Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Why You Should Read Catch 22: Because you will never find a more eloquent and poetic argument in favor of just noping out of a bad situation.

Book Size: Long and winding. It will be difficult to follow, and there will be a lot of it that you don’t understand the first time through. So pretty much like life, really.

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The Book Report, and What I Learned:

The Plot, Nearly Spoiler-Free:

Yossarian is in trouble. Hundreds of strangers — people he doesn’t even know — have made a pact to wipe him from the face of the Earth. They have every weapon ever made. They know exactly where he is. And he can’t run away.

Worst of all, when Yossarian tells other people this terrible news, they don’t understand what he’s talking about. Of course people are trying to kill him, they say. He’s fighting in World War Two, and the conspiracy that all of these strangers have formed to destroy him is called The Axis Forces. They’re not trying to kill Yossarian — they’re trying to kill everybody and take over the world.

People keep saying this to Yossarian. They seem to think it’s a comforting thing to say. Yossarian isn’t sure why.



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Yossarian isn’t interested in promoting truth, justice, and the American Way – and even if he were, he’s seen enough of war to know that no tool is less suited for bringing good into the world.

At this point, all he wants is to go home — only each time he gets close to finishing his tour of duty, some officer somewhere makes it longer, until he’s just Sisyphus in a plane, dropping endless bombs on endless, faceless people for reasons he can no longer remember. It would be hard to tell the days apart if his friends weren’t disappearing from their tents one by one as they get cut down.

For the moment Yossarian is holed up in a hospital faking illness, but that won’t last. He needs somewhere to run to or someone to hide, because between the never-ending waves of faceless enemies and the blind self-absorption of his commanders, it’s starting to look like this war will last forever.

 

The Characters:

Yossarian, the lunatic. An air force bombardier who survived a traumatic event we don’t learn the details of until the book’s final chapters, Yossarian has abandoned any shaky feelings of patriotism he ever had and is now focused entirely on surviving the war. Paradoxically, his complete devotion to cynicism and self-interest has turned him into one of the most compassionate figures left in this war—he’s long since lost sight of the point of killing and cruelty. High-strung and very, very angry, he wobbles back and forth between screaming with rage and laughing hysterically at the absurdity that surrounds him.

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Nately, the hero. An apple-cheeked all-American boy, Nately is the ultimate innocent to balance out Yossarian’s crippling cynicism. The poor kid falls in love with the first prostitute he sleeps with and has plans to raise her kid sister together in a house back home with a white picket fence. Clearly, he is not going to last long in this war, which is only funny for the split second before you start to think about it.
 
Milo Minderbinder, the businessman. If Nately is a funhouse mirror image of Yossarian’s lost innocence, then Milo is a twisted version of everything that’s worst about him. A consummate capitalist, Milo has enough self-interest to fill an oil tanker and a complete lack of interest in how the war turns out. His only goal is to get rich off the war, and if he has to sell supplies to the enemy, poison the mess, or run his friends down with machine guns, he’ll do it, with a cheery reminder that what’s good for the small businessman is good for America.

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Snowden, the dead man. A gunner who died in Yossarian’s arms a few months before the book begins. Yossarian hardly talks about him, but when he does, he hints that Snowden whispered a secret in his ear just before he died — one terrible enough to make Yossarian give up on the war for good. “Snowden’s secret,” as Yossarian calls it, drives most of what our hero does in the novel, and it’s only once we find out in the last few chapters what that secret was that we finally understand him.
 

The Themes and Ideas:

Catch-22.
There’s only one catch to Yossarian’s plan to save himself, and that’s Catch-22. When we first hear about it, it’s a maddeningly simple army rule: no one asking to be released from deployment for reason of insanity will ever have their request granted, because anyone sane enough to be afraid of war is sane enough to fight one.

The more Yossarian learns about Catch-22, though, the bigger it grows, each new clause as infuriating and paradoxical as the last. Catch-22, we learn, is the Bible of bureaucracy — every pointless and petty regulation made by someone who has never seen a battlefield to make themselves look good with no sleep lost for the people like Yossarian who get killed in the process.

There’s no reasoning or arguing with Catch-22. It’s not personal. It’s just the rules, and if the rules say that Yossarian has to die, then that’s what Yossarian has to do.

Or maybe not. Yossarian can’t be sure what the text of Catch-22 says, really. He’s not allowed to read it. It says so, in the text of Catch-22.
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Catch-22 represents everything about the army that makes Yossarian insane. It’s not the violence and the death — not really. Yossarian has things that he’s willing to fight for and even die for just as much as anyone else.

No — what makes him crazy is the pointlessness of it all — the fact that if he dies, he’ll be dying for people who don’t know him and don’t care what happens to him, in service of a code that not only isn’t worth dying for but doesn’t even make sense. He’s going to die because some officer wanted to buff his resume or made a mistake and was too stubborn or too closed-minded or too stupid to even know it — and who won’t know or care when Yossarian is gone.

Listening to Yossarian argue with his girlfriend about God, you kind of get the sense that this is his problem with the whole universe, not just with the Army.
 
 
The broken world.
Just like how Yossarian refuses to fly his plane in a tidy, straight line so that the enemy can gun him down with ease, this book takes a crazy, winding path through time and space, often jumping ten years and two continents halfway through a sentence. It’s sort of written the way you might remember a story: one conversation reminds you of another one years later, joking about your friend’s hilarious prank forcibly brings to mind his tragic death, people and places mirror one another in a way that seems nightmarish and unreal.

In fact, Catch 22 is written exactly the way you’d write about a world that is coming apart at the seams. It’s disorienting and confusing and, most of all, disheartening — because if you can’t count on three o’clock to follow four o’clock and today to follow yesterday, then how can you possibly count on something as nebulous and unreliable as a cause or a country?

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The problem gets worse as the book goes on, until the last few chapters become this shifting, blurry river of all time and space running in eddies around a few rock-solid scenes that represent the only things in the universe Yossarian knows for sure. It’s an empty, lonely feeling, but also an honest one.
 

TL;DR

The problem isn’t that war is hell — it’s that with a little distance, it’s so easy to start thinking that war is funny.

 

Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.


 
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.


 
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

 

Side Effects of Reading Catch 22 May Include:

High heels to the head, apple cheeks, the power to see everything twice, and a full-body cast so complete that it leads people to wonder if you’re in there, or need to be in there – which is probably a metaphor for God or something.
 

Further Reading:

If you liked…
 
…meditations on the absurdity of war and the inevitability of time travel, try Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. These two novels form part of the backbone of American postwar postmodernism, and they’ve got a lot in common. Slaughterhouse-Five is lighter on the sex than Catch-22, but heavier on the poetry and little birds. Less poon, more poo-tee-weet.
 
…writing that is a whole lot of angry wrapped up in a very thin candy shell of funny, try Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Yes, I know you saw some movie about tiny people, possibly starring Jack Black. Forget the tiny people. The book is not about the tiny people. It’s about Jonathan Swift screaming in his angry dome about the tininess of all of us.
 
…a grim look at WWII from the other side, try Kenzaburo Oe’s Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, which takes the subtext of The Lord of the Flies (“Hey, if you think these kids are crazy and violent, you should see the adults who made the war they’re escaping from!”) and dials it up like Spinal Tap#.
 
 
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