“They’re not going to send a crazy man out to be killed, are they?”
“Who else will go?”
Yossarian is possibly the only sane man in the world. Thousands of people he’s never met keep trying to kill him. No one seems to understand his predicament, and no matter how much he refuses he is still forced to risk his own life over and over again. That would be because Yossarian is a bombardier stationed in a squadron off of Italy during World War II, and the people trying to kill him are German soldiers, although it sometimes seems more like it’s his superiors who want him dead.
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is in its own class as a novel. It has its own logic, structure, and rhythm. The plot sounds simple -- a man is afraid of going on combat missions because he might be killed -- but there is so much more to it than that. It’s funny, heart-breaking, silly, and meaningful. It is an elaborate critique of bureaucracy, showing the useless repetitions and absurd contradictions that bureaucracy creates, such as the eponymous Catch-22 that thwarts Yossarian: if a man is insane, then he is unfit for combat duty. However, if he requests to be removed from combat that proves he is in fact sane and has to continue fighting, because a sane man would want to protect his life, while only a crazy one would willingly going into combat.
Yossarian’s superiors seem to only think in circular logic, which is mimicked through the sometimes repetitious writing style, bringing the reader into the bizarre mindset of the characters. Not even the plot is laid out in a sensible way. The timeline goes back and forth and the point of view goes from one character to another. For some readers, that might be a bit confusing, but the seemingly random way the story unfolds only adds to the amusing atmosphere of insanity that the novel creates. The writing is hilarious at times, with characters named Colonel Korn and Major Major and the mind-boggling trade that the mess officer Milo Minderbinder created, which spread across Europe and seems to involve him selling things back to himself to make a profit. However, the book can also be somber when it shows the horrors of war in an upfront manner. There are dark moments and some mature content that may bother some readers, but no more than most stories that try to show the realities of combat and life as a soldier. Yet, despite the darkness, there is still hope in the end.
Yossarian himself is as filled with contradictions as everything else in the book. In his quest to be sent home he does a number of strange things. For instance, he tries to prove that he’s insane by making up strange dreams; he goes naked when he receives a medal; he fakes liver problems; and he switches identities with a soldier of lower rank but only because he was tired. Still, his superiors will not let him go home, but he holds on and his story will keep you reading to the last page.
Here you can watch a trailer for the movie adaptation from 1970, which gives a very good summary of what Catch-22 is: