Each year I make a list of new things I want to try; it’s part of how I live my life on purpose. Some of these new things are exciting, many are terribly mundane.
“Oh, yes. I remember reading Catch-22,” my dad says between bites of baked potato. “It was so relatable. It reminded me so much of my time in the navy.”
And that, dear readers, is one of the reasons I hated this book.
Catch-22 is beautifully, cleverly written. It’s subversive and thought-provoking and powerful and (at least for me) so, so hard to read.
Why? Nearly every character you care about dies, frequently in an awful way. Horrible, malicious, immoral characters survive – and get promoted. Men rape women, push them out of windows and go unpunished. People are disappeared. The mess officer intentionally bombs his own troupe and is promoted.
It’s completely heartbreaking.
If you’ve never read it, Catch-22 is a novel set in WW II focusing on a bombardier named Yossarian and his platoon of soldiers stationed in Italy. As the back of the book states “The real problem isn’t the enemy – it’s Yossarian’s own army, which keeps increasing the number missions men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempt to excuse himself from the perilous missions he’s assigned, he’ll be in violation of Catch-22, a hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved.”
I’m a fast reader and I’m not averse to dark or creepy or sad literature. I genuinely loved Lolita and I’ll happily read about Rasputin and The Romanovs for hours. But this book? I had to renew it from the library three times and I would have stopped after 30 pages if I hadn’t told the internet I was going to read it.
At parties, friends would ask was I was reading and my answer – for the last two months – has been “Catch-22 and I hate it.”
And I was in the minority! So many people adore this book. I eventually learned to temper my instinctual response of “WHY?! It’s so sad and horrible!” to “What do you like about it?”
They listed the same reasons I listed above. It is beautifully, cleverly written. It is thought-provoking and powerful and subversive.
Here are some of the most beautifully written, clever bits:
“One of the most surprising things always was the sense of calm and utter silence, broken only by the test sounds fired from the machine guns, by an occasional toneless terse remark over the intercom and, at last, by the sobering pronouncement of the bombardier in each plane that they were at the I.P. and about to turn towards the target. There was always sunshine, always a tiny sticking in the throat from the rarefied air.”
“Huple thrust his jaw out defiantly to let Hungry Joe know he couldn’t be pushed around and then did exactly as he had been told.”
“Lieutenant Scheisskopf smacked his hands over his eyes in exasperation. It was the despair of Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s to be chained to a woman who was incapable of looking beyond her own dirty, sexual desires to the titanic struggles of the unattainable in which noble man could become heroically engaged.
“Why don’t you ever whip me?”she pouted one night
“Because I don’t have the time,” he snapped at her impatiently. “I haven’t the time. Don’t you know there’s a parade going on?””
What could you do? Major Major asked himself again. What could you do with a man who looking you squarely in the eye and said he would rather die and than be killed in combat, a man who was at least as mature and intelligent as you were and who you had to pretend was not? What could you say to him?
You know, that might be the answer – to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail.
The end of the book is slightly more uplifting. I won’t spoil it for you, but there is a teeny, tiny bit of hope for our hero. Keep trudging, disheartened reader. It’ll end on the tiniest of up-notes.I can rather begrudgingly admit that I’m glad I read this book. It’s so important to read, watch, and listen outside of our comfort zones – even if I have to force myself to do it, gritting my teeth with every page and periodically putting the book down to yelp to my empty apartment “Why does everyone keep dying?!”
I think I need a little Anne of Green Gables palette cleansing.