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Book Review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller wasn’t the first to write in a comic fashion about war. From Aristophanes through Voltaire and to the films of Stanley Kubrick, comedy has always been mixed with the tragedy and the glorious exaltations of patriotism’s finest hours – when men are killing pro patria. I was raised on Blackadder goes Forth and later became infatuated by Wilfred Owen, who of course longed to emulate the acerbic wit that Siegfried Sassoon poured into his anti-war poems. But I don’t think that I’ve ever laughed so much AND been so impressed on a serious level as I was by Catch-22.

Yossarian is an American bombardier in the Second World War, who is very dissatisfied with the fact that people he doesn’t know keep trying to kill him, and that thanks to the bureaucrats running the war, it looks like he’ll never get sent home. Everyone around him seems to be a madman, and most of them keep telling him he’s the crazy one.

I loved the style of Heller’s composition. I loved how a chapter can turn on a sentence and a tangent you thought was unimportant leads you in a totally different direction. I love that we come to understand the quirks and idiosyncrasies of just about everyone mentioned in the book. And I especially love that just when you’re growing used to the humour, he’ll hit you with something so real and so devastating that you’ll never forget it. Some will probably hate the meandering nature of the prose, and I must admit I probably enjoyed it more reading a few chapters a day than I would trying to tackle the whole thing at once.

I think I saw in Yossarian what many seem to see in Holden Caulfield – a figure that is unpredictable, often doing strange and inexplicable things, yet who has an everyman quality, a mindset that can be easily understood, and whose occasional outbursts of irrational behaviour can be understood in the context. I feel I would behave much like Yossarian in his position (without all the fondling, bien sûr), and that made his quirky character all the more fascinating.

And I think I have seldom laughed so loud or so often at a book. Not all the jokes quite hit the spot – I could have done without the drawn-out capitalism satire of Milo Enterprises that just stretched believability that little bit too far, and the hapless CIA men just seemed too unimaginative and obvious for the joke to work – but so many of them were just inspired, be the absurd situations (‘T.S.Eliot!’) or perfectly apposite character traits (I still smile at how spot-on Cathcart’s ‘Feather in the cap’ vs ‘Black eye’ fixation really was). They made the book really, genuinely enjoyable.

Funny and moving, comfortable and shocking, a book built up of opposites. I couldn’t recommend it more.
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