Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

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Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Madeline Wheatley
Reviewed by Madeline Wheatley
Summary: A 50th anniversary edition of Joseph Heller's classic novel about the madness of warfare.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 602 Date: October 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099529118

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A Times Educational Supplement Teachers' Top 100 Book

the enemy is anyone who is going to get you killed no matter which side he's on

At the heart of the very black comedy that is Catch 22 is Captain Yossarian, a World War II American bombardier, who wants to survive the war. Flying repeated combat missions is undermining his sanity, and surely a mad man should be grounded? But if he asks to be grounded, he demonstrates an absolutely sane concern for his own safety. If he is sane, he can't be grounded. This, his doctor tells him, is catch 22.

A catch 22 situation, a circular glitch that trips you up whichever way you turn, entered the English language from this book. Heller invented the phrase, but it wasn't long before the author found people quoting the term back at him, as if it had always existed. In the same way that the concept of catch 22 slipped from fiction to real life, so the book's description of warfare and the human condition has moved way beyond its original setting of World War II. First published in 1961, the story's satirical attacks on government and war were equally applicable to the Vietnam conflict or the cold war. To coincide with this anniversary edition the BBC interviewed present-day soldiers who acknowledged the continuing relevance of Heller's characters. Yossarian lives as the stickers used to say.

Heller has a genius for capturing meaning in a few words and his descriptions ring as true today as fifty years ago. I love his observations on people, from simple sketches, such as an annoyed man sitting down pugnaciously, to accurate summaries of moments we've all had: when Yossarian cannot sleep he is a prisoner in one of those sleepless, bed-ridden nights that would take an eternity to dissolve into dawn.

The book moves at a manic pace, with people and incidents falling over each other in a cascade of images. Some of the more poignant moments reoccur in slightly different forms, with each revisit adding a little more to the picture. This structure can make for difficult reading at times, but the repetition and circular style of the narrative matches the lunacy of Yossarian's situation perfectly. It does seem to be a love it or hate it book though. Perhaps it is one of those that you need to read at the right time in your life. I'm sure I would have hated it at 17, but reading it now, I couldn't put it down. For those who regard it as an old favourite, this is a great edition, as alongside the text are a selection of essays and letters about the book from other authors and critics. Howard Jacobson provides an enthusiastic introduction headed it was love at first sight. I agree!

Another must-read set during World War II but about so much more is Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard.

For a factual account of the impact of aerial warfare try Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943 by Keith Lowe. You might also appreciate Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller.

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