The Structure and Meaning of 'Catch-22'

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The Structure and Meaning of 'Catch-22'
Robert Merrill

The critical reputation of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) is a curiosity. The book is often praised, even celebrated, yet most critics are still puzzled by such basic matters as the structure of the novel. Friends and foes alike tend to agree that the novel is hilarious but also that it is repetitious and essentially formless. Norman Mailer [see excerpt above] speaks for all those who share this view when he says like yard goods, one could cut it anywhere. One could take a hundred pages from the middle of Catch-22 and not even the author could be certain they were gone. As it happens, the author is rather certain that he would notice. Heller has said that Catch-22 is not to my mind a formless novel. If anything, it was constructed almost meticulously, and with a meticulous concern to give the appearance of a formless novel. Heller's remarks may seem defensive or at least exaggerated, but a close examination of Catch-22 confirms that the book is as meticulously structured as Heller claims. Indeed, the book's more puzzling features its bewildering chronology, its repetitiveness, its protagonist's belated change of heart all fit together to advance Heller's radical protest against the modern social order. What appears to be formless chaos is in fact a brilliant strategy to expose not only the worst excesses of the modern bureaucracy but also the complacent acceptance of this system on the part of everyone involved, including Heller's readers. The structural complexity of Catch-22 thus embodies Heller's meaning more thoroughly than even his admirers have been willing to suggest. Reconsideration of the structure of Catch-22 might well begin with the most obvious example of Heller's formlessness: the utterly confusing chronology. Heller presents his story in such a way that at certain points it is literally impossible to determine the order of events. By the time Yossarian enters the hospital in chapter 1, all of the important missions have already been flown: Ferrara, Orvieto, Bologna, and Avignon. This means that Yossarian has already flown over the bridge at Ferrara twice; that Milo Minderbinder has already established M && M Enterprises; that Snowden has already died over Avignon and subsequently been buried; that Yossarian has already stood naked in formation to receive a medal for his heroism at Ferrara. As most of the crucial events have already occurred by the time the novel opens, Heller resorts to a series of flashbacks in order to introduce these materials. In itself this is not a difficult technique, but as practiced here it makes it very difficult to establish something so basic as the chronology of events. There are several reasons for this, each of which points to what is distinctive about the structure. First, there is the peculiar nature of Heller's flashbacks. Indeed, to use the term flashback is a bit misleading, for the word usually implies an episode rendered dramatically and at some length. In Catch-22 there are a number of such episodes, but Heller presents much of the relevant material in oblique references, radically truncated scenes, and passing remarks in the dialogue. The death of Snowden is rendered in all of these ways, first as the subject of casual comments (where it is not even clear that Snowden has died), then as the occasion for brief, inconclusive scenes, finally as the novel's most powerfully dramatized episode (chapter 41). The early references are naturally confusing because they allude to a scene not yet fully rendered; such references hardly help establish the chronological relationships among the several episodes. Second, the sheer number of the flashbacks frustrates any effort to piece together the chronological puzzle. If the passing references are counted, there must be hundreds of flashbacks in Catch-22. The novel might well be described as a pastiche of such flashbacks, the number of which goes far to explain what Heller...
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