This book had a huge impact on me when I first read it. I was 18, had just abandoned Christianity, and needed a new Messiah. I found him in Orr. I like to think I’ve moulded my life around him. He is the clear hero of the novel and the Orr/Yossarian nexus is the central idea of the book. They embody Heller’s motivating agenda, which is self-reliance versus disempowered dependence and the bitterness that unfulfilled dependence delivers.
But it also had a huge impact on the world.
If you were to join the absurdist comedy dots between Spike Milligan and Monty Python, the major dot you’d pass through would be Catch 22.
As satire it was ground-breaking in its juxtaposition of blandness and shock. Eg the playing on the raft leading to the McWatt/Kid Sampson incident. MASH, the Sopranos, and Breaking Bad were all influenced by this device, just to name a few.
It also broke ground with its elliptical story-lines, each circling in deeper and darker as they randomly re-cross the reader’s line of sight. The final visit to the Snowden storyline almost sparks guilt in the reader, from having found humour in early passes.
Also original was Heller’s love of circular paradoxical logic. Milo Minderbinder bought tomatoes for 7 cents so he could sell them for 5 cents and everyone profits - foreseeing Amazon who deliberately made a loss for 20 years so they could become the biggest company in the world.
It was also prescient in it’s suggestion that business over-rides war (MM Enterprises bombing allied airfields to make a profit). Now we have countries declaring not war on other nations but business. China with its “belts and roads” policies, and its Wahwei 5G internet control are examples of such.
Throw in Major Major Major Major who will only see visitors when he’s not there, and even Luciana the prostitute who only sleeps with Yossarian because he doesn’t want to.
But back to Orr/Yossarian.
Yossarian represents the sane everyman who is trying to resolve a seemingly resolveable problem through correct channels, only to continually be frustrated by a definitive lack of procedural sanity.
Orr realises that no battle is won on the arena of consciousness in which it is being fought and that individual responsibility for one’s salvation is the only answer. So he rehearses crashing his plane until he perfects the skill then crash/manages his way to neutral Sweden - after earlier paying a prostitute to hit him in the head so he could maximise his time in the hospital tent.
Orr and Yossarian share ownership of a common problem, but Orr’s ownership empowers him, eliminates bitterness, and enables happiness (cheerfully fishing while in the rescue rafts), while Yossarian frets, fumes and becomes pathologically frustrated.
But Orr also realises his truths can’t be taught. The student needs to be ready to learn. So he teases Yossarian with riddles. Why crabapples? Better than horse chestnuts. Why anything? Not anything, crabapples. Etc etc.
In the final line Yossarian does finally learn. The penny drops and this grimly hilarious book ends on an up-tick as Yossarian becomes optimistic for the first and only time - even avoiding a final murder attempt by Nately’s whore.
To confirm Orr’s central importance in the novel, Heller chooses Orr to be the singular character nominated by Doc Daneeka to explain the meaning of Catch 22. Orr is mad enough to be excused from service but his craziness precludes him from requesting it.
But Orr is not crazy. He’s the opposite. And that is Catch-22’s greatest paradox in a book overflowing with them.
Orr is the only one sane enough to know that the key to life is self-reliance, and not impotent expectation that definitively flawed systems and disinterested other parties are motivated and invested enough to rescue you.
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