alan Arkin is a fantastic actor (looking a bit like Robert Downey Jr in his youth), but at 36, he just had a stoic look about him that didn’t suit the young (28), fun-loving Yossarian I had imagined from the book. That said, I warmed to him as the film progressed, and it started to feel like a fairly faithful adaptation.
It’s not a short book, so it must have been tricky to adapt, and indeed at times the film felt almost a little too short (116 minutes in total); it didn’t seem like many of the characters were given their due screentime. The film had a lot of the book’s humour, but some of the more drawn-out, surreally comedic scenes had to be cut down, which took away from that slightly. One scene in particular which had me in stitches in the book was when Yossarian is expected to pose as a dying bombardier named Harvey, who has died days before his family have travelled to visit him. As Yossarian lies in bed, the family lament how different he looks and therefore how ill he must be, and call him both Harvey and Yossarian in their conversation. The whole scene is ridiculous, but in the film, it has been stripped back so much it becomes a little tiresome and loses some of its impact. That said, visualising some of the more disturbing scenes had a much more powerful effect in the film than it had in the book.
The film, like the book, doesn’t portray women well. The nurses dressed in ridiculously provocative outfits, their cleavages bursting out of their uniforms, and the nudity seemed a little gratuitous (though it was nice to see a full 70s bush on screen, as opposed to the pre-pubescent wax look we expect to see today!). But overall, it was a good effort and a film I enjoyed much more than I expected to. Not a patch on the book, but not many movie adaptations are, of course.
[EDIT: iconic director Mike Nichols died yesterday (20/11/14), so this seems like a fitting time to honour his work. Catch-22 wasn’t his most famous work, but it’s certainly up there with the greats on his filmography.]
So, my Goodreads review: five stars. I consider it a new favourite; it was thoughtful, provocative, and downright hilarious throughout. If you haven’t read it yet, get on to it, pronto.
[Coming next: The Road by Cormac McCarthy]