Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Joseph Heller and Catch-22

Joseph Heller (1923-1999) was an American author most well-known for his novel “Catch-22”, a book which contributed a new term to our cultural lexicon.  A "Catch-22" is an unsolvable dilemma in which an individual cannot avoid failure because of contradictions in the rules. In the novel Catch-22, this is initially presented in the case of a U.S. Army Air Forces bombardier who wants to be grounded from combat flight.  This will only happen if the flight surgeon deems him "unfit to fly", and any pilot who wants to keep flying such dangerous missions is certainly crazy and "unfit".  However, to request an evaluation the person must be sane, therefore they cannot be declared "unfit". Thus, it is impossible to be called "unfit".  This is called by the doctor the catch,  "Catch-22". 

The events in the novel Catch-22 occur during WW2, near the Italian Front, and involve units in the U.S. Army Air Corps.  Like many authors Heller wrote from experience. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corp in WW2 as a B-25 bombardier on the Italian Front, flying over 60 missions just like the main character in the book, John Yossarian.

Catch-22 could be characterized as an anti-war novel since it presents the meaninglessness of war for the average Joe, the capricious and illogical reason of generals and commanders and the tortuous bureaurocratic ineptitude of the entire war-making machinery.   The characters in this novel are particularly interesting and I imagine they are drawn from Heller's own experience. However, Heller has stretched the attributes and idiosyncrasies of these individuals to the point of absurdity, but that works great in a novel like Catch-22 where the central theme is absurdity. 

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