Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Catch 22

The original cover
This year sees the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of the greatest works of 20th Century literature - Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. 

A cricket enthusiast might wonder whether the 22 in the title was chosen  in recognition of the length of a cricket pitch.  Or might Catch 22 be about heroid acts of fielding.  There is some contemporary evidence which could lead an unsuspecting literary critic in that direction.  For at the time the novel was written, no player had taken 22 catches in a Test series.  However in the England tour of the West Indies in 1959-60 W Indian keeper Gerry Alexander took a then world record 22 dismissals.  But one of them was stumped.  So the novel might have been a consideration of the futility of waiting for teh next catch - that Catch 22.  That would have made for a great book.

But possibly not a greater one than the published Catch-22, even though Heller's book is not about cricket.  Instead it involves the US Air Force in 1943 and is a corruscating multi-dimensional satire on the madness of the bureaucratic war machine.  It is laugh out loud and deeply disturbing.

Catch 22 is part of the military rule book - it is explained in the novel with a brilliance that FB could never match see the extract below:

Catch-22 is invoked in several forms throughout the novel - demonstrating in various ways the circular logic of bureaucracies.  Look hard and it is still all around.   It's some catch that Catch-22.  Indeed it is so powerful that Catch-22 may not actually exist, but because the powers that be claim it does, and the world believes it does, it is compelling. Indeed, because it does not exist, there is no way it can be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced.  After all, it is Catch-22.

The novel has a teeming cast of wild characters of whom FB's favourite is Major Major.  He has the surname Major, and at birth his father gave him the first and middle names Major and Major.  The novel explains that the name was a joke, and not a particularly funny one, on his father's part. Joining the Army he is immediately promoted to Major by an IBM machine with a "sense of humor almost as keen as his father's".  (FB suspects this might be the first attribution of a sense of humour to a computer).  Major Major demonstrates how an indifferent bureaucratic system can award a position of authority to someone who, being unwilling or unable to handle the position, can only fulfill his responsibilities by hiding from them. His situation is another Catch-22, as are the orders he gives regarding visiting officers: the men can only see him when he's not in.  Test Match Quality.

Told by an interviewer that he had never produced anything else as good as Catch-22, Heller famously responded, "Who has?"  FB is inclined to agree.

Gerry Alexander
But what about Catch-22 in the cricket context?  Since the novel was published, 3 other players have equalled Gerry Alexander to take 22 dismissals in a series (D Murray, Knott and Rixon), but only one actually has exactly 22 catches - Adam Gilchrist did it twice in 2001 and 2006/7 both times against England.  And, before you ask, the highest number of catches in a series is 28 achieved by Rod Marsh in 1982/83, also against England.  Rod got to 22 and kept going.

Gerry Alexander, meanwhile, captained the W Indies following Frank Worrell's retirement.  He played 25 Tests, scoring 906 runs at 30.06 and took 90 dismissals.  He died earlier this year at the age of 82.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
Joseph Heller
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.


  1. Joseph Heller did write a lot of other stuff, including a sequel to Catch 22 late in his career. At least 2 of his other books are very very good - God Knows, which is a satire on King David and his weird morality, and Something Happened, a book so sharply observed and cruelly biting that I have been unable to finish it. It is probably the cruellest book every written in its unsparing look at the weaknesses of its entire cast of characters. It is a satire like C-22 but also much much more sharp and real - sort of like Curb Your Enthusiasm with really really damaged people.

  2. Gaurav - many thanks - it is many years since FB read Something Happened but he recalls that it had some bite as you suggest. Good as Gold is also worth reading.