Catch-22

Now THIS was why I started the Literature of Lost series. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is a book that I was familiar with and knew that I would probably like, but I just never got around to reading it. When I finally got around to reading it, Heller most definitely did not disappoint.

If you want to know more about my sense of humor, read this book. The best way to describe Catch-22 is an Abbott and Costello routine mixed with a brilliant satire of bureaucracy mixed with a dark look at human mortality. Or you can just describe it as pure brilliance.

As for Lost, Catch-22 lends its name to episode 17 of season three. In that episode, Charlie and Desmond meet Naomi, who parachuted to the Island as part of the Kahana science team. Naomi is also carrying a Portuguese copy of the book (Ardil-22) with Desmond and Penny’s picture sandwiched between two of the pages.

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Conceptually, Catch-22 is a lot like Seinfeld. Both are simultaneously about nothing and everything at the same time. Heller writes in a non-lineal fashion, so the first three-quarters of the book reads like tales of a bunch of hilariously defective characters, in which time doesn’t really matter. It is seemingly about nothing. In the last quarter of the book, Heller hits us with a somber portrayal of death and destruction that comes from war. And that seems to be about everything.

The defective characters are undoubtedly the best part about the book. There is Nately, a rich kid who is obsessed with a whore in Rome that doesn’t care for him. Aardy is a navigator who doesn’t know how to read a map. Major Major Major Major was named Major Major Major by his father who loved a cruel joke. The army promoted him to Major within a few weeks, because they didn’t know what else to do with him.

Milo Minderbinder is a mess hall cook who innocently enough starts buying tomatoes from farms in Italy and ends up running the most powerful syndicate in all of Europe, culminating in the Germans paying him to bomb his own camp. Lieutenant Scheisskopf loves marching and spends the entire week planning for his squadron’s marches.

Doc Daneeka is a doctor who spends the entire war feeling sorry for himself. He gets sick in planes, so he makes other pilots write his name on flight logs to get credit for missions flown. When one of those planes goes down, the Army assumes he is dead and sends letters home to his wife, despite his own protests. Then there is the dead guy in Yossarian’s tent – he reported for duty two hours after he arrived and promptly died in combat. The superior officers didn’t want to bother with paperwork, so they told the Army that he never showed up for duty. No one bothered to remove his stuff from Yossarian’s tent.

And many more.

Captain John Yossarian is the main character of the story. When we meet him, he is in the hospital with a fake liver injury. Yossarian fakes the injury after he becomes scared to fly because everyone is trying to kill him. Although the other troops take great pains to tell him that no one is trying to specifically kill him, Yossarian asks them “what’s the difference?” He then spends the rest of the novel concocting schemes to get out of flying more missions.

Yossarian finishes the fifty missions required to be sent home, but Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions required to finish a tour of duty. Cathcart is obsessed with making the rank of General, but the rest of the military tends to view him as a dolt. He thinks the best way to handle this is to require more missions of his men. This never catches the attention of Cathcart’s superiors, so he keeps raising the number of missions.

In response, Yossarian pulls a variety of shenanigans that put Radar from M*A*S*H* to shame. Several times throughout the book, his fellow soldiers thinks he is crazy. That’s fine by Yossarian: crazy people can’t fly, according to military rules. He visits Doc Daneeka and requests that the doctor ground him on account of him being insane. Not so fast. Crazy people don’t care about their own safety, so if Yossarian asks to be grounded, he is presumed sane.

That’s catch-22. A pretty good catch.

Towards the end, Heller’s true anti-war stance blindsides us. After 300 or so pages of mostly light-hearted satire that bounces around through different time periods and characters, we reach the end of the war. Nearly all of Yossarian’s friends die. A devastated Yossarian decides to go AWOL. And that’s that.

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I’m extremely happy that I read this book for my Lost series. It passed Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Watership Down, and Deep River as my favorite book of the series. But in truth, it probably wasn’t necessary. Catch-22 is a part of a English vernacular – nearly everyone is familiar with the idea, probably best described as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

In the particular episode in question, Desmond is faced with a difficult catch-22. At this point in season three, he has already saved Charlie’s life a couple of times. However, in this instance he is torn. He has a vision of Penny parachuting on to the Island, which will lead to all of their rescue. Yet Charlie has to die for that to happen. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

We know how that one ended: Desmond couldn’t go through with the plan, Charlie didn’t die that time, and it was Naomi, not Penny who parachuted on the Island. Was Charlie surviving the cause of that? Guess we’ll never know, thanks to catch-22.

Lost is filled with these catch-22’s. The other obvious example is pregnant Sun in the episode D.O.C. She knows that Jin was impotent before he came to the Island, but Sun somehow finds herself pregnant. This means one of two things happened: either the baby was conceived before they came to the Island and wasn’t Jin’s, so Sun and the baby would probably be healthy; or it was Jin’s, but Sun risked dying on the Island.

The final candidates (especially Jack) faced a similar predicament at the end of season six. Survive and leave the Island, but risk unleashing an unknown evil on the world; or stop the evil, but lose their lives in the process.

Catch-22. It’s a good catch.

For more of my book reviews, return to my Literature of Lost series.

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