- Rereading Joseph Heller's Catch-22
March 13, 2020, was the first time in my life I'd ever been scared for my safety at the grocery store. I remember pulling up to the supermarket at 10 AM on a Friday morning, my usual time to shop because the place is typically tumbleweeds at that hour. On this day, though, the expansive parking lot was completely full, from the wheelchair accessible spots up front all the way to the back. Idling cars lined every row. "This isn't good," I muttered to myself.
After finding a spot, I made my way to the entrance, took one of the few remaining shopping carts, and continued into the store. It was packed in a way I had only seen when an impending hurricane was expected to make landfall. Every single aisle and pass-through was completely jammed. People's carts were full to bursting with toilet paper and cereal and packs of soda. Some people pushed one cart ahead of them while pulling another equally full one behind. I saw one woman whose cart was entirely filled with meat. There was a tension in the air unlike anything I'd experienced, even during hurricane season in Houston. "If anyone yells or starts running," I thought, "this place is going to go up like a tinderbox."
I got what groceries I could and made my way out of the store. I had heard of coronavirus, but wasn't concerned yet. I didn't know the immense toll it would take and the lives it would claim in every country on the planet. I just knew that people were panicking at the grocery store—all of us frightened that society, and the supply chain, was about to breakdown.
I don't have to describe lockdown other than to say that a few weeks into the pandemic, I found myself bored in the 750-square-foot apartment I shared with my husband that had essentially become our whole world. I perused the bookshelf in my bedroom looking for relief. I saw many books I hadn't read, but as I disregarded each unexplored title, I realized that I wasn't looking for novelty. I was looking for comfort and familiarity, which is when my eyes landed on Joseph Heller's unwieldly, circuitous, hilarious Catch-22, the darkly comic tale of Captain John Yossarian and his attempt to evade death as he serves in the Army Air Corps during World War II on the island of Pianosa. [End Page 30]
I had first read Catch-22 for my qualifying exams in my doctoral program. As someone focusing on humor studies, I had designed a syllabus centered on contemporary American satire, and Heller's text was included among Kurt Vonnegut and Ishmael Reed, George Saunders and Jane Smiley.
One of the signature features of the novel is the structure Heller establishes from the first page. He plunges the reader into the action in medias res, making offhanded references to characters and situations that the reader has no context for understanding. He sets up jokes that will only be tagged with punchlines chapters later. When Catch-22 was released in 1961, critics staunchly criticized it for its alleged formlessness. Famously, The New Yorker wrote that the novel "is not really a book. It doesn't even seem to have been written; instead it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper."1
Catch-22 is a novel in which the past is constantly interrupting the present. There is no sense of linear storytelling in the book, only a relentless leaping back and forth between narratives and points in time. Many scholars have attempted the Herculean task of trying to tease out a chronology of the novel, and just as many report that a true chronology can only be approximated, with one never quite sure of the exact order.
Despite the haphazard timeline of the novel, one constant threads itself through the entire text: Yossarian's overwhelming fear of his own untimely death. Heller writes, "[Yossarian] had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went...