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:

“To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the. That erected more dynamic intralinear tensions, he felt, and in just about every case left a message far more universal. Soon he was proscribing parts of salutations and signatures and leaving the text untouched. One time he blacked out all but the salutation ‘Dear Mary’ from a letter, and at the bottom he wrote, ‘I yearn for you tragically. R. O. Shipman, Chaplain, US Army.’ R. O. Shipman was the group chaplain’s name . . . Most letters he didn’t read at all. On those he didn’t read at all he wrote his own name. On those he did read he wrote, ‘Washington Irving’. When that grew monotonous he wrote ‘Irving Washington’.”

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.

For these reasons it is wrong to analyse the book in terms of plot. For at least the first three quarters of the book it is more a matter of gradual involvement with the characters, viewed from different angles in different situations. Heller refers to the same incidents again and again, each time slightly modified and elaborated in the characters’ memories. Gradually, out of this mesh of incidents a pattern of events emerges. At the centre are the missions—the bombing raids to Orvieto, Avignon, and Bologna; and between these missions Heller stretches the main thread of continuity throughout the book: the continual raising of the number of missions required. As the number rises from 35 to 40, and from 40 on up to 75, the mutinous, the apathetic, and the stupid, are developed in terms of their reactions to these extensions of their duty. Interwoven among these focal points of military action are—as Heller would doubtless cheerfully term them—the sex bits. A gradually embellished picture is formed of the characters racing off to Roms for orgies, simple, violent, or confused in the quarters thoughtfully providing for them by a senior officer.