Joseph Heller (born 1923) is a popular and respected writer whose first and best-known novel, Catch-22 (1961), is considered a classic of the post-World War II era. Presenting human existence as absurd and fragmented, this irreverent, witty novel satirizes capitalism and the military bureaucracy.
Heller's tragicomic vision of modern life, found in all of his novels, focuses on the erosion of humanistic values and highlights the ways in which language obscures and confuses reality. In addition, Heller's use of anachronism reflects the disordered nature of contemporary existence. His protagonists are antiheroes who search for meaning in their lives and struggle to avoid being overwhelmed by such institutions as the military, big business, government, and religion. Catch-22 is most often interpreted as an antiwar protest novel that foreshadowed the widespread resistance to the Vietnam War that erupted in the late 1960s. While Heller's later novels have received mixed reviews, Catch-22 continues to be highly regarded as a trenchant satire of the big business of modern warfare.
Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York, to first generation Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father, a bakery-truck driver, died after a bungled operation when Heller was only five years old. Many critics believe that Heller developed the sardonic, wisecracking humor that has marked his writing style while growing up in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. After graduating from high school in 1941, he worked briefly in an insurance office, an experience he later drew upon for the novel Something Happened (1974). In 1942, Heller enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to Corsica, where he flew sixty combat missions as a wing bombardier, earning an Air Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation. It is generally agreed that Heller's war years in the Mediterranean theater had only a minimal impact on his conception of Catch-22. Discharged from the military in 1945, Heller married Shirley Held and began his college education. He obtained a B.A. in English from New York University, an M.A. from Columbia University, and attended Oxford University as a Fulbright Scholar for a year before becoming an English instructor at Pennsylvania State University. Two years later Heller began working as an advertising copywriter, securing positions at such magazines as Time, Look, and McCall's from 1952 to 1961. The office settings of these companies also yielded material for Something Happened. During this time Heller was also writing short stories and scripts for film and television as well as working on Catch-22. Although his stories easily found publication, Heller considered them insubstantial and derivative of Ernest Hemingway's works. After the phenomenal success of Catch-22, Heller quit his job at McCall's and concentrated exclusively on writing fiction and plays. In December of 1981, he contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare type of polyneuritis that afflicts the peripheral nervous system. Heller chronicled his medical problems and difficult recovery in No Laughing Matter (1986) with Speed Vogel, a friend who helped him during his illness.
Catch-22 concerns a World War II bombardier named Yossarian who believes his foolish, ambitious, mean-spirited commanding officers are more dangerous than the enemy. In order to avoid flying more missions, Yossarian retreats to a hospital with a mysterious liver complaint, sabotages his plane, and tries to get himself declared insane. Variously defined throughout the novel, "Catch-22" refers to the ways in which bureaucracies control the people who work for them. The term first appears when Yossarian asks to be declared insane. In this instance, Catch-22 demands that anyone who is insane must be excused from flying missions. The "catch" is that one must ask to be excused; anyone who does so is showing "rational fear in the face of clear and present danger," is therefore sane, and must continue to fly. In its final, most ominous form, Catch-22 declares "they have the right to do anything we can't stop them from doing." Although most critics identify Yossarian as a coward and an antihero, they also sympathize with his urgent need to protect himself from this brutal universal law. Some critics have questioned the moral status of Yossarian's actions, noting in particular that he seems to be motivated merely by self-preservation, and that the enemy he refuses to fight is led by Adolf Hitler. Others, however, contend that while Catch-22 is ostensibly a war novel, World War II and the Air Force base where most of the novel's action takes place function primarily as a microcosm that demonstrates the disintegration of language and human value in a bureaucratic state.
Heller embodies his satire of capitalism in the character of Milo Minderbinder, whose obsessive pursuit of profits causes many deaths and much suffering among his fellow soldiers. Originally a mess hall officer, Milo organizes a powerful black market syndicate capable of cornering the Egyptian cotton market and bombing the American base on Pianosa for the Germans. On the surface Milo's adventures form a straightforward, optimistic success story that some commentators have likened to the Horatio Alger tales popular at the turn of the twentieth century. The narrative line that follows Yossarian, on the other hand, is characterized by his confused, frustrated, and frightened psychological state. The juxtaposition of these two narrative threads provides a disjointed, almost schizophrenic structure that re-asserts the absurd logic depicted in Catch-22.
Structurally, Catch-22 is episodic and repetitive. The majority of the narrative is composed of a series of cyclical flashbacks of increasing detail and ominousness. The most important recurring incident is the death of a serviceman named Snowden that occurs before the opening of the story but is referred to and recounted periodically throughout the novel. In the penultimate chapter, Yossarian relives the full horror and comprehends the significance of this senseless death as it reflects the human condition and his own situation. This narrative method led many critics, particularly early reviewers, to condemn Heller's novel as formless. Norman Mailer's oft-repeated jibe: "One could take out a hundred pages anywhere from the middle of Catch-22, and not even the author could be certain they were gone" has been refuted by Heller himself, and has inspired other critics to carefully trace the chronology of ever-darkening events that provide the loose structure of this novel.
Heller poignantly and consistently satirizes language, particularly the system of euphemisms and oxymorons that passes for official speech in the United States Armed Forces. In the world of Catch-22 metaphorical language has a dangerously literal power. The death of Doc Daneeka is an example: when the plane that Doc is falsely reported to be on crashes and no one sees him parachute to safety, he is presumed dead and his living presence is insufficient to convince anyone that he is really alive. Similarly, when Yossarian rips up his girlfriend's address in rage, she disappears, never to be seen again. Marcus K. Billson III summarized this technique: "The world of [Catch-22] projects the horrific, yet all too real, power of language to divest itself from any necessity of reference, to function as an independent, totally autonomous medium with its own perfect system and logic. That such a language pretends to mirror anything but itself is a commonplace delusion Heller satirizes throughout the novel. Yet, civilization is informed by this very pretense, and Heller shows how man is tragically and comically tricked and manipulated by such an absurdity."
Heller's second novel, Something Happened, centers on Bob Slocum, a middle-aged businessman who has a large, successful company but who feels emotionally empty. Narrating in a monotone, Slocum attempts to find the source of his malaise and his belief that modern American bourgeois life has lost meaning, by probing into his past and exploring his relationships with his wife, children, and coworkers. Although critics consider Slocum a generally dislikable character, he ultimately achieves sympathy because he has so thoroughly assimilated the values of his business that he has lost his own identity. Many commentators have viewed Slocum as an Everyman, a moral cipher who exemplifies the age's declining spirit. While initial reviews of Something Happened were mixed, more recent criticism has often deemed this novel superior to and more sophisticated than Catch-22, particularly citing Heller's shift from exaggeration to suggestion. In his critical biography Joseph Heller, Robert Merrill described Something Happened as "the most convincing study we have of what it is like to participate in the struggle that is postwar America."
Good as Gold (1979) marks Heller's first fictional use of his Jewish heritage and childhood experiences in Coney Island. The protagonist of this novel, Bruce Gold, is an unfulfilled college professor who is writing a book about "the Jewish experience," but he also harbors political ambitions. Offered a high government position after giving a positive review of a book written by the president, Gold accepts, leaves his wife and children, and finds himself immersed in a farcical bureaucracy in which officials speak in a confusing, contradictory language. In this novel, Heller harshly satirizes former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a Jew who has essentially forsaken his Jewishness. As a result, the author draws an analogy between the themes of political powerlust and corruption with Jewish identity. Similarly, Gold's motives for entering politics are strictly self-aggrandizing, as he seeks financial, sexual, and social rewards. When his older brother dies, however, Gold realizes the importance of his Jewish heritage and family, and decides to leave Washington. Throughout the novel, Heller alternates the narrative between scenes of Gold's large, garrulous Jewish family and the mostly gentile milieu of Washington, employing realism to depict the former and parody to portray the latter.
Heller's next novel, God Knows (1984), is a retelling of the biblical story of King David, the psalmist of the Old Testament. A memoir in the form of a monologue by David, the text abounds with anachronistic speech, combining the Bible's lyricism with a Jewish-American dialect reminiscent of the comic routines of such humorists as Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen. In an attempt to determine the origin of his despondency near the end of his life, David ruminates on the widespread loss of faith and sense of community, the uses of art, and the seeming absence of God. In Picture This (1988), Heller utilizes Rembrandt's painting " Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer" to draw parallels between ancient Greece, seventeenth-century Holland, and contemporary America. Moving backward and forward among these eras, this novel meditates on art, money, injustice, the folly of war, and the failures of democracy. Critics questioned whether Picture This should be considered a novel, a work of history, or a political tract.
Heller's first play, We Bombed in New Haven (1967), concerns a group of actors who believe they are portraying an Air Force squadron in an unspecified modern war. The action alternates between scenes where the players act out their parts in the "script" and scenes where they converse among themselves out of "character," expressing dissatisfaction with their roles. This distancing technique, which recalls the work of Bertolt Brecht and Luigi Pirandello, alerts the audience to the play's artificiality. As in Catch-22, this drama exposes what Heller perceives as the illogic and moral bankruptcy of the United States military. Many critics have also interpreted We Bombed in New Haven as a protest against America's participation in the Vietnam War. Heller has also adapted Catch-22 for the stage, but critics generally consider this work inferior to the novel.
While Heller's place in twentieth-century letters is assured with Catch-22, he is also highly regarded for his other works, which present a comic vision of modern society with serious moral implications. A major theme throughout his writing is the conflict that occurs when individuals interact with such powerful institutions as corporations, the military, and the federal government. Heller's novels have displayed increasing pessimism over the inability of individuals to reverse society's slide toward corruption and degeneration. He renders the chaos and absurdity of contemporary existence through disjointed chronology, anachronistic and oxymoronic language, and repetition of events. In all his work, Heller emphasizes that it is necessary to identify and take responsibility for our social and personal evils and to make beneficial changes in our behavior.
Further Reading on Joseph Heller
A Dangerous Crossing, Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.
Aichinger, Peter, The American Soldier in Fiction, 1880-1963, Iowa State University Press, 1975.
American Novels of the Second World War, Mouton, 1969.
Authors in the News, Volume 1, Gale, 1976.
Bergonzi, Bernard, The Situation of the Novel, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.
Bier, Jesse, The Rise and Fall of American Humor, Holt, 1968.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. and C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., editors, Pages: The World of Books, Writers, and Writing, Gale, 1976.