I will admit that this is an odd novel. It’s not linear so characters and events get introduced as if the reader should already know about them, and a lot of the experience is trying to piece together what happened. But I love this novel! I loved it the first time I read it and it was a much smoother read this second time. I mean, any book that starts with the line “It was love at first sight,” has to be good, right?
The novel is set during World War II, from 1942 to 1944. It mainly follows the life of Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier. Most of the events in the book occur while the fictional 256th Squadron is based on the island of Pianosa, in the Mediterranean Sea, west of Italy. The novel looks into the experiences of Yossarian and the other airmen in the camp, who attempt to maintain their sanity while fulfilling their service requirements so that they may return home.
I actually really like the idea of a novel like this being non-linear. For one, it adds to the chaos that comes with being in combat. At one moment, the narrator will be describing the actions of a character and in the next sentence they could mention how that same character died.
It makes sense for the narrative to not make sense (Think Alice in Wonderland).
And in many ways, the lives of these pilots are stuck in a loop–much like Catch-22. They fly their missions until they have flown enough to be sent home. However, in the time it takes to be approved, the number of mission they must fly is raised and the cycle begins again. Part of what makes the story difficult to follow is that a lot of the stories share characteristics. It creates a sense of monotony to a life that, to most of us reading this novel today, would find anything but.
Yossarian laughed. ‘I wouldn’t want to live without strong misgivings.
Another interesting thing about this novel is that there isn’t a conventional antagonist. This is somewhat odd in that, when a novel takes place during WWII, there is a pretty obvious choice for an antagonist. But the actual war isn’t at the centre of this novel. Rarely are flights described and usually, when they are, the focus is on the people in Yossarian’s plane and not on a battle.
There are quite a few scenes that stuck with me after reading this–and not all of them were pleasant ones–but a particular one was a scene in which, after a group of the pilots get drunk at the officers’ hall, clamber into a car only to find themselves tipped on their side in a ditch. It all comes off as a kind of slap-stick act. This isn’t the only scene where this can be said. It comes in sharp contrast to dark, somber scenes that populate the novel as well–such as the stopping of the rain after the scene described above because it means they are no longer grounded and will have to fly over enemy lines again.
He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.
This whole book likes to hover around that line between horror and hilarity as it describes living in the camp. In a way, the absurdity is what makes this novel so compelling. The idea of war is absurd and Heller does an excellent job of pointing that out.