Joseph Heller’s importance to the canon of the American war novel comes from his utilization of deliberate absurdity and dark satire in Catch-22 to expose the plight of the post-modern soldier in his fight against the dehumanizing military bureaucracy that entraps him. Heller’s wholesale re-evaluation of the system places him within the “great American tradition of dissent,” though as Sanford Pinkster notes, “he extends it by changing the essential arithmetic that once came with the war novel” (Pinkster). Instead of a youthful romantic hero found in the war novels of Hemingway and others before him, Heller introduces Yossarian, whose sense of obsessive self-preservation overrides any sense of traditional duty or honor in his quest to survive the corrupt entrapments of the absurd system on Pianosa. In addition to Heller’s redefinition of the American war novel protagonist, Catch-22 makes a place for itself within the canon through its prevalent use of absurdity, both as a theme and as literary mode. In the words of James Webb, a veteran, who first read the novel when stationed in Vietnam, “Heller’s novelistic choice of absurdity over irony was the most effective way to make a point without demeaning true sacrifice or insulting our national goals” (Webb). Webb’s insight into the effectiveness of the absurdity in Catch-22 in expressing the sentiments of the post-modern soldier provides a fitting summary of the importance and relevance that Yossarian’s non-chronological journey holds as a pioneer novel during the rise of the counterculture. The anti-establishment ideas presented in Yossarian’s struggle against the absurd horrors of war and also the corrupt military bureaucracy that enforces them would become the framework for the anti-war protests of the counterculture because of the relevance and validity of its satirical critique. Furthermore, the application of the novel’s ideas extends past the institutions of warfare. The fight of the depreciated post-modern individual against the unflinching, corrupted societal machine encompassed all aspects of American life. Some readers may try to project a final resolution from Heller onto the narrative condemning war as bad, but as Webb keenly observes, “His message was not that his war or mine was either good or bad. It was that all wars dehumanize” (Webb).
CONTINUE: Analysis of Absurdity and Corruption
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