The 20th century produced many of the greatest novels ever written and showed us the truly entertaining and enlightening power of the written word. From science fiction to comedies to existential musings to psychological thrillers; we realised the novel could do it all and do it well. Every week, get acquainted with one of the greatest writers of the century and their magnum opus!

Catch-22, published in 1961, during the throes of the Vietnam War by Joseph Heller would go on to be lauded as one of the greatest anti-war novels ever written. Despite its time of release, Heller’s debut is set in the escalating terror of near-end World War II and follows Captain John Yossarian, a US Air Forces bombardier and his increasingly desperate attempts to be grounded from flying an ever-increasing number of bombing missions. As the war reaches its calamitous end phase, we pay witness to the 256th Squadron and their deterioration, as they struggle between sense and sense of duty.

It is this ominous backdrop that sets free the mordant satirical sensibilities of Heller as he grapples with the nature of power of bureaucracy and the absurd logic of war and the descent into depths of human depravity it facilitates.

Perhaps unexpected then, setting considered, is its undisputed status also, as one of the funniest novels ever written. The notion that it’s only though humour we can access that which we find terrifying and repulsive rings true here. Catch-22’s humour comes from astute observations about the madness of the system, the various struggles of the people entangled in it and a healthy dose of vivid slapstick that not many can put successfully onto paper.

Through his faultlessly logical cyclical conversations, absurdities that are at best uncomfortable and at worst downright intolerable are made to sound — through words and wit alone — acceptable, and sometimes preferable, and sometimes enough make you question why you ever thought any other way:

‘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.’

The laughs come quickly and in all their varying forms, but they are not empty and cynical; detached and transcendental. They are deeply human and hold back a truth too terrible to view in nakedness.

That is not at all to suggest that all Heller does is point at all that is bad in the world and shake his head. The unifying theme that becomes clear by the end speaks of an optimistic world view and, one it feels, in which we have the possibility to be good and human in the face of all that is meaningless and terrible.

Heller by most measures of success failed to replicate that of his first novel, however, his critics on the matter were silenced by a quotation relevant now as it was 20 years ago:

‘“When I read something saying I’ve not done anything as good as Catch-22 I’m tempted to reply, “Who has?”’

Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller