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The Structure of 'Catch-22' and How Heller Uses It to Invoke Reader Interest

A reader’s first impression upon reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is that it is “fragmented, static, and indiscriminately messy” (Fires par. 1). Most novels follow some sort of organised structure, usually proceeding chronologically in at least one, if not all, lines of its plot, but this novel seems to haphazardly alternate between describing normal day-to-day operations of the military and telling and retelling distorted tales of the past. However, as James L. MacDonald says, “Heller is a highly sophisticated, conscious artist who carefully manipulates the diverse and seemingly divisive elements of the novel to achieve structural unity” (103). Jan Solomon asserts, “A careful examination of Heller’s novel reveals not only that it has form, but that this form is carefully constructed to support the pervasive theme of absurdity” (123). Upon closer inspection, it is clear that the structure of the novel is anything but indiscriminate. In Catch-22, Joseph Heller carefully selects a unique non-chronological structure that keeps the reader involved and active in the understanding of the plot by creating variety, humour, and suspense.

Within most chapters in the novel, the entire subject matter often shifts dramatically in a matter of a few words, generating variety that keeps the reader energized and eager to read onwards. Sometimes, the shift in subject matter is accompanied by a free transition: for example, in order to shift from a description of McWatt to a narrative regarding Yossarian and his liver, Heller uses the remarkably loose association, “But McWatt was never as impressed with Milo as Milo had been with the letter Yossarian had obtained for his liver from Doc Daneeka” (60). At other times, the switch between topics is more abrupt. After a description of Hungry Joe’s attempts to take indecent photographs, the sentence, “Colonel Cargill, General Peckem’s troubleshooter, was a forceful, ruddy man” (27) is conspicuously unconnected. The frequent changes allow Heller to oscillate between different subjects at will, including love, war, commercialism, morality, and mortality, keeping the reader on his toes. The resulting variety in subject matter allows Heller to take certain liberties in planning the sequence of events. According to Jan Solomon, the “time-schemes (of Catch-22) are impossible,” but the average reader never discovers this since he is too preoccupied with enjoying the numerous subplots to trouble with ordering the events. With Heller’s chosen structure, the plot is never stagnant, but rather lively and exciting.

Most of the humour in the novel is generated by play on words, slapstick comedy, and amusing plot. However, the structure of the novel allows Heller to create even more humour through dramatic irony and through the seemingly arbitrary insertion of chapters that do not quite fit in the developed mould. Louis Sachar, in his children’s novel, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, achieves humour through an analogous manner. Both books have close to three-dozen distinct chapters each named for a specific character, and both books use their structures to create humour. For instance, in Sachar’s novel, Chapter 19 is a mere three short sentences in length: “There is no Miss Zarves. There is no nineteenth story. Sorry,” while Chapter 37 of Heller’s novel is similarly short, existing for merely its punch line, “Oh, my God! (…) Do you know what he wants? He wants us to march. He wants everybody to march!” (391). The chapters are funny in part because they are so incongruously short. Other sections in each book are entirely unrelated to the rest of their novels, but are merely thrown into the giant melting pot of plot elements for comic effect: in Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Sammy, the fourteenth chapter, is about a dead rat who sneaks into the school; Generals Dreedle and Peckem play phone tag by calling each other with the message “T. S. Eliot” in a particularly nonsensical section of Catch-22. Both illogical tales are humorous, but neither would have been possible to include if the novel were told chronologically, for the effect would have been far too jarring to the reader.

One of the most humorous, as well as important, points in the novel is when the chaplain sees Yossarian naked in the tree. This can be interpreted as one of the few meeting places of the novel’s major plotlines, joining together stories of Milo’s commercialistic enterprise and Yossarian’s war efforts, but it is also a clever construction of dramatic irony. As Yossarian sits in the tree, the Chaplain, who is performing a funeral for Snowden, notices him, but interprets his vision as an apparition of the supernatural. The reader laughs when he reads, “The possibility that there really had been a naked man in the tree (…) never crossed the chaplain’s mind” (272). The reader also laughs when the C.I.D. men question Major Major about Washington Irving, for he knows that both Yossarian and the Major have been signing the pseudonym to communications. Heller uses the structure to retell many stories from numerous points of view, creating humorous dramatic irony.

“Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” says Yossarian cryptically in the first section of the novel (Heller 35). Where indeed? Catch-22 is structured such that some key elements are mentioned in the novel’s first section, built upon in following chapters, and then finally retold in full detail in the last chapters, building suspense and reader interest with each retelling. As the novel progresses, the reader hears Snowden’s distressed moan, “I’m cold. (…) Please help me. I’m cold” (226) and Yossarian’s reaction, “Yossarian crawled slowly out of the nose (…) to treat Snowden for the wrong wound” (331). Finally, as the reader begs for more information, Heller reveals his message: “Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn” (436-440). It is an odd sort of foreshadowing, giving a vague impression of important events, but without the benefit of precise details, building a sort of suspense as the reader eagerly awaits the full narrative. In other sections of the novel, the reader learns about how the squadron was poisoned, first by Yossarian’s lament, “They poisoned my food twice, didn’t they?” and then by a thorough description some chapters later (19). A similar advancement of understanding occurs with regards to the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, who is initially mentioned in passing and later fully explained. The development of suspense by gradually augmenting the reader’s knowledge allows Heller to make the most of his ideas by maintaining interest.

Joseph Heller uses structure as a highly effective tool in communicating his story. The selected structure allows Heller to create suspense, variety, and humour in ways that would not have been possible with a chronological narrative. He is largely successful here: other authors might not have succeeded, but Heller manages to break accepted rules of literature to nevertheless create an effective, widely accepted novel. His novel’s successes, both as a literary work and as a bestseller, serve as indications to readers and authors alike that atypical structures can do more than merely function – they can incite interest and engross the reader.

By Michael Guyfoe Fires, 2005

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