Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s brilliant, black novel about the horror of war, gives us a bleak version of Mayday: the international radio distress signal used by ships and aircraft, the signal that foreshadows disaster.
The protagonist, Yossarian, is an American fighter pilot trapped in the insanity of World War II. The craziness of the danger and terror he experiences – people who don’t know him are trying to kill him – is exemplified in the army’s rules. A pilot who is declared insane doesn’t have to fly any more combat missions. But there’s a catch.
‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’
Since the publication of Heller’s novel, fifty years ago, the expression Catch-22 has found its way into the English language. It describes any situation from which there is no escape: you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Will you fall, or will you be pushed? When did you stop beating your wife?
There’s something frighteningly claustrophobic about Catch-22, in spite of the black humour that Heller uses so effectively. Major Major Major Major will only see people when he’s not there. Colonel Cathcart boasts of his courage and never hesitates ‘to volunteer his men for any target available’. Milo Minderbender is the consummate capitalist who will do business with anyone, even the Luftwaffe.