My ideal holiday is one where I’m always busy- reading. On my annual trip to Italy, the days are spent sprawled in a sun lounger, watermelon slices gradually turning tepid due to neglect and heat, and noses shamelessly inserted between pages. I chose to immerse myself in Catch-22 and explore Heller’s most prestigious work. It wasn’t your typical holiday read, a novel that you could ooze into as you slowly inflated on pizza, but nevertheless I undertook the challenge. It was a challenge. I was required to adopt a surgeon’s precision, trying to peel apart the meaning behind each sentence. So although I couldn’t fall into a typical holiday induced mental slumber, there were benefits: I would finally be able to nod my head, and smile genuinely, when people spoke airily of that old novel. Oh, and the phrase ‘Catch-22’ would have 518 pages of context behind it.
In a way, this novel did help me let go…of my preconceived notion that plot is essential to a novel, and made me stop fishing around Heller’s chapters for sense. It’s a confusing read. Yet I will try to sum up the thread I could identify; Yossarian, the protagonist, serves as an American pilot in 1944, on the island Pianosa. He is terrified by the prospect of death, with the clear attitude that “the enemy is anybody who is going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on.” Yes, there is a paranoid edginess throughout. And not only that, but the sense of desperation Yossarian has to flee the country and find refuge from the violence and imminent threat of death. It’s not a surprise, really. All around him is friends are either flying, dying or decaying, and then hurriedly forgotten.
Yossarian is a typical anti-hero, perhaps one of the most notable of the 20th century. He continually attempts to escape his military duty and is perching on the end on the coil of sanity. He is not particularly inspiration, being one of the 20th century’s greatest anti-hero, as he is willing to abandon his comrades in order to save himself. But he does ignite laughter. And that is crucial, because the humour in Catch-22 was one of the few things that made it bearable. Another thing which was engaging, and lightened the tone made damp by the subject of war, were the colourful exploits of Yossarian abroad. Whenever he left Pianosa for a holiday trip, miniature adventures would ensue; the brief escapades were brimming with action, and the characters cameoing were marvellously outrageous. Imagine: Yossarian chasing a girl throughout the streets of Rome, ducking into restaurants and racing through streets frantically- of course this is going to be more interesting than his monologues and moaning in the field.
But the novel is not as straight forward as that, unfortunately. The events take place non chronologically, and there is never any indication that the time period has changed, or is about to. So that was initially a struggle for me to comprehend, and I found it unconformable to read as I was unaware of what was actually taking place. But Catch-22 hasn’t been sold more than 10 million times for it’s perplexity. The language is exceptional, gouged from a scholar’s thoughts. The style and syntax is alien to what we’re accustomed to today, but I can only see this as an opportunity to examine 1960s literature, and to expand my vocabulary! Having said that, some of the words were so unbelievably long and complex, that I thought that the only reason Heller put them there was to be pretentious, but still.
On the whole, I think that this is a novel worth reading, yet only once. As you know, I am an avid reader, and even I had to set myself daily benchmarks to force myself to persevere through the literal sludge. 100 pages a day normally isn’t too ambitious, yet I was reading for 3 hours a day and just about managed to stumble through the pages in that time. Of course, I could have meandered through the novel, picking it up when I felt the urge, but that approach relied on you wanting to read the novel, at all, in the first place. And although I was starting to enjoy Catch-22 by the end, the deep madness and blatant contradictions were a constant challenge. But an unique novel is going to tough, is it not? The perspective on war is much less poetic than other novels, and fills you with a sense of the massive impact the conflict had on everyone’s life. For us, 6 years in history seems like nothing, merely a couple of words in a sentence, referring to something decades ago. But in this novel, you can see that everyday was signifcant, something they had to suffer through, ponder continually Is this the day I will die? So take the plunge, and challenge yourself. The waters are icy, but by the end you’ll acclimatise, and in although it’ll feel like a gruelling experience at the time, when you look back you’ll smile.