Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a classic, although sadly I did not find it deserved of all the praise it has received over the past five decades. Maybe I expected too much of it, as who hasn’t heard of the familiar phrase “a Catch-22 situation”. I expected this tricky situation to play a much more prominent role in the novel. I am sure any author would kill to have one of his own phrases enter the English language as part of his literary legacy. My experience reading the novel was quite often a senseless exercise in turning pages. Over 455 pages nothing happened. When I opened my paperback edition, I saw page after page of tiny text in solid blocks, with barely a paragraph in sight. That was the main reason I put off reading it till now. With so many other books to choose from, Catch-22 was easy to put off by appearances alone. Catch-22, by the way, was the last book on my read-it-then-get-rid-of-it shelves. I have thus now cleared my shelves of all the books I wanted to read but didn’t necessarily want to keep (that is, until the next time I purge the shelves in a housecleaning binge to make room for more new books). Thus when presented with a page layout of solid chunks of tiny text, I wondered what the reading experience would be like. Who’d want to read through 455 pages that looked like a phone book if the book turned out to be boring and plodding? I let Heller’s reputation be the deciding factor in embracing this classic. I expected greatness, but ended up feeling disappointed.
Fortunately I found Heller’s writing to be a quick read, and the minimal passages of conversation did not mean that the story dragged on. I could race through his blocks of text. The descriptions flowed like a story being read aloud. But even so, it was a whole lot of nothing, like reading a Burroughs novel. Protagonist Yossarian wants to get out of the army because he had flown so many missions, yet his superiors keep on increasing the number he must fly before he can be discharged. The “Catch-22 situation”, wherein Yossarian is painted into a corner by his ruse to feign insanity in order to be discharged, is barely touched upon. Thus my prior impression of what the novel was about did not mirror what I actually read. The myth of Catch-22 overshadowed the work itself; it’s fiction’s version of “Come up and see me sometime”. I have received a number of recommendations to see the movie version, so I will look into this at my library.
I frequently had to reread paragraphs because Heller would write the opposite of a prior passage. Sometimes quotations would contradict speakers’ earlier statements. In order to make sure I read the page correctly, I always reread the page, but I always confirmed that Heller did in fact write one thing and then later on in the same page write the exact opposite. This was not a hindrance to the rapid flow of reading, in spite of my frequent rereads. Although I did not like Catch-22, I was not frustrated by it. Some books make me feel like throwing them against the wall after I finish reading them (often during). But Catch-22 just went on and on, like listening to someone tell you a story and while my interest was sustained, I came out of it with no story to tell nor even a review with passages to quote. How did this become such a classic?