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There's a catch

By Malcolm King - posted Wednesday, 18 January 2012

When Catch-22 was first released 50 years ago last October, the reviews ranged from the uncomprehending to the perceptive.

Nelson Algren wrote that Catch-22 ''was not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II; it was the best American novel to come out of anywhere in years.''

Joseph Heller's monumental novel has now sold more than 20 million copies and speaks to everyone who thinks there's more to life than death.


Heller chose the American Air Force in World War II as the stage to release one of the great metaphors in modern literature - ''a satirical microcosm for many of the macrocosmic idiocies" one critic called it.

Catch-22 is populated by squadrons of madly eccentric, cartoon-type characters whose antics were far loonier than anything ever seen before in war fiction - or, for that matter, in any fiction.

It was black comedy - disturbing and subversive. In my callow youth the book was my personal 400 page 'Sermon on the Mountain' on the madness of organisations. Little did I know how prophetic Heller was.

Heller was saying something outrageous - not just about the idiocy of war -but about our whole way of life and the system of false values on which it was based. The horror he exposed was not confined to the battlefield or the bombing missions but permeated the entire labyrinthine structure of establishment power.

You don't read much about the uses and abuses of power these days. Cruelty and madness are news currency now. Fair dealing and decency seem quaint. The Catch-22 says we are not born mad; we have madness thrust upon us.

The opening figure of the soldier in white, whose bodily fluids are endlessly drained back into him, the soldier who sees everything twice, the constant raising of the required number of bombing missions, all point to a world where the moral compass is spinning madly.


Catch-22 found expression in the most completely inhumane exploitation of the individual for trivial, self-serving ends and the most extreme indifference to the official objectives that supposedly justified the use of power.

Yossarian makes Josef K out of Kafka's The Trial look like a school crossing monitor. Only the wise Slaughterhouse Five by Heller's close friend Kurt Vonnegut comes close. So it goes.

Who hasn't done battle with a psychotic boss? Who hasn't sat befuddled and angry dealing with asinine bureaucracy? Can't get a job because you're too young? Can't get a job because you're too old? Welcome to the Catch-22.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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