My Thoughts on Catch-22

“… torture boiled down to 453 pages.”

Catch-22 is hailed by many as one of the great American novels. I recently read through it in an attempt to culture myself grow more in-touch with the pulse of literature. I can easily say that while Catch-22 was the funniest book I have ever read, it’s also one of the worst.

First of all, Catch-22 is very confusing. And what makes it worse is that its intentionally confusing. It’s like the writing is evasive. Entire pages are filled with overly specific passages that apply to the overall story in a very minuscule amount. It’s almost as if Catch-22 was trying to gate-keep, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak, but then it forgot the wheat. I kept thinking to myself “It’s going to get better. After this chapter I’ll see what’s going on. This is all introduction” but none of that was true.

Catch-22 truly deserves that name becasue the story was filled with contradictions. Now before I go any further I want to point out that I understand what Catch-22 was going for. It was outlining how pointless and futile most American war efforts are by creating an experience that is pointless and futile. All of the characters are so intertwined in this world that they fail to see how roundabout everything is, and that is a brilliant way to illustrate the mindset of the government and infantrymen alike during these times. But my god is it ever fucking boring.

I already mentioned that the book is confusing, but I don’t know if I got my point across. Catch-22 made me lose focus countless times throughout every reading session I had. I’m in no way bragging but on average it takes me about an hour to read fifty pages of any given book. For Catch-22 that number was doubled, even sometimes tripled. I was having to reread passages and sometimes entire pages. Having to scan further back to understand who was speaking, and to whom. Everything about Catch-22 just seemed so infuriatingly complex.

For instance let’s discuss the characters. There are too many of them. There are so many of them in fact that Joseph Heller had to include a disclaimer in the front of the book that explains the fact that he is aware the island that acts as the setting of Catch-22 is way too small for all of the characters, but that Catch-22 is a work of fiction and should be judged as so. And it’s not even the amount of characters, but also their names. These characters are so complex, so storied, and yet the way they interact with one another is almost identical to everyone else. It makes reading a real chore whenever Heller goes off on one of his dialogue rants.

And the book gets even more confusing when it decides to throw nonlinear storytelling into the mix. As if I wasn’t having enough trouble deciphering who was saying what, now I have to figure out when they were saying it! It truly is like Joseph Heller wanted to make the most frustrating book possible. With the overabundance of characters, the screwy timelines, the overly complex story; Catch-22 is torture boiled down to 453 pages.

But I will admit that Catch-22 had a lot of highlights, and if not for the low-lights it would have been amazing. I already talked about how Catch-22 is the funniest book I have ever read. Granted I don’t read a lot of comedy books, but that praise is completely genuine. There were times when I was laughing out loud sitting on my back deck reading a book. My neighbours must have thought I was insane, and had they realized what book I was reading they probably would have had me admitted. But honestly a lot of the interactions between characters and the scenarios that are set up are hilarious. Joseph Heller had a few brilliant scenarios in Catch-22, but the problems arose when he tried to combine them into one story.

And Catch-22 also does a great job with a lot of the emotional and horrific moments that are outlined in the book as well. At its core Catch-22 is about war. War is not fun, and that’s the point Catch-22 was trying to make. We get to see this more plainly when Heller drops the veil of comedy and allows us to see the uncensored horror that war produces. These moments are few and far between but they are there, and they provide a very real undertone to Catch-22. There are flashes of brilliance within Catch-22, and I can certainly see how people regard these moments as some of the best literary works in the past century, but I can’t look past all of the fat that you have to cut through to get there. Catch-22 was a rough read to say the least, and a really rough read to say the most.

Catch-22 also had a movie version, and oh boy was it just as good as the book. Translating any book into a movie has its challenges, but it also has its advantages as well. Turning a book into a movie makes the story more accessible. No matter how much you want to argue, nine times out of ten someone will watch a movie before they read a book. It’s easier. It’s shorter. It’s more stimulating. Catch-22 continues this legacy by turning what was a gruelling read for me into a bite-sized film. It makes the pill a lot easier to swallow when it is a fraction of the size. And it also had some other advantages as well, like the highlight of the funny scenes. Catch-22 is full of hilarious moments, but to many people they will be lost becasue they are surrounded by a boring, conceited novel that everyone claims is one of the best ever written. But the movie takes these moments and allows for people to see just how funny this story can be.

Unfortunately that’s the only praise I will be giving Catch-22, because this transition into film also highlights just how messy the story is. I mean it has almost no structure at all. The book is at least separated by chapters giving you some semblance of an idea, but the move is plagued with lazy cuts and confusing narratives that drive you to the point of insanity. You don’t have time to enjoy any portion of Catch-22 becasue you spend the entire time watching the movie trying to figure out what is going on.

The transition into film also brought with it a lot of unnecessary changes. For one the story lost a lot of its darker elements. Catch-22 struck a perfect balance between comedy and tragedy, and the movie loses this. Even some interactions between characters read a lot differently than they were portrayed. It’s like the movie was trying to be a satire without understanding what it was making fun of. The movie is also full of bizarre performances that make you wonder if they had read the book in the first place. There’s laughter where there should be tears, incoherent screaming, and really flat delivery all around. And you can very much tell where the screenwriter tried to inject his own brand of comedy becasue it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Overall Catch-22 is not an experience I would recommend. The book was a painful read and the movie was no improvement. I am legitimately confused as to how both of these works received so much praise.

It really is a catch-22.

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