Set in a US bomber squadron off the coast of Italy, in the closing months of World War Two, Catch 22’s anti-heroic protagonist, Yossarian, is furious that thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. The Catch 22 of the title – now such a part of life’s everyday lexicon one can hardly believe Heller only coined it only fifty five years ago – refers to the double bind Yossarian finds himself in – the only way to get out of flying combat missions is to have oneself declared insane, but not to want to fly anymore missions proves you are in full possession of your faculties.
For Lionel Shriver, this once beloved book hasn’t stood the test of time – “There’s something about the absurdist sensibility that just doesn’t crack me up the way that it did when I was thirteen. I used to read it every year on the lead up to my birthday. I read it something like five times between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. I’m relieved that I let that ritual go.” It’s not only the humour that has worn thin, “the scenes that are much more serious moved me more when I was younger: it’s also an anti-war book and I responded strongly to that because when I read it it was the middle of the Vietnam war in the United States and I was strongly opposed to that, especially as I had an older brother who was on his way to qualifying for the draft. But those scenes don’t do it for me anymore.”
Nevertheless, Catch 22 remains an important building block in Shriver’s development as a writer – “the biggest thing I got out of it – it did amuse me and it was the first adult book I had ever read that was funny and I don’t think I had ever registered before that novels for grown ups don’t have to be serious: It’s partly because of Catch 22 that my novels are bearable today”
Catch-22, Joseph Heller