Fifty years ago, Joseph Heller published Catch-22, giving us a new idiom and forging a new perspective on the business of war. While other novels—such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front—stripped warfare of its romance, Catch-22 exposed it as just another form of the fundamental absurdity of bureaucracy. Writes Walter Kirn in Slate:
Then, that fall, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 appeared, abruptly downgrading war’s special status as an existential crucible and also, unwittingly, beginning the process of rendering four-star male novelists irrelevant. The book treats war on a par with business or politics (to Heller they were very much the same), portraying it as a system for alienating people from their own interests and estranging them from their instincts. Protocol replaces principle, figures plucked from thin air supplant hard facts, and reason becomes rigamarole. Heller’s island airbase of freaked-out aviators oppressed by cuckoo officers is the ding-a-ling civilian world in microcosm, not an infernal, tragic realm apart. The men who can feel aren’t agonized, they’re addled. The ones who can’t feel (and therefore give the orders) are permanently, structurally annoyed. The naked and the dead are here but invisible to the beribboned and the daft.
In 1979, shortly after the release of Good as Gold, Charlie Reilly interviewed Heller for Inquiry magazine, then published by the Cato Institute. They discussed the new novel and its narrative structure, Heller’s humorist techniques, and how Heller deals in his writing with terrible, real-world events.
Q: Another thing that interested me was the effect that writing about the Vietnam War had upon you. It seemed apparent in Something Happened that you felt a sense of moral outrage over our role in the war, and in this one Gold seems to boil in rage at some aspect of it. Was it difficult to write about an issue that is so enraging and draining?
HELLER: No, and this is true of Catch-22 as well. When I’m writing, I am only interested in writing. Now when I’m not writing, I confess I can hear something that will make me boil over. A phrase that really gets to me, for instance, would be one of those neoconservative references to Vietnam as a national tragedy, but only because we lost. That thought fills me with ire. To begin with, the person who says it is typically untouched by tragedy; like me, he has not lost a son or a job. In addition, the implication is that if we had won, the war would have been somehow less tragic. People with that mentality, I have to admit, impress me as being the scum of the earth.