22 going on 50

Richard King, The Smart Set

On November 11, 1961, readers of the New York Times were confronted with a huge advertisement for a novel, published the previous day, by a little-known writer named Joseph Heller. Running from the top to the bottom of the page and covering five of the paper’s eight columns, the ad showed an angular, panic-stricken figure, apparently in military uniform, in flight from some unspecified threat. “WHAT’S THE CATCH?” the caption screamed – a reference to the novel’s title, which, in itself, threw no light on the matter. Readers would have to buy the novel and work their way through 50-odd pages in order to find the answer to that question.

Though it seized the public imagination with a force that is rare in literary fiction, Catch-22 was not unanimously praised when it first appeared in 1961. Whitney Balliett, writing in the New Yorker, declared the novel a facetious mishmash: “Heller wallows in his own laughter and finally drowns in it. What remains is a debris of sour jokes, stage anger, dirty words, synthetic looniness, and the sort of antic behavior the children fall into when they know they are losing our attention.” Similarly, a reviewer in the New York Times described the novel as “an emotional hodgepodge” and declared that it “gasps for want of craft and sensibility.”

Of course, these were just the initial reactions of those whose job it was (and is) to churn out short reviews on deadline, a discipline that doesn’t always favour the kind of high-end literary novel that reveals its riches gradually.

But even today there are many critics, some of them of no small reputation, who regard Catch-22 as grossly overrated. Of these, perhaps the most distinguished is the American critic Harold Bloom, who, in his preface to a collection of essays dedicated to Heller’s novel, wrote: “It is neither apocalyptic nor a masterpiece, but a tendentious burlesque, founded upon a peculiarly subjective view of historical reality.” (In a later edition of the same book, he added: “It will not last, and there’s an end on it.”) Nevertheless, Catch-22 has sold millions of copies and gained the endorsements of many fine critics. Why, then, does this remarkable novel elicit such divergent reactions?

Read the answers at The Smart Set …