The War for Catch-22
July 25, 2011 6:02 AM   Subscribe

"A difficult situation or problem whose seemingly alternative solutions are logically invalid." The tragicomic 1961 novel that sprang from Joseph Heller’s experience as a W.W. II bombardier mystified and offended many of the publishing professionals who saw it first. But thanks to a fledgling agent, Candida Donadio, and a young editor, Robert Gottlieb, it would eventually be recognized as one of the greatest anti-war books ever written. In an adaptation from his Heller biography, Tracy Daugherty recalls the tortured eight-year genesis of Catch-22 and its ultimate triumph.

Yossarian lives.
posted by WalterMitty (38 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Read me back the last line.
posted by Decani at 6:04 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Catch-22 remains one of the very few books I've had to put down for a couple of minutes because my heart was racing too fast.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:25 AM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Never mind that. I want to hold these horse-chestnuts in my cheeks.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:31 AM on July 25, 2011

Joseph Heller (May 1, 1923 – December 12, 1999) was an American satirical novelist, short story writer and Pokemon Master.

via wiki
posted by fullerine at 6:35 AM on July 25, 2011

I'm cold.

There, there.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:40 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've always wanted to read this novel. The 50th anniversary is as good a reason as any.
posted by blucevalo at 6:52 AM on July 25, 2011

You're up shit's creek, Popinjay!


Major Major Major Major.

This is my all-time favorite novel, and I have read a lot of novels.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:06 AM on July 25, 2011

Ou sont les Neighdens d'antan?
posted by doteatop at 7:07 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Catch-22 is a profound book. It moved me from laughing out loud to crying in the distance of two pages.

His other books, unfortunately weren't in the same league. I couldn't finish Something Happened, because nothing ever did. It wasn't until the last page of God Knows that I decided that I liked the book. I did like the play "We Bombed in New Haven." However, when he was told by an interviewer that he had never produced anything as good as Catch-22, he responded, "Who has?
posted by Xoc at 7:09 AM on July 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

I've always wanted to read this novel. The 50th anniversary is as good a reason as any.

Isn't endlessly postponing reading the novel as much a tribute as actually reading the novel?
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:28 AM on July 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

Reading about the writing of Catch-22 was the first thing that really made young-me think about what it took to become a writer. When I read that Heller took something like 8 years to complete the story, I said to myself, "Wow, if I want to do this, it's going to take work. It's not just jotting thoughts down on a page."
posted by Eideteker at 7:34 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

His other books, unfortunately weren't in the same league. I couldn't finish Something Happened, because nothing ever did.

That's interesting, because I think that many people consider Something Happened to be his masterpiece. I haven't read it, but I've read that opinion several times.
posted by OmieWise at 7:35 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Isn't endlessly postponing reading the novel as much a tribute as actually reading the novel?
posted by GenjiandProust

That's always been my approach to Moby Dick.
posted by COBRA! at 7:42 AM on July 25, 2011

I once saw Yossarian Vive scrawled ok a wall across the road rom a military checkpoint in Guatemala. It made my day.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 8:10 AM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I didn't like Something Happened either, but I did enjoy Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man.

And I fucking love Catch-22. Read it for the first time in 10th grade when all of my (older) friends were reading it and quoting it, and I've read it again every few years.
posted by hopeless romantique at 8:20 AM on July 25, 2011

That's always been my approach to Moby Dick.

How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, Moby-Dick is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. Melville tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the book agent, or be the book principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:23 AM on July 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

My father was buried with a copy of Catch-22.

I was going to say more; but it strikes me that that's enough.
posted by steambadger at 8:27 AM on July 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

I just realized it must be 30 years since I read this book as a teenager; I definitely need to re-read it again as an adult. Well, such as I am, anyway.
posted by maxwelton at 8:46 AM on July 25, 2011

Could it be that Heller never wrote anything as good because he only kinda wrote Catch-22?
posted by mikoroshi at 9:41 AM on July 25, 2011

mikoroshi, I have not read The Sky is a Lonely Place, but I have read Catch-22. If the points in that Wikipedia article are the only points the two books have in common then Heller's reputation is secure, because Catch-22 is a hell of a lot more than that. It's Kafkaesque to the point that I think even Kafka would say "Now that's a bit much, isn't it?"

Catch-22 is mindblowing. I can fully understand the ruckus it kicked up when it was published. It is intensely and intricately written. I love how the book endlessly turns back and contradicts itself, sometimes in the same sentence, like: "There was one catch, and that was Catch-22." "The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him." "Nately had a bad start. He came from a good family."

I believe if more people on the internet had read it, that it would be endlessly quoted the same way Douglas Adams and Monty Python are.
posted by JHarris at 10:01 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

(And one of my favorite lines is: "I'm a bonafide supraman." I keep looking for places to use it.)
posted by JHarris at 10:06 AM on July 25, 2011

I couldn't finish Something Happened, because nothing ever did.

Something does happen, eventually. [Spoiler]

Kurt Vonnegut: "The puzzle which seduces us is this one: Which of several possible tragedies will result from so much unhappiness? The author picks a good one. "
posted by Knappster at 11:00 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Great post. I knew that Catch-22 would become my favourite book before the first page was finished. It really is a masterpiece, and has come to frame my view of the world ever since.
"The enemy," retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, "is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don't you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live."

posted by Acey at 11:45 AM on July 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

I believe if more people on the internet had read it, that it would be endlessly quoted

What, am I the only one? Granted I quote it all the time and mostly people don't notice. Or they just look at me like there's something wrong with me. My kids love the "I see everything twice!" bit though.

One of my personal favorites is when someone asks me a question that conforms to the general "Why do you have X in your Y?" format, and I get to say "They're not X, they're horse chestnuts, and they're not in my Y, they're in my hands."
posted by rusty at 1:47 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Candida Donadio deserves an FPP of her own. Other authors she represented include William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. And Philip Roth and Robert Stone and Mario Puzo and and a-and...
posted by chavenet at 2:13 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

It's like a savage Koan of modern life.
posted by Grimgrin at 3:50 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Great article. I'd heard bits and pieces of the story behind the book and the article of course is but a summation but still, fun to read, to get a sense of who was behind the scenes as Catch 22 unfolded. I'd never heard of Catch 18 or Catch 11, those first working titles. I didn't know that there was an inclusion of a bit of a draft of it in that 1955 literary anthology; I'd like to read that excerpt, see how it varies from the book, to see if it flows easily. Maybe I can get it at the library.

Waugh was not the only English person I've heard of who found Catch 22, um, distasteful. I recall reading somewheres of some genteel-sort English woman who was appalled after reading it, words to the effect that if this was what US officers were like, then we were truly a horrible, vile people, not a stiff upper lip to be seen, and no chance of redemption. And of course we are truly a horrible, vile people with regular, non-stiff lips and no chance of redemption but we don't need any snooty, snotty, upright, uptight, tea-drinking mope wearing too-tight woolen underpants to tell us about it -- we already know it, and we're glad about it. Give us a call next time you need a war won, ya wacky broad, call us next time the Germans start jumping up and down, until then buzz off.

Anyways, interesting also for me to read of his writing process, what it was like to write in the days before puters, TONS of drafts laying all over the place, and cuttings from this draft stuck in here and there, and penned in cross-outs and corrections and adaptations all over the text. All of this so well handled by computers anymore, I'd never written much prior to writing on a word processor and I can't stand it when I'm forced to do so, no way my fingers can keep up with the flow of thoughts even on a keyboard, no chance at all writing in longhand -- gawd.

We're spoiled, writing on puters, seems to me; I'm very grateful.


The first time I tried to read Catch 22 I couldn't do it. A friend of mine in high school said it was the funniest thing he'd ever come across, I did try to read it and ran into it head-on and fell back, like running smack-dab into a wall. I don't recall when I picked it up again, I think I was still in high school but I'm not sure; regardless when, the second time I picked it up I was able to hang in as it unfolded to me.

Reading Catch 22 for the first time is like walking into a movie that's half-way through, in that you have to catch up with the characters on the run -- Heller just jammed these people right out into our faces, people we knew nothing about, in the midst of their place(s) in the story. And these are large characters, too, and he's writing immediately of their flaws and their ways and he's writing about them large, he's giving us the low-down. Or maybe every human is a large character and just that Heller characterizes these people so densely, so richly -- under his pen he brings these faulted people right to you, and doing what they're doing. But there's no warm-up period, there's no easing into this book -- you come to the book, it doesn't come to you. My experience of it anyways.

I re-read it last summer, first time in maybe fifteen years, maybe longer. It stands up perfectly well, it hasn't fallen over time, not one bit. I bet I've read it twenty times, not counting the times I've just sat and opened it at random and stepped back in. It's just so rich. I've never come across characters painted so finely, yet so largely, and so well -- Heller is amazing, the scope of the book is amazing. It's one of those books I've had to get out of my home, off of my shelf, it's so easy for me to pick it up again -- I'm weak in this way, there's a few books I have to keep out of easy reach, Catch 22 is one of these. A spectacular book. My favorite? I'd be hard-pressed to claim this or that as my favorite. It is a favorite though, I love it so much. It's desperate, it's tragic, it's funnier than moose piss. It's just a great book, is all.

I'm glad Heller lived, I'm so glad he gave us that book, I'm so glad that I picked it up again after however long and tried once more, and I'm glad I was able to read it that time. Reading that book I learned so much, I read as Heller had Yossarian grow up in front of us, we got to watch him grow through drinking and whoring to the place where he knew too much, way too much to seek anything out of such frivolities, and all that was important is peace. Heller told us -- told me anyways -- Heller told in that book all about misguided fools, all about power-crazed fools, all about hard-eyed, knowing cynics, all about broken people of every kind, and weak people of every kind, and of their weaknesses, he told about how you've got to have real courage to stand against the tide of foolishnesses and stupidities laid out by others for you to cookie-cutter your way through.
posted by dancestoblue at 5:40 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think this is the only novel that made me cry. And I'm a fat insensitive oaf - according to my ex wives anyway.
posted by the noob at 5:58 PM on July 25, 2011

Hearing people pay such tribute to Catch-22 is satisfying, since I've read it. But I imagine it can be imposing to someone who comes upon it and hears of it as some kind of pillar of literature. It's great, but it's also a very internet kind of book, in that there's potential memes spilling out all over the place. Hilarious things just happen, memorable things, and you don't have to understand a jot of lit theory to get them.

You do have to put up with things happening all out of order of course, and there's hard moments towards the end, and it doesn't pull punches. I don't think I ever got over Dunbar getting "disappeared," I think that might be the origin of the word to describe something that shadowy figures do to someone.
posted by JHarris at 7:25 PM on July 25, 2011

Something Happened, because nothing ever did.

Oh it does. On the third last page of the entire novel. Something Happened is that "Big Man" genre of American novels that I generally dislike quite a lot. Horny older middle-class men and their horrid lives and all that. It deserves points, I suppose, because Heller actually does convincingly make his protagonist's life sound quite horrid, but I found it a hell of a slog because despite all that, the protagonist remains fairly unlikeable, there's absolutely no narrative to speak, or character development until that third-last page, and I think that genre in general doesn't have much to offer anyone who isn't a horny, middle-class, older man or aspiring to be one.

I enjoyed Catch 22 a lot, it's one of the few novels I've read that gave me genuine laugh-out-loud moments. It is a very boysy, novel, however, and I personally would call it a great book but great literature would be pushing it somewhat. Reminds me - beyond its setting - of Slaughterhouse 5, but Heller's flippancy is genuinely hilarious and he doesn't reach so hard for poignancy.
posted by smoke at 7:41 PM on July 25, 2011

My all-time favorite novel (admittedly, I'm not a big fiction reader). Discovered it in high school a couple years before we were assigned to read it. I've reread it a number of times, but not for awhile; I should revisit it again.

The movie so doesn't do it justice - it just can't, despite the various talents involved. You'd need a miniseries in length, but even then, it wouldn't work.
posted by pmurray63 at 8:07 PM on July 25, 2011

I was pretty young when I first read this, and it taught me that humor could express rage and disgust. I remember freaking myself out by breaking down in tears of joy on the last page.
Oh and Milo Minderbinder so perfectly exemplifies the privatization of war.
posted by zoinks at 3:56 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I really didn't like it. I had to slog through to the end. It was jarring, with scenes appearing to be out of order. Although it had some great insights, as a book I found it poorly constructed. I loved the movie. I feel the movie is the rewrite that this book desperately needs.

I note that this book is special and meaningful to many people on here, and I don't submit this opinion to offend.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 4:53 AM on July 26, 2011

"I'm a bonafide supraman."

posted by steambadger at 9:50 AM on July 26, 2011

Yossarian attended the education sessions because he wanted to find out why so many people were working so hard to kill him. A handful of other men were also interested, and the questions were many and good when Clevinger and the subversive corporal finished and made the mistake of asking if there were any.

"Who is Spain?"
"Why is Hitler?"
"When is right?"
"Where was that stooped and mealy-colored old man I used to call poppa when the merry-go-round broke down?"
"How was Trump at Munich?"
"Hi-ho beriberi!"
and "Balls!" all rang out in rapid succession, and then there was Yossarian with the question that had no answer:

"Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?"

posted by steambadger at 9:53 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites] a book I found it poorly constructed.

Not that everyone has to like everything, but I remember being very confused the first time I read it. The second reading is the one where you get what is going on. Some books are like that -- all of Pynchon and "Infinite Jest" leap to mind. I think Catch 22 is actually brilliantly constructed, but that's not at all clear the first time through.
posted by rusty at 10:36 AM on July 26, 2011

Famous for the Wrong Book
posted by OmieWise at 7:02 AM on July 29, 2011

Two pieces from Slate:

1. Why there are no more Joseph Hellers (pull quote: "The Office is Catch-22 without the blood").

2. The awful truth people miss about Heller's great novel
posted by vidur at 5:20 PM on August 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

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