Flannery O’Conner argued that “[Distortion] is the only way to make people see”. This famous statement is initially contradictory and incongruous, but in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 it is easy to see the truth of this paradox. The pages of Catch-22 are lined with distortion and each instance provides for a new kind of clarity. Catch-22 is simply a war story illustrated by ridiculous behavior and illogical arguments and told in a flatly satirical tone. Though the book never states outright that matters are funny, the reader is always aware of how outrageously bizarre the characters and situations are.
Heller uses out of sequence narration, a confused distinction between appearance and reality, and the irrationally logical paranoia of characters to create his corrupt military world. Distortion is found first in the very organization of the novel. Many events are out of sequence and Heller discusses events as if readers were already aware of their details, though merely mentioning them for the first time. Often times Heller references events multiple times before one ever reads about it in it’s entirety. For example, the death of Snowden is slowly explained throughout the book.
The death is first referred to early on in chapter four when Yossarian asks, “Where are the Snowdens…”(Heller 35) at an educational meeting. This question is asked without context and the reader is unsure of what a Snowden is, let alone how it died. By creating this dialogue without context, Heller leaves readers to question the seemly incoherent question and the idea of Snowdens is planted in their brains. The death is mentioned in chapters five and seventeen and though more information is provided each time, the reader does not fully understand what took place until chapter 30 when the details and context of Snowden’s death are given.
At first, this way of structural organization creates some confusion for readers but as they continue on a greater focus and understanding of an event such as Snowden’s death is found. Snowden’s death is an incredibly critical event for Yossarian because he not only loses his friend in the airplane; he loses his will to fight. With Snowden lying dead in his arms, the truth of war becomes even more frightening and real and Yossarian becomes truly paranoid. Without the focus that the scattered and repeated storyline of Snowden provides, one may not have been able to grasp its true significance.
Often times Catch-22 is characterized by a very loose grip on reality. The line between what is apparent and what is real is continually indistinguishable, even to readers. One aspect that contributes greatly to this effect is the distortion of justice and the military technicalities. In the military world created by Heller, what is written on paper is what is true, even if it can be defied by reality. Throughout much of the book, Yossarian is found complaining that there is a “dead man”(24) in his tent.
When the concept of the dead man is first introduced, the readers are led to believe that there is an actual dead soldier sitting in Yossarian’s tent, which the military refuses to remove. However, later clarification shows that is not the case at all, but rather, after setting his luggage down, the soldier was killed in the air before he even got the chance to sign in. The grim irony of the situation is that according to the appearance based logic of the military, it is as if the man was never there at all, and his things can therefore not be processed.
Another example of such distorted reality is found in McWatt’s plane crash. Doc Daneeka had lied about flying with McWatt, due to his fear of flying, but the documents had it that Daneeka died in the plane crash (338). Everyone can visibly see that Doc Daneeka is alive, in the flesh, and yet he is reported as “killed in action”(344), and Daneeka is treated like he is dead for the remainder of the novel. The reality of the military has been so contorted that they are more willing to accept the truth they read than the truth they can see.
This confusion between appearance and reality demonstrates the deteriorated state of the military government and forces readers to give a greater attention to the details of such storyline. A third kind of distortion are the irrational and paranoid statements and thoughts of the book’s protagonist, Yossarian. Though Yossarian likely entered the army a sane man, he apparently loses his grip on reality as he watches his friends die in the war surrounding him. Yossarian is often referred to as “crazy”(20) and yet there is irony in the fact that every paranoid thought he has is true.
Yossarian has a sole goal through the duration of the book: staying alive. He goes up into the sky and finds airplanes shooting at him from all directions, and so he goes as far as to see himself as a potential murder victim. “They’re trying to kill me”(16), he argues to a fellow cadet. Though the other cadet insists that “they” are simply partaking in a war, Yossarian’s paranoia illustrates a sky full of strangers who want him dead. Though Yossarian’s thoughts are irrational, they also prove to be somewhat reasonable. The truth is, every time Yossarian goes on a mission his life is in grave danger, and people are trying to kill him.
Though his thought process is distorted by fear, this fear is in turn what proves his sanity. Catch-22 is not a book that can be rightfully summarized. It is not the remarkability of the plot but rather the distinct form of literary distortion that makes it such a classic. This novel illustrates the corruption of wartime and a particular squadron, but in end, it illustrates much more then that. The book uses often-comic distortions of structure, reality, and mind to give readers a profound sense of universal flaws and truths.
Courtney from Study Moose
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