"Catch-22": A Style All Its Own

The first of many meditations on my favorite book of all time.  This was written in the fall of my senior year of high school, and reading from this era now I continue to be pissed off by the canned paragraph and sentence structure that I'd been indoctrinated by.  Or not creative enough to shrug off.  For readability, I've broken up these paragraphs.

Style is one of the most important factors that an author can add to a work.  It shows the author’s view of the subject, as well as his talent as a writer.  Catch-22 is an unique book because of its style, among other sparkles of genius.  In the book, Joseph Heller chooses the perspective of a dangerously sane bombardier in the Second World War with which to examine the insanity of war.  Heller’s refreshingly original blend of black humor, expansive vocabulary, and non-linear story line makes this story what it is: an immortal tale of human nature.

In writing this book, Heller uses a very informal, yet literate writing style.  The expansive vocabulary used in this book is quite impressive, though Heller uses these skills to describe such depressing locales as brothels and mess halls.  It is this displacement of high words and low places that shows the aptitude of Heller’s talents as a writer.

Another original union is that of war and humor.  While this idea is not unattempted (M*A*S*H*, Hogan’s Heroes), no where is it more aptly applied than in Catch-22.  The reader should note that Heller does not use comedy to either sweeten the soldiers’ situation or falsely communicate the gravity of the topic.  The author seems to have come upon comedy as a by-product of displaying the utter ludicrosity of armed conflict.  I shall touch more upon this later.  When a reader first starts reading this book, the first characteristic that he or she notices is the informal, yet literate writing style, and without this unique way of communicating the unique storyline, Catch-22 would fall flat, and not have the impact that is strongly felt when read.

Usually the next feature that the reader notices is that the story of Catch-22, a complex one, does not start at the beginning and end at the end.  There is an unusual amount of flashbacks, retraces, and regroups, in which the author fills the reader in on the plot.  This achieves several purposes.

First, it establishes a unique plot-developing style, which the reader will appreciate in its own right for being literarily inventive.

Second, this plot style forces the reader’s attention on the novel, a benefit, because the author has a responsibility to build the story’s vivacity within the head of the reader, thereby fully communicating the writer’s vision.  Each chapter in Catch-22 is nearly independent, but not necessarily in chronological order, so the books is like a bag of puzzle pieces, and the reader is intent upon the novel because he or she is reading desperately in order to piece the various plot elements together.

Third, with the story laid out in this fashion, the plot seems to enhance itself as the book progresses.  With each new chapter covered, the reader fills in a new portion of the plot, which serves to increase his or her opinion of the book.  No other book is laid out in quite the same way, and yet somehow, Joseph Heller’s plot remains with the reader for a long time.

One large component of Catch-22 that makes it a classic, is the intense, almost gritty humor that is contained within it.  When first reading some of these humorous passages, the reader feels almost embarrassed to be laughing at a book about insanity and death.  Yet, the road to misery by way of humor is a path well-traveled by writers of all sorts, and Heller was one of the first pioneers of this path in modern times.

Heller’s use of humor does not stem from a desire to make the reader laugh, like Keillor or Barry, but is used as an illustrative tool to depict for the reader how the world seems to one so dangerously sane as this bombardier.  The scene in which Milo feeds Yossarian a piece of chocolate-covered cotton is one of the classics of American humor, and yet it appears within a war novel, populated by whores and maniacs.  Humor on a small scale, such as the cotton scene, serves to illustrate an individual’s inherent insanity.

But there also exists within Catch-22 humor on a larger scale.  It is easy to find humor in the situation, and it is this kind of comedy that most clearly demonstrates Heller’s views on war and mankind.  Milo’s ludicrous and insanely complex Syndicate grift is one example, as is the depressingly comical plight of Chaplain Tapmann.  Of course, one must mention the most prominently humorous situation in the book, “the Catch.”

“What catch?”  “Catch-22.”  This mini-dialogue is heard countless times throughout the book, and appears to be a “catch”-all phrase used by the military to explain away hypocrisy and insanity.  The first time it is mentioned, the Catch refers to the dilemma of the pilots in the Squadron.  Yossarian wants to be grounded from bombing duty.  All he has to do is ask the doctor to be grounded.  The doctor cannot ground him unless he is crazy.  Only a crazy man would want to continue flying suicidal bombing missions, so Yossarian is “obviously” sane because he wants to be grounded.  The only way to prove he is crazy is to  continue to fly bombing missions.  The first phrase that comes to the reader’s mind is “viscious cycle.”

This book is full of these “mobius plot devices,” and these “catches” are what make Catch-22 stand out from books like The Heart of Darkness and Killer Angels.  No where in literature is there a book dealing such grave topics in such a clever manner.

Catch-22 is undoubtedly one of the most stirring and immortal books of the past century, but what is even more fascinating than the book is the scintillating writing style employed.  Joseph Heller, though he has authored perhaps a half-dozen other books, has placed into this book such a facile quality, that it stands above and outshines the rest.  Catch-22 is one of those books that makes the reader sad that there are no other books that rival its creativity.


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