I remember reading sections of Catch-22 in highschool English, but I hadn’t gone back to read the whole thing until a week or two ago. It’s a book that comes in at #7 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 greatest novels, and whether or not you agree with that ranking, I think it’s safe to say that it belongs on the list. I mentioned this yesterday, but I think Heller gets unfairly pidgeonholed as a whacky satirist rather than as a top-notch writer or a storyteller.
Still, there’s no denying the man has a knack for humor. Take the prosaic progression and punchline in this line, for example:
"There was a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma, there was a pathologist for his pathos, a cystologist for his cysts, and a bald and pedantic Cetologist from the zoology department at Harvard, who had been shanghaied ruthlessly into the medical corps by a faulty anode in an IBM machine and spent his sessions with the dying colonel trying to discuss Moby Dick with him."
The absurdity of a poor cetologist landing in the medical corps near the frontlines of WWII is typical of the crazy conundrums that fill the novel- from Milo Minderbinder’s syndicate (Everybody’s got a share!) to the political maneuvers of the dastardly military brass.
There were a couple spots where the attempt at humor gets to be a little much, where the dialogue starts to resemble an old Abbott & Costello or Groucho Marx routine, where every line is a punchline, but by and large the satire is hilarious and effective.
And here’s what I really loved about the book. The chapters present a disjointed and non-chronological timeline where past events are referred to, then placed like puzzle pieces into greater context, and finally dealt with in-depth later on in the narrative- some of it a pretty gruesome counterpoint to the funny material that surrounds it. It all has the effect of throwing the reader into the same confusing and seemingly endless loop that the characters themselves are stuck in- with one key exception: the ever-climbing number of combat missions the men are required to fly. This last fact provides a common thread for the entire book, and gives an ominous crescendo to the unfolding action. It’s brilliant how it all comes together.