Catch 22: Joseph Heller. Jonathan Cape, 21s. 443 pp.

This week James Jones’ “Thin Red Line” starts what will probably be a successful selling run as a straight novel centred on the battle of Guadalcanal; it is ironic that the last year’s best selling war novel was regarded by many as a definitive send-up of the James Jones genre; it is a thought that sends one back to the book deemed by many the satirical novel of this satirical age.

Catch 22 is a description of the characters and interactions of a few of the members of a USAF bomb squadron in Pianosa (actually an island eight miles south of Elba) during the second world war. Heller’s method is to involve one gradually in the actions and motives of these characters; establishing each with great deftness and incision, presenting him in speech or action, and then sliding casually off on a different topic. The time scheme, now and then confusingly handled, is largely at the service of this hit and run technique of presentation. A character is described, a quick allusion is made to some event in his past history which has made him memorable; then he is left for 50 pages, until with equal abruptness Heller returns to describe the incident previously mentioned. We start the book in the position of someone looking at a half completed crossword puzzle; as we go on, the technique of cross reference and of abrupt clarification brings the whole construction into focus.

At the opening Yossarian is in hospital (“ he had made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in hospital”); as yet we have no idea of why he has elected to go on sick leave; Heller chooses to keep the focus sharp and limited. To while away the long hours he is working on the letters he is required to censor:

The passage is worth quoting in extenso because it exemplifies an important aspect of Heller’s technique; the rapid development of quite a funny idea, which not only gives us a quick flash of Yossarian, half artful dodger, half victim of Catch 22 (whose final formulation comes on page 398, “Catch 22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing”) in the process of making a foray on the system, but also extends itself through the book. The effect of his tiny sabotage, his use of Shipman and Washington Irving, comes up sporadically throughout the story; spying emissaries from Them descend on the base to cross-examine, distort, and harass in their investigations; two other characters start to use the name Washington Irving themselves. In this way Heller uses jokes and absurdities initially of quite minor effect as points around which whole sections of the book revolve. This technique carries itself through the whole ordering of the story. The hospital where Yossarian and Dunbar, his mutinous ally, have fled is abandoned after the first chapter; and it is only 140 pages later at the end of a sequence antecedent in time to the first chapter that we discover why they are there.