Remembering Catch 22

I reckon my dad must have acquired a copy of Catch 22 back in the 1970s. I don’t know if he ever read it all, but by the time I got my hands on it the first hundred pages or so were well-thumbed. That’s as far as I got that first time around. I would have been fifteen maybe, and I remember the paperback – a red cover with gold lettering. I found it very funny, but also very dense reading, more than I could manage at that stage of my life (I read it all in later years).

I don’t know when I first saw the movie of the book, but I found it entertaining and vivid. Picturing now it’s blue skies and sea, hilarious scenes and moments, and terrific actors playing iconic roles – the ever frantic Alan Arkin as Yossarian, the underrated Bob Newhart as Major Major, John Voight as the fantastic Milo Minderbender, and so on. In memory, it’s an episodic film that had me laughing at loud at points of it. Maybe it was the age I was, but in memory, it’s an absurd comedy, and nothing more.

Absurdity is at the heart of the book. The very concept of catch 22 is an absurdity which encapsulates the absurd nature of military life and bureaucracy, if not war itself. Joseph Heller was one of those people whose perspective is both scathing and very conscious of the ludicrous. That’s his shtick, and he does it well. Though they’re different books, I associate Catch 22 a little with Slaughterhouse 5, and another author who took a unique and preposterous take on the war.

Recently Catch 22 was made into a mini-series by George Clooney, written and produced by Australians. I was slow in the uptake of it, but by the time I finished watching it last night I was quite affected.

The miniseries is a much better format for a story crammed with incident and episodic in nature. The absurdity remains, but the comedic aspect of it (in my more mature viewing, at least) toned down from the movie. The heart of the story is absurdity, but the story is really a tragedy that ends in pathos. This the miniseries effectively portrayed – the utter waste and futility, the inhumanity, and ultimate absurdity of performing ritual actions to no real effect.

The moment that Yossarian broke was the moment I felt it too. The poignancy of comforting the new recruit, his guts spilling from him, on his first, doomed mission brought home the reality that so many young, promising lives were cut short, and for what? In their wake are left devastated families, left bereft by a misfiring system. That Yossarian shed his blood-soaked clothes and wandered the camp naked thereafter seemed a perfectly natural response.

For me, this series had a cumulative effect. My response changed to it as it went on. I remembered it as an absurd comedy; by the end, I saw it as a farcical tragedy.

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