Wonderfully chaotic, and probably closer to the truth about war (even in this day and age) than it means to be, Catch-22 follows the exploits of a number of bomber crewmen stationed on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa during WWII. Of course, it’s entirely fictional, but that’s not to say there isn’t a ring of truth to the proceedings; even knowing very little about the inner workings of the armed services.
If you think Pulp Fiction was at all original in its use of a jump-around timeline following differenct characters with intertwining stories, Catch-22 should be an education for you – it does the same kind of thing, and was written decades before Pulp Fiction. Over the course of the book, you become familiar with a number of characters (and, this being set during a war, there are a fair number of dumbasses and dead men), but the main character is one Yossarian, who since the war began has become fixated on the idea of staying alive (there are many far less healthier fixations around), and much of the book is about (in one way or another) his attempts to do so, the main feature of which is his determination to stop having to fly combat missions and get sent home, or at the least go AWOL.
There are some truly surreal moments in this book, and thankfully they aren’t simply plonked down in the middle of a chapter, they sneak up on you so that before you know it, you realise you’ve just read several pages that sound something like a crazy dream, or maybe a vivd trip. An interesting theory concerning these moments of madness occurred to me right near the end of the book – i’m slow on this kind of thing because, at least the first time around, i try not to analyse a book – we find out near the beginning that Yossarian has been refusing to take his malaria tablets. Well, don’t you get a fever when you get malaria? which suggests most of the story could in fact be Yossarian experiencing the deoths of fever. This idea occurred to me after the many reappearances of Nately’s whore trying to kill Yossarian – it seemed to me that maybe Heller had written this bit so obviously crazy that it would remind you that Yossarian could simply be in a fever.
Anyway, Catch-22 is a truly great book. I’d only class it as humour in a broad sense – there are funny moments, but overall it’s too depressingly close to reality to be laugh-out-loud funny, and I get the feeling there’s much subtlety I didn’t understand or pick up on. Some people will probably find the time-jumping and focus-changing too much – it can be difficult to follow the threads at times, although I think Heller manages to restrain himself from twisting them too much.