Rereading this delightful, infuriating, confusing, hilarious, wise, and beautiful book for the fifth or sixth time, I was reminded of the warning: “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt!” I’m guessing the first person who said that, probably unknown, was either a schoolteacher monitoring the playground or somebody’s Mom. (You can purchase a T-shirt online that starts with that quote and join a Facebook group by that title.)
But the line also characterizes the experience of Catch-22 -- both for the characters and its readers. In Chapter 32, “Yo-Yo’s Roomies,” Yossarian’s tent is invaded by four new officer recruits who have arrived fresh from the States and are “frisky, eager and exuberant.” Our hero regards them with irritation because they lacked “brains enough to be introverted and repressed,” but resolves (in a typical Catch-22 oxymoron that seems illogical yet utterly correct) to be patient “until one or two of them were killed and the rest wounded, and then they would all turn out okay.”
This is the undoubtedly the arc Yossarian experienced himself during his stint in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He’s long past it by the time the novel opens, though occasionally he still gets a kick out of the acts of rebellion to which his fear and rage have driven him. Save for a few holy innocents such as Nately and Orr, and utter buffoons like the top brass, all the other characters probably make a similar journey from exuberant confidence to various levels of paranoid fear.
And so does the reader. Catch-22 mostly tickles us by our funny bone while the indistinct details of Snowden’s death slowly and subtly accumulate, until we collide with the full horror of the Avignon mission and the screaming bleakness of the "Eternal City" chapter.
I did not read Catch-22 for the first time until I was in college, but it wasn’t for a course. It appeared on an “ideal reading list” I had one of my favorite high school teachers give me the summer after I graduated (the same man, by the way, who introduced me to the first book I profiled on Book Drum, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the next one I will finish, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
Like so many other readers, I realized that as crazy as the book seems, it’s about reality as we so often experience it, wherever we are and whatever we do: the reality where stupid superiors make us do things that don’t make sense; where arbitrary regulations lead to counterproductive results; where our friends, family, and coworkers tell us to keep our head down, don’t make waves, and stay with the herd; where we resolve over and over to ourselves to do one thing and often end up doing the opposite.
On my blog, American Currents, I noted the delightful coincidence that the 50th anniversary of the publication of Catch-22 transpired just as Occupy Wall Street was turning from a three-week non-media event to a nationwide and even worldwide phenomenon. As one of the great passive-aggressive American rebels of literature, standing in a direct line that begins at least as early as Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Yossarian is inarguably the patron saint of the Occupy movement.
I’ve never been in the military, but I’ve had ignorant bosses -- or a supercilious upper-level manager above my kindly boss -- who browbeat their assistants, oppress their allies, and hurt the people they are supposed to serve. I’ve witnessed people waste and steal supplies, and I’ve wasted and stolen a few myself … all the time making up reasons to justify my actions for my own sake.
As for too often acting against my own best interests, one of my favorite exchanges from Catch-22 comes in the last chapter, when Major Danby is trying to convince Yossarian to stop fighting the system and play the game. “You could have lots of things you want,” he tells our hero. “I don’t want lots of things I want,” Yossarian replies.
Ain’t it the truth?