Book Review: Catch-22

Catch-22Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this when I was young and it made perfect sense. I reread it the other day and it feels like my brain has been restored to factory defaults.

In my wasted youth, my url was “basically Yossarian”, and my girl was giving me grief about it. “This is him? This is the guy you identified with?”

Yeah. And still do! You’ve got to understand, Yossarian is just trying to get out of this alive. Everyone in a position of authority is either an idiot or a monster, most of them some combination thereof. Major Major is an avatar of negligence and irresponsibility. Cathcart is a vapid, narcissistic caricature of toxic masculinity. Korn is the probably the worst of them because he’s smart enough to see backstage, he recognizes the corruption, and he revels in it and the opportunities for casual sadism it affords him.

His peers are crazy, too. Everyone is nursing their own private madness, and everyone keeps looking at Yossarian like he’s the crazy one.

Yossarian is certain he’s not crazy, but his environment is imprinting on him. Didn’t Cervantes say something about madness as the coin for the realm? What else is a boy to do?

He stumbles blithely along, set in his convictions that there are things that are right, and there are things that are wrong, and no amount of maniac god-figure fiat doublespeak is going to convince him otherwise.

Poor Yossarian is an arguably sane figure in an insane world, and his only concerns, aside from personal adherence to his internalized code of honor, are staying alive and getting laid. That’s it. That’s all he’s worried about.

What more is there to worry about?

A catch-22 itself is a self-protecting contradiction, the most succinct version of which is “Catch-22 gives them the right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing”. It’s the only catch, and the best there is. The whole of the book layers them one on top of the other, just like in real life. Maintenance of Catch-22s are the function of bureaucracy.

You pay your taxes.

They send you a letter saying your e-payment didn’t go through, they need a money order. You send them a money order.

Two days later, you get another letter saying it took you too long to send the money order, and they’re charging you a late fee.

You can’t pay it electronically, since they can’t figure out how to debit your bank account, so you need to send them another money order. You send them another money order.

They send you another a letter saying it took too long for that money order to reach them, so they’ve applied another late fee.

Your life, right at this moment, is full of Catch-22s. They’re everywhere. That’s why zen koans exist in the first place, to point out the paradoxical absurdity inherent in everything taking place around you.

Yossarian can see behind the curtain too, and this virulent game of machiavellian grabass horrifies him. He tries to warn the others, but they write him off as a kook. It’s hard to portray credibility when you’re sitting bare-ass naked in a tree, but what else were you supposed to do? That poor kid’s guts were all over your uniform.

In the last few chapters, he drifts along through the fall of Rome in a shellshock haze and realizes there’s no humanity in humanity, and there never has been. It’s always thugs, barbarians with clubs clotting together to mutilate the weak.

He’s not insane, and he didn’t stumble into a pocket of insanity. It’s pervasive, endemic, built into the very fabric of our being, the inevitable result of grouping more than a dozen people in one place. Insanity is a contagious disease of civilization, and the more people, the worse it gets.

At the end, Korn essentially congratulates him for cracking the code and invites him to the inner party. All you’ve got to do is grin and stay the course. Let them rot, and you’ll have all the power you could ever want.

He thinks about it for a while, then he goes rogue, consequences be damned. If they get him, they’ll have to earn it. If they break him, it will be with the stick, not the carrot. The book ends with Yossarian fleeing into obscurity, a fugitive for the rest of his life, going to join his gnome mechanist best friend in Sweden where he will impregnate a small fleet of tall, blonde Nordic women who swim in the nude.

The Code, stay alive, and get laid.

As good an obit as any.

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