I have been looking forward to this: Tonight, a six-part adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 debuts on a certain streaming service. Among a cast of many, the series features Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Hugh Laurie (House), and George Clooney (an all-around handsome and debonair gentleman, who seems born for this), who also served as executive producer and director of two episodes. If you haven’t yet read the book (and you should), the novel follows Yossarian, a bombardier stationed in Italy during World War II, who is as determined to escape the war alive, as the military bureaucracy seems determined to kill him. Much of it reads like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” but with mortal consequences. If you need a refresher:
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.
There you go. As a comment on war’s ability to bend reason and reality, Catch-22 has proved remarkably durable, spawning a line of absurdist horror stories. But if you have read it—and maybe you should read it again, considering these times—here are six descendants of Heller’s mad, mad, mad, mad opus. And for more on the book and television series, check out master deep-diver Rob Harvilla’s piece on The Ringer.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain
Our top pick for the best book of May 2012, Ben Fountain’s debut novel is “The Catch-22 of the Iraq war.” Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War, says so right on the jacket, and he would know. In his review, Amazon’s Neal Thompson said Billy Lynn “manages a sly feat: giving us a maddening and believable cast of characters who make us feel what it must be like to go to war—and return.”
The Sympathizer: A Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Set during the fall of Saigon and the years after in America, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is narrated by an undercover communist agent posing as a captain in the Southern Vietnamese Army. The “captain” spies on the general and the men he escaped with, sharing his information with his communist blood brothers in coded letters. But when his allegiance is called into question, he must act in a way that will haunt him forever. Political, historical, romantic and comic, The Sympathizer captures the complexity of the war and what it means to be of two minds.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif
Another Best of the Month pick, this one from May 2008. At the time I said, “The book has been aptly compared to Catch-22 for its hilarious (though not quite as madcap) skewering of the Pakistani military and intelligence infrastructure, but it also can trace its lineage to Don DeLillo, doing for Pakistan what Libra did for JFK conspiracy theory, and Kafka’s The Trial, with its paranoid-but-true take on pathological bureaucracy.”
The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) by Adam Johnson
Yet another Best of the Month pick, from January 2012. In our discussion about which books would make our top 10, this was described as “Catch-22 meets 1984,” largely for its surreal depiction of life under the North Korean state. Unfortunately, much of shock and awe of these descriptions can be attributed to their roots in fact. Amazon’s Chris Schluep: “Through Jun Do’s story we realize that beneath the weight of oppression and lies beats a heart not much different from our own–one that thirsts for love, acceptance, and hope—and that realization is at the heart of this shockingly believable, immersive, and thrilling novel.” Johnson later won the National Book Award for his short story collection, Fortune Smiles.
Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) by Kurt Vonnegut
Published in 1969, Vonnegut’s apex (my opinion—there may be more out there) is more of a cousin than a direct descendant. A witness to the destruction of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim is a man who has “become unstuck in time”–and an alien abductee. Like Catch, Slaughterhouse is a dark mix of humor and real horror, a acerbic comment on the wide spectrum of war and suffering. Of course we have all read this, but it’s another worth revisiting.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Randall Patrick McMurphy, a red-headed wildman consigned a mental ward becomes a figure of inspiration to the lifeless patients living under the totalitarian regime of Big Nurse Ratched. The only book on this list not set in a martial context, Kesey’s book is nevertheless a classic (countercultural) tale of the individual pitted against banal tyranny.
This post was adapted from an article originally published on Omnivoracious.com many, many years ago.
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