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(10/28/2008) Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. New York. 1961. Simon & Schuster. keywords: Literature America. 416 pages.

FROM THE PUBLISHER -

   Catch-22 is a satirical, historical novel by the American author Joseph Heller, first published in 1961. The novel, set during the later stages of World War II from 1943 onwards, is frequently cited as one of the great literary works of the twentieth century. The novel follows Yossarian, a U. S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier, and a number of other characters. Most events occur while the airmen of the fictional Fighting 256th Squadron are based on a fictional version of the island of Pianosa, west of Italy. Many events in the book are repeatedly described from differing points of view, so the reader learns more about the event from each iteration, with the new information often completing a joke, or setup, the punchline of which was told several chapters previous. The narrative often describes these events out of sequence, and are referred to as if the reader already knows about them. Arguably the best novel to come out of World War II, in which Heller strips away the veneer of martial glory to expose its insanity, and gives our language a new paradoxical phrase to describe mankind at the mercy of its own institutions. The title is a reference to a bureaucratic catch, which embodies multiple forms of illogical and immoral reasoning seen throughout the book; and which itself is an absurd joke: namely, that bureaucratic nonsense has gotten to such a high level that even the catches are codified with numbers. A magazine excerpt from the novel was originally published as Catch-18, but Heller's agent, Candida Donadio, requested that it change the title of the novel so it would not be confused with another recently published World War II novel, Leon Uris's Mila 18. The number 18 has special meaning in Judaism and was relevant to early drafts of the novel which had a somewhat greater Jewish emphasis. The title Catch-11 was suggested, with the duplicated 1 paralleling the repetition found in a number of character exchanges in the novel, but due to the release of the 1960 movie Ocean's Eleven this was also rejected. Catch-17 was also rejected, so as not to be confused with the World War II film Stalag 17, as well as Catch-14, apparently because the publisher did not feel that 14 was a 'funny number'. Eventually the title came to be CATCH-22, which, like 11, has a duplicated digit, with the 2 also referring to a number of d?j? vu-like events common in the novel. Among other things, CATCH-22 is a general critique of bureaucratic operation and reasoning. Resulting from its specific use in the book, the phrase 'Catch-22' is common idiomatic usage meaning 'a no-win situation' or 'a double bind' of any type. Within the book, 'Catch-22' is a military rule, the self-contradictory circular logic that, for example, prevents anyone from avoiding combat missions. In Heller's own words: '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,' Yossarian observed. 'It's the best there is,' Doc Daneeka agreed. ' Much of Heller's prose in CATCH-22 is circular and repetitive, exemplifying in its form the structure of a Catch-22. Heller revels in paradox, for example: The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him, and The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with. This atmosphere of apparent logical irrationality pervades the whole book. Other forms of Catch-22 are invoked throughout the novel to justify various bureaucratic actions. At one point, victims of harassment by military police quote the MPs as having explained one of Catch-22's provisions so: Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating. An old woman explains: Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing. This nightmare of a bureaucracy crushing the individual with absurdity is similar to the world of Kafka's 'Trial', and Orwell's '1984', the concept of 'doublethink' having definite echoes in Heller's work. Yossarian comes to realize that Catch-22 does not actually exist, but because the powers that be claim it does, and the world believes it does, it nevertheless has potent effects. Indeed, because it does not exist there is no way it can be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. The combination of brute force with specious legalistic justification is one of the book's primary motifs. The motif of bureaucratic absurdity is further explored in 1994's CLOSING TIME, Heller's sequel to CATCH-22. This darker, slower-paced, apocalyptic novel explores the pre- and post-war lives of some of the major characters in CATCH-22, with particular emphasis on the relationship between Yossarian and tailgunner Sammy Singer.

 

 

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