Book Review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

It’s hard not to appreciate Catch-22 but it is hard to like the overuse of the catch-22 theme. Without the Catch-22s the book wouldn’t have made such an impact on our collective psyches and we wouldn’t have the phrase today. In which case it might have been called something else and that might have been bizarre because we know what catch-22 means and if it was called something else, people might ask “why isn’t this called catch-22?”

Sorry, I couldn’t resist 🙂

This passage sums up the book quite nicely:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own 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… If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.

Such is the predicament of the bomber crewman that is central to this novel. Considering it is so highly regarded, I wish I could say that I enjoyed it; it became an endless slog almost like trying to drag yourself out of quicksand that you know will eventually suck you under but the rate at which you are sinking is slowing and you can’t get out. I didn’t enjoy it and as time went on I could no longer see the point of going on with its endless tangents and so halfway through I gave up. The style of writing is quite literary; little actually happens. I could live with that though. What I couldn’t live with in the end was the endless overuse of catch-22 in the narrative; there seemed to be one on every page and in that it almost becomes a parody of itself, the joke became old very quickly. Far from finding it hilarious, it became an irrtation – overkill doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Comedy can be difficult to do and if that is the primary focus you are screwed if it doesn’t work. And if a gag does not work the first time, it isn’t likely to work the second time, the third time, the fourth time, the fifth time… the one hundredth time. That’s the problem with the book: (unfunny) gags are recycled – sometimes on the same page. This is a shame because it is otherwise an interesting book with (some) interesting and well-defined characters who are larger than life trying to survive the most horrific war in human history. Most of the rest of the characters are unpleasant, those that are not will really get on your nerves.

I’m almost sad I decided not to finish it as it is not actually a bad book. It is well written and the characters are – despite their flaws – well illustrated. Instead, I’m filing it under “didn’t work for me”.

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