Monday, May 1, 2017

Catch-22


While sitting at home one morning in 1953, Joseph Heller wrote the lines, "It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, [Yossarian] fell madly in love with him." Within days, he envisioned the story that would result, and invented the characters, the plot, and the tone that the story would eventually take. Within a week, he finished the first chapter and sent it to his agent. He did not do any more writing for the next year, as he planned the rest of the story. The initial chapter was published in 1955 as "Catch-18", in Issue 7 of New World Writing.

Heller did not intend the story to be longer than a novelette, but was able to add enough substance to the plot that he felt it could become his first novel. When he was a third done with the work, his agent sent it to publishers. Heller was not particularly attached to the work, and decided he would not finish it if publishers were not interested. The work was soon purchased by Simon and Schuster, who gave him $750 and promised an additional $750 when the full manuscript was delivered. Heller missed his deadline by five years but after eight years, he finally delivered the novel to his publisher.

The finished novel describes the wartime experiences of Army Air Corps Captain John Yossarian. Yossarian creates multiple strategies to avoid combat missions, but the military bureaucracy is always able to find a way to make him stay. As Heller observed, "Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy. Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts – and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society?" Heller has also commented that "peace on earth would mean the end of civilization as we know it."

Just before publication, the novel's title was changed to Catch-22 to avoid confusion with Leon Uris' new novel, Mila 18. The novel was published in hardback in 1961 to mixed reviews, with the Chicago Sun-Times calling it "the best American novel in years", while other critics derided it as "disorganized, unreadable, and crass". It sold only 30,000 copies in the United States hardback in its first year of publication. Reaction was different in the UK, where, within one week of its publication, the novel was number one on the bestseller lists. Once it was released in paperback in October 1962, however, Catch-22 caught the imaginations of baby boomers, who identified with the novel's anti-war sentiments. The book went on to sell 10 million copies in the United States. The novel's title became a buzzword for a dilemma with no easy way out. Now considered a classic, Catch-22 was listed at number 7 on Modern Library's list of the top 100 novels of the century. The United States Air Force Academy uses the novel to "help prospective officers recognize the dehumanizing aspects of bureaucracy."

The movie rights to the novel were purchased in 1962, and, combined with his royalties, made Heller a millionaire. The film, which was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Alan Arkin, Jon Voight and Orson Welles, was not released until 1970. In my humble opinion, the movie was not very good.

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