Imagine you’re watching someone draw. The artist starts with a few black lines and shapes. He fills in more detail, adds new lines, and reshapes space. He reveals something new, only to go back and fleshes out the picture, adding extra features. He shifts angles, starts to add in color, and little by little the drawing becomes complete. At the end, you’re left speechless.
This is how Catch-22 works. The story is nonlinear, and the reader gets large pieces of story or little bits here and there. The tale has a habit of doubling back on itself and meeting up with old narratives. Each new passage adds a greater understanding to the whole story.
This certainly isn’t traditional narrative, and Catch-22 would be maddening to experience and understand, especially for first time readers, if it weren’t so funny and entertaining. The author, Joseph Heller throws out lines like, “He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it,” or “He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.” Consequently, while I was largely bored while reading stylistically similar books like The Sound and the Fury, which you only start to fully appreciate on repeat readings, Catch-22 is enjoyable right away, even if the plot takes time and effort to comprehend.
Much like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Catch-22 is largely an antiwar book, though I imagine few could live through World War II or Vietnam and be enamored with war. Also much like Slaughterhouse Five, which popularized the phrase “So it goes,” Joseph Heller brought the term “catch-22” into the vernacular, a testament to the book’s influence.
Heller’s frequent juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy creates this powerful emotional experience where the reader swings from laughter to tears, a strategy that provides a much richer journey because a person is moved from one emotional extreme to another. When characters die, the reader feels their loss deeply because he has previously bonded to them by laughing with or at them. As a result, Heller’s satiric anti-Cold War and anti-McCarthyism message carries more weight.
Ultimately, Catch-22 is an extremely unique work. Stylistically, it’s polarizing; I imagine readers either passionately love or passionately hate it, but I suspect few readers put it down feeling ambivalent. Either way, it’s an impossible book to forget.