Author Essay

The Book That Changed My Life

Neil Cross

I was 19 when I lighted upon Catch-22. It was a water-damaged, coverless paperback, going for 2p at a jumble sale where I’d gone trawling for a coat. I’d been on the dole for three years, living in vile bedsits. I lacked any sense of a future. The realistic possibilities – a job, a boss – seemed a living death. So when I discovered Yossarian, it was love at first sight.

People usually dilute the story of Catch-22 like this: Yossarian doesn’t want to fly any more bombing missions, so he tries to get himself grounded by claiming insanity. But he must be sane – because he doesn’t want to fly. Being sane, he must keep flying. That’s some catch, but it’s not the story; it’s just an instance. In fact, Catch-22 takes many forms. It might not even exist; it doesn’t matter, if people believe in it. And its final appearance is terrifying: “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.”

Yossarian is neither Coward nor pacifist. It’s about the interchangeable face of power and ideology, about its disregard for human existence. So Catch-22 is anti-Stalin, anti Nazi, anti-capitalist, anti-socialist. Catch-22 is anti whatever you damn well please.

When Joseph Heller died in 1999 he left no equal, nobody great enough to scourge every last ideologue, hypocrite, spiv, nihilist, torturer, terrorist, and half wit who expects us to live or die for things in which they, not we, believe. Instead, he left his eternal, pyrotechnic, satire.

This article was originally published in The Times 1 June 2005 © The Times