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The Ongoing Relevance of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22"

The beauty of literature can often be captured years after a piece has been published. Oftentimes, as the world changes and new audiences are exposed to a work of writing, the meaning of the writing as well as the analysis that is born from its readers can become deeper and more applicable to audiences that were not even on the author’s mind when they penned out their work. 


Rarely has a piece of writing impacted me so strongly as when I went back to re-read Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” earlier this year. “Catch-22,” is a grimly hilarious novel that, on the surface, is Heller’s response to his own experiences in World War II flying 60 combat missions as a bombardier in Europe. His frustrations seep through into every one of the cast of characters that are introduced and fleshed out throughout the novel, making this a thoroughly anti-war novel. Heller’s comedic tale takes dark turns into the greed and business-like nature of warfare for the higher-ups in government and military prowess as the pawns, main character Yossarian and his fellow enlisted bombardiers, are forced to risk their lives on a daily basis for “the greater good.”


The element of Catch-22 that has kept it completely relevant in day-to-day life has been the simple fact that the novel’s title has become a common saying in the English language, whether its users know what their referencing or not. Catch-22’s main character Yossarian is one of the most hilarious, thoughtful, and relatable characters in any work of fiction I’ve read in my life. He is terrified of the missions he must fly in the war and spends the course of the novel trying with all of his might to go home, only to be consistently thwarted by the dastardly catch that is catch-22. 


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. ... Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”


In 2023, catch-22 is used to describe a situation with no reasonable way out. A lose-lose situation where the human right to make a choice is stripped away. The question that lingers is: does a catch-22 leave one optionless, or just make it much simpler to make a choice - the only choice? The gift that Heller provided the world when he wrote this novel is a piece of writing that allows the reader to escape reality and exist on the geographically bizarre, fictional Mediterranean island of Pianosa which is strictly inhabited by American war pilots and their bumbling, mentally insane superiors. The novel is chalk full of hilarious, mind-bending conversations that loop in circles of military incompetence like a dog chasing its own tail. Yossarian’s deeply personal take on the antics of warfare never cease to prod at the beauty of dark humor as he believes each and every Italian soldier who shoots at his squadron’s planes are out to kill him personally as if they had a raging vendetta out for his downfall.

One of the most outstanding character’s Heller crafted in Catch-22 is the anxious wreck that is Major Major. An incredibly smart yet socially pathetic man who’s father legally named him Major Major as a snide joke at his wife for taking ages to give birth to Major. It just so becomes Major’s luck that upon his arrival to Pianosa he is promoted in rank to none other than a major, turning his name into a crippling three-peat of ironic misfortune. Major’s iconic rule he establishes, once he has given up on social fulfillment, is that he will only take appointments for soldiers to consult with him when he is out of office. This leads to an ongoing joke of immense proportions as Major Major essentially becomes an urban legend as nobody ever sees him. 


Catch-22 was really the first novel of its kind. Heller is the first American author to blatantly strip the ideas of heroism and honor amongst American soldiers in war and instead protray them as insane, scared, and blindly following the orders of men who neither care for them or display as much intelligence as them. The increased popularity of the book as years went by came from this narrative being witnessed directly by the American public once the Vietnam War began and the United States’ addiction to preparing for and engaging in warfare overseas became blatantly clear for all to see.


Despite the never-ending stream of off-color jokes and bizarre characters being introduced in every chapter of the novel, Heller takes steep dives into the tragedy, ruin, and death that accompany these soldiers during their wartime experience. Shocking events like a murder-suicide by plane, the same pilot getting shot down countless times and still somehow finding his way back to base, and plain and simple loss of life, love, and passions are penned out throughout the 500 pages of this incredible novel. 


I will likely return to this book many times throughout my life as I take deep comfort in the relatability of its characters, the lived-in feeling of the scenery and setting, as well as the incredible comedic timing that Heller masterfully translated into a writing format, which is no easy feat. I’ve found Catch-22 to be an essential work of fiction for anyone to read and I do believe it will continue its reign of relevance and writing excellence in modern society for years to come.

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