Book Review: Catch 22

I couldn’t agree with the sentiment of the quote above more, especially given the current state of the world. That we have been flirting with World War III and nuclear or biological annihilation, makes me feel my years of muttering under my breath that most of the human race are idiots weren’t wasted. Anyway, back to the book. 

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller is set in Italy during World War II. The book follows bombardier Yossarian, as he attempts to live forever or die trying. There are the forces of the other army out to get him, of course, but then there is also his own side. Perpetually increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service, Yossarian seems doomed to have to keep flying because of this, and because of Catch-22. According to this kafkaesque 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 love this premise and I don’t think I could have been reading a more appropriate book when things started kicking off in Ukraine. A very accurate depiction of human nature on many fronts, as well as modern warfare as I understand it. All the characters are insane, yet convinced they’re the only sane one. Much of what is happening is surreal and disjointed, but in a way that worked for me. I laughed out loud on average about once every ten minutes while reading. But there are parts that are fucking dark and darkly fucked.

This may be the most gloriously cynical book I have ever read. I wanted to give it a 5/5 but it’s just too real at points, jarringly swinging from head screwingly surreal comedy to gore and horror and back again. I get that life is like this, that war is like this, but for fiction we need suspension of disbelief, and I was so thrown out of the narrative by jarring bits at points I had to put the book down, go away and do something else for a while.

Also, if you can’t handle the “male gaze”, this book is seriously not for you. It is utterly sexist. The female characters are, in the main, merely sex objects who are sexualised and brutalised. Some of the male characters are nicer about it than others, but they’re all pretty much showing us the worst of how men are with women, even when they’re trying to be good. Again, a bit too jarringly real, but I would hope that most male readers would find it that way too. At the same time though, the way that the women are depicted is jarringly unreal. It seems clear the author has a. never met a woman of any substance b. doesn’t like writing about them c. thinks all woman are bimbos or d. all of the above. Every single one of them seemed to just be there to screw around and there was little more to them than that. The author effortlessly depicts various shades of male character, yet seems completely incapable of writing a single female with any personality beyond which man she is shagging or wants to shag her. Either the author was trying to say something about how men see women, or he was telling us how he sees women. The fact I’m not sure has me thinking it’s a little of both. 4/5


  1. Great quote. It was similar to my counter-argument back when everyone was saying, “We support our troops” as rationale for going to war with Iraq, under W: “I support NOT sending the troops to die or be maimed for no good cause”. Yeah, war is completely nuts, while also being good business, and a booming one right now.

    • Totally agree 👍 Perhaps if war wasn’t such a money maker the powers that be wouldn’t be so keen to get involved in them at the drop of a hat. And perhaps if they gave a damn about the lives of ordinary people. Money and power are viewed as far more important than human lives by those at the top though, which is why although I would die for the people I love, I wouldn’t piss on my government or nation if it were on fire, let alone go to war for them.

      • Have you seen this video?

        I guess that $40 billion sent to rescue Ukraine is mostly really just going right into the pockets of our own weapon manufacturers. Turns out the experts solemnly advocating US involvement in war are connected to companies that directly benefit from it. It’s so cynical. I don’t know if evil just triumphs over good, or if the human mind is easily and irresistibly susceptible and attracted to corruption, but it seems like everything today is the rich and powerful ripping off everyone else, and in the most painful and murderous ways.

      • “it seems like everything today is the rich and powerful ripping off everyone else, and in the most painful and murderous ways.” It does indeed, couldn’t have put it better. Hadn’t seen that particular video, but am very aware of this sort of thing happening. We’re not supposed to believe in good or evil anymore, so we can stroke our “modern, progressive” giant egos over how “intelligent and advanced” we are, but this kind of behaviour has always looked like pure evil to me. Call me old fashioned, but I suspect having a moral philosophy might be quite handy if you don’t want to end up with a culture run by absolute psychopaths.

      • Indeed. And sometimes, OK, frequently, the only unquestioned good seems to be the purely selfish pursuit of personal monetary gain. When I lived in China I had a friend who was a member of the Communist Party. He told me that the worst thing you could do, as a member, wasn’t corruption, but being stupid enough to get caught. I fear there are different rules for our leaders, and that their most important skill is to lie without any compunctions or hesitation, and the end result is that the evil and corrupt deceive the good, and take advantage of them perpetually. If that were the case, we might see something like tens of billions of dollars of tax payer money going into the pockets of weapons manufacturers. Oh, wait … … …

  2. Thanks for the write-up and couldn’t agree more. The “male gaze” bit of it is especially jarring on a re-read and is unfortunately so common in the “great works” of that time period. Hell, I guess it’s true for works in any time period. Heller does do a phenomenal job capturing the claustrophobia of war, whether it’s the literal crammed space inside a bomber or the unending count of missions required.

    • I’m willing to cut Heller and others a lot of slack, as products of their time. People had a lot of shitty ideas in the past, that’s just context, doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater now. Obviously if this were a book written by a modern author in contemporary times I’d have a different opinion, but the fact is we can’t know what our output will look like to others in the future, so we can’t expect people of the past to be anything but products of their time as well. I’ve read a lot of important philosophy texts by thinkers who don’t even acknowledge women as fully human. Doesn’t make those texts any less important, so long as those ideas about women are left behind now. But then I was educated in a time in which it was still considered extremely stupid to expect people from different eras and places to have the same standards as one’s own, because how were they to know? Now I gather anyone who doesn’t fit certain contemporary standards is to be declared a Nazi bigot and cancelled, so we might as well just burn our entire history. Or perhaps that’s the actual desired outcome?

      I recently learned about a mural in the Tate in London by an artist called Rex Whistler, a man who died fighting actual Nazis in WWII. The modern inquisition want to have the mural destroyed because they claim it “depicts racism”. Context and the artist’s intention don’t matter anymore apparently, just our bias and all too easy offense. Well, I take offense at the destruction of art. So this book is sexist to a modern eye, it’s not like that was it’s intended message and it’s not like the book actually intended to harm anyone. Unlike contemporary culture on all sides. And wasn’t that something of the point Heller was actually intending to make? That’s why I picked that particular quote at the start of my review, because that, to me, seemed the main message, and that’s a message for all of us.

      • Great points. There’s a quote I think about a lot, that goes something like “No matter how ‘woke’ you think you are, today you are doing something that in 20 years will be considered abhorrent.”

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