Review: Catch-22, Joseph Heller

I first read Catch-22 in high school — I think I was a sophomore — and I developed a thesis that it is exactly like Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories for Wayside School, but for grown-ups. It does that same thing that Sideways Stories for Wayside School does, where it proposes something that is obviously nonsense and relentlessly insists that it is sense for a whole chapter. Then it drops it and starts insisting that some other nonsensical proposition is sense. When I report this thesis to people and they go, “I guess” or else “What is Sideways Stories from whatever you said?” Nobody ever cries out, “Why Jenny! What an insightful connection to have drawn! How right you are!” Nobody ever even goes, “Huh. You’re right,” even though I AM SO RIGHT.

(Why has it not yet happened that people say “Correct as usual, Jenny!” as is my ambition? I am usually correct! The world should acknowledge it. I am not a crackpot.)

Catch-22, the famous book about the idiocy of the national security apparatus, has not held up well to this rereading. I thought it was a brilliant book when I was fifteen, and my friend tim and I kept sending each other excerpts from it, but the bloom now is off the rose. I didn’t even make it all the way through. I got about four-fifths done and then did a flying skim over the rest of the book to see if there was anything that would make me love it like I did when I was younger. There was not.

I keep reading extensive appreciations of this, Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, on the 60th anniversary of its publication, and I cannot find equivalent levels of appreciation for it in my own heart. Even the moments I remembered finding hilarious when I was fifteen seemed kind of obvious and overdone. Heller takes every joke and hammers it into the ground. If I find something funny in the first place, this isn’t so bad; but when it starts out not funny, and then keeps going for a whole chapter, getting less and less funny the more the joke is repeated, it’s maddening.

One more slam, and then I will retire from the slamming fields feeling guilty that I don’t love Great American Literature as I should: Catch-22 feels insincere. The moments of genuninely expressed feeling are so rare that when they do occur, I do not feel sure they aren’t setting up a new joke, so I’m reluctant to invest in them. Nobody likes anybody else, and the characters’ desires are treated with levity and skepticism. Heller’s fourth book, God Knows, which isn’t nearly as beloved, has some of the same problems as Catch-22; but I return to it more often because it feels emotionally grounded in a way that Catch-22 never does.

Here is a passage that still stresses me out:

“I didn’t say you couldn’t punish me, sir.”

“When?” said the colonel.

“When what?”

“Now you’re asking me questions again….Now suppose you answer my question.”

“But how can I answer it?”

“That’s another question you’re asking me.”

“I’m sorry, sir. But I don’t know how to answer it. I never said you couldn’t punish me.”

“Now you’re telling us when you did say it. I’m asking you to tell us when you didn’t say it.”

That passage is an excellent depiction of my life with my driver’s ed teacher. He told me I always answered back and he didn’t want me to do it anymore; I said “Yes, sir,” and he said, “I said stop answering me back!” He would point his finger across my face while I was driving, until I threatened to bite him if he did it again. He made me cry in front of my friend Janet (I hate crying). He used to do this huge, fake startled jolt when I was coming to a stop, just to screw with me. I took driver’s ed when I was fifteen and then didn’t get my license until I was almost eighteen, that’s how much I dreaded driving. Because of him. Because he was exactly like Colonel Whatsit from Catch-22.

69 thoughts on “Review: Catch-22, Joseph Heller

  1. I’ve never read Catch-22 but if it’s anything like the Wayside School books then I am so on it. Though I often find that books which I loved when I was younger aren’t quite as wonderful as I remember then being, when reading them as an adult.

    • Yeah, the Wayside books were fun when I was little, but they didn’t travel with me into young adulthood. I suspect I would have much the same reaction to them now as I had to Catch-22; except that, of course, it would take up less of my time to find out. :p

  2. Well, I wish that I had read Wayside Stories (I am too old, or you are too young) so that I could acknowledge your correctness. Because it sounds like a great theory. Alas, I haven’t read Catch-22 either.

    You are probably correct, Jenny! I have a sister who is practically always right, if she asserts that she is correct about a fact. She had one bad incident in reading map scale in Barcelona, but I mostly can agree she knows her stuff. “Cathy is always right” is a refrain in our family, and it does not bother me. In fact, it gives me a sure fire check point – I check with Cathy. I could now add you to this, as in “Jenny will know this. She’s always right.”

    Sometimes the power of being a driver’s instructor must go to people’s head.

    • No, no, it sounds like Cathy knows much more stuff than I do. In my family it is Mumsy who is always right. I am only subsidiarily right.

      There’s a line in The Office (the American one) where one character says “This is the smallest amount of power I’ve ever seen go to someone’s head,” and that is an exact description of how I feel about my driving instructor.

  3. This is on my “get to it eventually” list, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I may not care for it for some of the same reasons as you. Comic novels are just about the most difficult thing in the world for me to like, and I think you’re correct as usual, Jenny, when you say that the problem is that everything feels like the setup for another joke. And then there are the constant elbows in the ribs to make absolutely sure I know there’s a joke. If the elbows are required, the joke wasn’t good enough.

    I too sometimes feel guilty that I don’t love Great American Literature as much as I should. I love some of it, but usually by the authors who seem British, like Edith Wharton.

    • Yes! I like a book that makes jokes incidentally and leaves them alone. Not only is this less jarring to read, but it repays rereading, because you pick up on jokes you missed or didn’t think were funny the first time through. Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia is jam-packed with jokes but it doesn’t insist on them, and jokes aren’t the whole point of everything, so it’s much funnier and much more moving at the end.

      I can never think of a rule that governs my taste in American literature — I hate stories about people roughing it but I love The Poisonwood Bible; I hated Beloved but I love The Color Purple; I hate the whiny expats but I love The Great Gatsby. It makes it difficult to know where in American literature to turn next.

  4. I have never actually attempted this book, because I have had mixed feelings about it for such a long time. I did have a go at the movie, but was less than impressed, and gave up around the time there was all the cotton in the trees, and they were making people try to eat it. I am not even sure I am remembering that correctly, as it sounds absurd to me for some reason, but then again, that passage that you quoted is so much like Who’s On First” that I can’t imagine the cotton scene was invented in my brain. This book sounds like it would have made me tired. And your driver’s ed teacher sounds like he needed to be bitten at some point.

    • Yes, the cotton scene sounds true. There is a whole plotline in the book about how the guy in charge of ordering food has ordered all this Egyptian cotton, and he can’t get rid of it, and he’s trying to make people eat it. I’m not sure where the trees come in but it all sounds right to me.

      My driver’s ed teacher did need to be bitten. Although I guess if I learned to drive now, I’d be too much of a lady to threaten to bite him.

  5. That’s too bad, I just found a copy of this and plan to read it soon. Hopefully I’ve got some in common with your teenage self (other than the horrible drivers ed stories!).

  6. I don’t think you truly hate Great American Literature. It’s just that some things that are considered Great are distinctly Non-Great. Down with Faulkner, Hemingway, Melville and Dreiser! Up with Fitzgerald, Wilder (of the Laura Ingalls variety), Twain, and Alice Walker!

    • Surely Melville must be great. His book is so long. And what about Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel (ugh) Hawthorne, etc.? I think claiming to dislike Great American Literature is fair.

  7. Because you are always right, I may have to rely on your expertise and stop feeling guilty about not reading this book yet. If it’s off the TBR list, no more guilt!

    Your driver’s ed. teacher sounds like a Class A jerk. I’m sure if you’d done as he asked and stayed silent, he would have criticized you for being sullen. Some people live to abuse power, no matter how miniscule that power is.

    • Good! I’d vote for making it one of those books you’d read if the occasion came up (like if you were vacationing somewhere and the house where you were staying had it and you’d run out of other things), but not particularly seeking it out. That’s about where it stands with me now.

      Actually, I think he just didn’t like me because I was snide. However, he was a much bigger jerk than I was snide. He also may have thought I was a drunk, because I performed worryingly well at the game of catch we had to play with drunk goggles on.

  8. This was my absolutely favourite book in my final years at school from age 15 to 17. I kept it in my blazer pocket and read it in a loop, starting again as soon as I had finished. I think I read it again in my mid-thirties and it was definitely a different experience but I still liked it. I was thinking of doing a re-read of books that have been important to me next year when I turn 50; I will add this to the pile!

  9. I read Catch-22 in college and remember it only dimly, but I remember not being crazy about it. I agree with you and with Teresa’s comment: when a book feels like a string of jokes, I can’t really get invested in it.

    • Same. Tom Stoppard refers to my favorite of his plays as “a tragedy with jokes”, whereas Catch-22 feels like a string of jokes about tragedy. I’m willing to mix tragedy and jokes — tragedy and jokes have to mix! — but the Tom Stoppard way, not the Joseph Heller way.

    • No, no, no. Not for shame at all. Life is finite. You can’t read all the books in the world, and frankly, there are more important ones than this here.

  10. Oh my goodness! I could never make it out of my driveway with such a driving instructor. I’m scared enough of those driving exams as it is. My driving instructor was so nice The first time I ever started up the motor and began driving, I drove up a sidewalk. He calmly told me to back up slowly and proceed on the road. There was no one there at the time to witness this. I would probably ram right through a fence and into a tree if I had your driving instructor.

    I’ve never read catch-22. I always feel sad when a book that I greatly enjoyed in my youth turns out to be so far from what I remembered was great about it. Luckily this has not happened very often and I can continue to cherish and return to those great reading moments…

    • My driving instructor was completely crazy. I always wonder if he comes off normal when you meet him in regular life, and only reveals his crazy side to the poor hapless students he has in his power.

  11. I think we may have had the same driving instructor! I was forced to drive ON THE HIGHWAY my very first day behind the wheel — no practice driving in the school parking lot, nothing like that. Students were placed in groups by birth date, not experience, and I was put in a car with kids who’d been driving to the mall already! I’d never even sat behind the wheel. It was traumatizing and I didn’t get my license for more than a year after that. My dad took me driving in the local cemetery. I am not kidding. It was more than 20 years ago and I’ll never forget it.

    • What! That’s so mean. Mine wasn’t quite that bad, and my driving partner was a friend of mine. On the second day we did start driving on a highway (not the interstate, but a very busy many-lane road), and it was pouring down rain, and I was scared to death. I seriously thought I was going to die.

  12. You are so right, Jenny!

    In all seriousness, I understand exactly the connection you are trying to make between Catch-22 and Wayside. Though it’s been a while sine I read either, from what I remember, I totally get it. I also never really connected with Catch-22, though I had a hard time deciding why. I think some of the things you point out here might be the culprits, especially the humor, which never seemed all that humorous. But then, is that the point? I don’t know! And now we’re back where we started.

    • Yay, I’m glad you can see the connection between the two. Reread them. I think you will find them startlingly similar! (But sort of a waste of your time, so maybe don’t reread.) Or else I will reread Wayside Story at Christmas and find it’s not at all how I remember it.

  13. Sorry, Jenny, but I must defend Catch 22! I re-read this book last year, and I still thought it was brilliant. Very funny and very poignant. Does Heller keep the same jokes going ad infinitum? Sure he does! – as repetitive and really grinding your face in it and as predictably insane as the war and the war machine Yossarian is fighting in/with (or trying not to fight).

    I haven’t read the book you compared it with. I first read this book as an adult – maybe the age at which you first read it really alters your perception? As a teen you focus on some elements and ignore others/they go over your head. As an adult you probably have a more balanced view of it.

    I re-read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye a few years ago, having not read it since I was a teen, and I really wasn’t impressed on the re-read.

    • Your defense is totally reasonable! I get what he’s trying to do but it just doesn’t really work on me, I’m afraid. I can see how it would be madly effective if it worked on you.

      Oo, Catcher in the Rye was never good for me. I maybe read it just slightly too late — I was sixteen or seventeen — to appreciate it. I hated, hated, hated it and I have no plans to return to it.

  14. WHOA! JENNY! I DO THINK YOU’RE RIGHT!!! Like you, I read Catch-22 in high school and liked it. I was very into irony. And then when my son got to about 4th or 5th grade I read some of those Wayside School books with him. And yeah–I didn’t think about it, but they really DO work almost exactly like Catch-22!

    We watched the movie of Catch-22 about a year ago, and it emphasizes the sixties aspect, which was kind of nice because we’d just enjoyed watching Men Who Stare at Goats. Those wacky hippies–it’s like they expected people to make sense.

  15. Correct as usual, Jenny!

    I haven’t read Catch-22 and don’t intend to. Plus, you had the driving instructor from hell. On a lighter note, I have read loads of American literature since I began blogging and much of it was wonderful. As I mentioned, I have never included Heller. Read more lovely French literature. No one reads enough of that, not even the French.

  16. I haven’t read this and now I’m not so inclined. It’s disappointing to re-read a book you loved and not love it so much the second time around.

    • It is disappointing, although that’s not really what happened here. It was more a book I pretty much liked the first time and thought was really clever, and this time I thought it was less clever and enjoyed it almost none.

  17. I haven’t read it. My first memory of the book though is finding it discarded in an old barn near our house. My dad brought it back with him from our walk but I don’t know if he ever read it. I’ve never really felt the need though.

    Your driver’s ed teacher sounds like … well something I wouldn’t normally say because I don’t swear. People like that just stink.

  18. It’s disappointing to re-read a book you loved and not love it so much the second time around
    I actually enjoyed Heller’s classic more the second time around!

  19. Oh oh — have you seen the film Happy Go Lucky? I thought it was absolutely completely BRILLIANT (sorry to shout at you) but it might possibly traumatize you because it has a driving instructor just like that in it. Mental. The woman he tries to terrorize is so lovely that she can take in all his awfulness and not be hurt, though. You should see it. Everyone should see it.

  20. I read and loved this book during my school days too. Don’t remember much about it now, but if that excerpt you put out is any indication, I don’t think I will like it much now.

    I haven’t read the Wayside books, but if I had, I would most probably say “Correct, as usual, Jenny” … I don’t know if that is any consolation to you :D

  21. I loved the Wayside Stories books! My sister owned them. I loved the one chapter where the story was told backwards, like a proto-Memento, elementary-school style. Or also the one where the new student turned out to be (spoiler!) a rat.

    I tried reading Catch-22 when I was in high school and gave up after page 20 or 30, I think. I have little desire to read it now. I have it in my head that it’s one of those books that was perfect for its time but not so fresh now.

    What you say in your tags about comic novels sometimes falling victim to the heartlessness of their levity is very true. (And not just about books, but films too.)

    • Wow, you have a better memory than I do. I had completely forgotten the one where the student turned out to be a rat. That’s RIGHT. I remember that now! Wow. Good times.

  22. I loved the Wayside School books when I was growing up and Catch-22 is one of my all time favoirte books. I honestly can’t beleive I never made the connection. Brilliant!

  23. “Correct as usual, Jenny!”
    I read Catch-22 so I would understand the concept; thought I would ‘go to the original source’. I liked the book but I don’t ever think I was aware it was humor. Guess that’s the irony of it.

  24. Well, I feel better now. I have tried to read Catch 22 twice, and failed to get anywhere at all. It just did not make sense and that can either bore or frustrate me to no end.

  25. For me, Catch-22 falls into the category of books I wouldn’t normally like (I don’t like much American lit., I don’t like Joseph Heller’s other books, I have the same problem with constant irony that you have) but for some reason I really enjoy it. I think it’s because Catch-22 has a kind of energy to it that none of Heller’s other books really have. Heller is so obviously enjoying himself, and in most of his other books he just sort of seems to hate life.

    • I know what you mean about his other books! God Knows is my favorite one — and even that one I don’t love — because that one has some of the same fun thing going on.

  26. I read Catch 22 when I was around twenty, and I remember it as having 3 pages of brilliant dialogue followed by 20 pages of drivel that I could only get through by reading diagonally, and then 3 pages of brilliant dialogue again, and so on. One of those American bestsellers that would have benefitted greatly from having at least 100 pages cut. (I did love the film; much better IMO than M*A*S*H.)

    I still have the book because I tend to give books a second chance. I have never managed to pluck up the courage to reread it though. But as you mentioned its anniversary this year (small correction: 50th, not 60th), now may be the time. I’ll probably decide it Will Have To Go, and free up some much-needed shelf space.

    • I haven’t seen the film (nor M*A*S*H; I have a hard time with war movies). But yeah, I think the book could have benefited by cuts. I know that saying that makes me sound like those editors who tried to edit Faulkner but honestly, people need to be edited! Even fantastically good writers need to be edited a lot.

      I hope you like it if you reread! I was disappointed that I didn’t. :(

      • I reread the first fifty pages in a rather detached way and decided I didn’t want to invest any more time in it. I did leaf through the rest and came across a scene I loved in the film. Maybe I’ll just buy the DVD.

        I wasn’t disappointed. It freed up some shelf-space, and not reading the rest saved me a lot of time.

  27. I had a serious lot of trouble reading this book and I still have never managed to have finished it. You hit the nail on your head whith that exchange you included in your post – I just found myself getting so confused it made my head hurt :-)

    • You know what I got super confused about, was the timeline. The chapters were all out of chronological order, and I couldn’t keep straight what had happened when and how all the things fit together.

  28. Sorry to know that you didn’t enjoy the experience when you re-read ‘Catch-22′. I enjoyed reading your review of it and the reasons on why you didn’t like it when you re-read it. This is a book that I haven’t read, but want to read some day. Actually I liked the dialogue snippet that you have quoted. Though it might be read as a humorous piece, it might also make us remember the dread we felt when we confronted an authority figure when we were younger, or when we were in a vulnerable position. I feel that sometimes what is regarded as humour might have deeper undercurrents. Thanks for this wonderful review and for sharing your re-reading experience.

    • Definitely the humor in Catch-22 has lots of deeper undercurrents: it’s the blackest of black humor. But it didn’t hit home for me this time, I guess. :/

    • Sorry, sorry, sorry! I had a madly busy week last week and then went out of town for Labor Day, so I wasn’t around to moderate comments. If you comment again, it should appear without needing moderation — I only moderate for new commenters.

      • No problem! :)
        I have commented here before, but probably as _lethe_. I am one of the select club of people who know and love The Charioteer. :)

    • Yes, totally could happen! It could very easily be awesome for you, and you must tell us all about it if so! Don’t go by me. Like I said, I hate American literature. :/

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