Since the publication of Catch-22 in 1961, the title of Joseph Heller's first novel has become a byword for the absurdity of war and, by extension, any senseless or illogical circumstance. In these two paragraphs from the opening chapter, we learn how Yossarian, a U.S. Air Force pilot in World War II, fights off boredom in a military hospital. Consider how the steps involved in his private "war" on language (a kind of process analysis) introduce the novel's theme of the absurd response to an absurd predicament.
by Joseph Heller
All the officer patients in the ward were forced to censor letters written by all the enlisted-men patients, who were kept in residence in wards of their own. It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. After the first day he had no curiosity at all. To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the. That erected more dynamic intralinear tensions, he felt, and in just about every case left a message far more universal. Soon he was proscribing parts of salutations and signatures and leaving the text untouched. One time he blacked out all but the salutation "Dear Mary" from a letter, and at the bottom he wrote, "I yearn for you tragically. A. T. Tappman, Chaplain, U.S. Army." A. T. Tappman was the group chaplain's name.
When he had exhausted all possibilities in the letters, he began attacking the names and addresses on the envelopes, obliterating whole homes and streets, annihilating entire metropolises with careless flicks of his wrist as though he were God. Catch-22 required that each censored letter bear the censoring officer's name. Most letters he didn't read at all. On those he didn't read at all he wrote his own name. On those he did read he wrote, "Washington Irving." When that grew monotonous he wrote, "Irving Washington." Censoring the envelopes had serious repercussions, produced a ripple of anxiety on some ethereal military echelon that floated a C.I.D. man back into the ward posing as a patient. They all knew he was a C.I.D. man because he kept inquiring about an officer named Irving or Washington and because after his first day there he wouldn't censor letters. He found them too monotonous.
Selected Works by Joseph Heller
- Catch-22, novel (1961)
- We Bombed in New Haven, play (1967)
- Dirty Dingus Magee, screenplay (1970)
- Something Happened, novel (1974)
- Good as Gold, novel (1979)
- No Laughing Matter, autobiography (1986)
- Closing Time, novel (1994)
* Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was first published by Simon & Schuster in 1961. It is currently available in a Simon & Schuster Classic edition.