Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Is anybody in the John, Milton?

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This book takes place during World War II on an island in Italy called Pianosa. The main character is a man named Yossarian, who is a bombardier (aka a pilot who drops bombs). When he first joined the army, Yossarian wanted to be a good bombardier, and tried very hard to do his job well. As time goes on, however, and the number of missions men are required to fly before being allowed to return home is increased again and again, Yossarian stops caring about the bombings and wants nothing more than to stop flying missions and be allowed to return home alive. The book is witty and serious at the same time, dealing with extremely dark subject matter in a way that is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. Yossarian has many friends in the squadron, most of whom die before the book ends. There are various silly bureaucratic higher-ups (Colonels, Generals, Lieutenants) who make it impossible for Yossarian and the other men to stop flying missions. The title of the book is drawn from a bureaucratic edict called "Catch-22", which states that "if a man is crazy, he can stop flying missions; however, if a man makes the necessary steps to prove he is crazy, he is clearly a rational man and therefore not crazy, and must continue to fly missions." I hope I got that right. Yossarian, through copious amounts of scheming and many attempts at rebellion, finally gets offered a return trip home, in exchange for saying that he likes the two lead Colonels and speaks well of the Army at home. At first he accepts, but he later realizes this isn't how he wanted to stop flying missions. His friend and former tentmate, Orr, who went missing on a mission and was presumed dead, reappears in Sweden, and Yossarian, overjoyed at the news that his good friend is still alive, decides to escape, running from the Army's wrath, and attempt to join Orr in Sweden.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

- One of my favorite things about this book was Heller's attention to detail. The book is separated into 42 chapters, and each chapter is devoted to a different character. This got rather confusing, as there are many many characters and even more military titles thrown around (thought anything would be easy after the Russian names - I was wrong!) but it created incredibly powerful images of each character in my mind. Orr, for instance, used to stuff his mouth with horse chestnuts and crabapples because he wanted lovely chubby cheeks. Havermeyer is always eating peanut brittle. Clevinger tears up when he speaks passionately about something. And my personal favorite, Dunbar, tries to perform actions that are incredibly boring or particularly mind-numbing because he believes that time moves more slowly during these moments and he wants to increase his life span.

- Nately, another friend of Yossarian, has a girlfriend in Rome who is a prostitute. She ends up falling in love with him after he visits her and pines for her several times during rest leaves in Rome. Nately dies on a mission near the end of the book, and when Yossarian travels to Rome to tell her the news, she tries to kill him. Yossarian escapes, but the woman reappears 6 or 7 times throughout the book, always disguised as someone else (a mechanic, a Nazi, a pilot) and leaps out to attack Yossarian. When Yossarian sets out on his journey at the end of the book, it is only after deftly escaping another one of her knife attacks.

- I can't believe this book is assigned reading in high school. I found it a challenge to read, and to really understand, but most of all, there's a serious amount of violence and some very dirty sexual references in it. I'm pretty liberal, and I'm 23, and I was shocked in a few places.

- Yossarian frequently gets himself admitted to the hospital so that he won't be able to fly missions. He makes up liver ailments and other various diseases. His friends do likewise, often at the same time just so that they can spend time together. In what is probably my favorite part of the book, Yossarian is assigned the duty of censoring letters to be sent abroad. Deciding the process is completely ridiculous and arbitrary, he deletes random phrases, entire letters, signatures, and anything else he feels like. He signs Washington Irving to many of the letters. He gets tired after a while, and writes John Milton instead. Then he comes up with creative ways to write John Milton as a signature, including "John, Milton is a sadist" "Have you seen Milton, John?" and the one that serves as the title for this post.

- There's a character named Milo Minderbinder who makes terribly confusing business deals left and right with various countries to make money from the war. He claims that everything he earns goes back into something called "the syndicate" and that every man in the country has a share. One of my favorite moments in this story line is when one of the planes crashes into the ocean. The men inflate their raft, but as they try to inflate the life jackets, the carbon dioxide cylinders are missing. Milo used them to make strawberry and crushed-pineapple ice cream sodas in the mess hall. They find only a note, reading "What's good for M and M Enterprises is good for the country."

- There are 2 references to Raskolnikov in this book! What are the odds that I would just have read that book? It's a sign. Good karma for this project.

- I really liked the ending to this book (especially compared to the ending of Crime and Punishment). It felt hopeful, but with just right amount of humor and latent seriousness. Most of Yossarian's friends are dead, but Orr survived and made his way to Sweden, and Yossarian might just be able to get there, too.

All in all, I can see why this book is a classic. I thought it was brilliant.

On to Lolita!


  1. i can't wait to read your review of lolita. and since i never finished catch-22 it was nice to find out what finally happened lol. -sophia

  2. Your page came up first for a quote I'd been trying to remember, and driven nostalgic by your summaries (which were a delight in comparison to my mental ones), I read almost a dozen more. It's a testament to these novels' wisdom (and perhaps, anyone's) that we select from them different things, so I hope you keep it up!

    1. Gabriel,

      Glad you stumbled on to the project! It's been a delightful experience in not just reading, but self-discovery, and each book brings a new surprise. Maybe you'd consider joining me for a book on the new list! I'm always looking for companion readers and I post their thoughts beside mine.

      Happy reading,