Catch-22 both absorbs and parodies a variety of literary genres. Given the book’s fragmented chronology, episodic structure, and caricatured characterizations, some critics have objected to labeling it a novel. The book’s mockery of political and social institutions and comic exaggeration are characteristic of the satire; Yossarian’s series of misadventures echo the picaresque tradition, and the work’s huge cast of Characters and descent-into-the-underworld motif bring to mind the epic.
The structure of Catch-22 has also confounded traditional critics. Early reviewers criticized the book for its lack of organization. But Heller asserts that the surface disorder is intentional, mirroring the thematic thrust of Yossarian’s quest-a rebellion against the repressive power of systems. Psychological rather than chronological time sets the framework for the novel; past and present intermingle through mental association. The narrative opens with Yossarian in the hospital and then shifts rapidly between scenes leading up to his hospitalization and those occurring after his release. Only when Yossarian decides to desert does Heller favor straightforward narration.
Heller relies heavily upon patterns of recurrence-whether of scene, image, or verbal exchange-so that the reader experiences a sense of deja vu. Most significant is Heller’s incremental repetition of the Snowden episode; he presents fragments of the scene and builds to a climax where Yossarian learns the extent of his gunner’s injuries.
No less radical than the novel’s structure is its treatment of language. Heller uses the technique of black humor, juxtaposing comic and tragic effects, mixing the slapstick with the grotesque. This brand of humor manifests itself when Kid Sampson’s legs, severed from the rest of his body, stick up in the air and then slowly fall into the water. “I wanted people to laugh and then look back with horror at what they were laughing at,” explains Heller. His use of language encourages readers to question authorial intent even as he would have them question, and challenge, oppressive systems. Through the use of paradoxes, circular reasoning, and contradictions, Heller emphasizes how authorities use language to confuse, trap, and manipulate. Meaningful communication seems almost impossible, and the truth occurs only rarely, expressed in such short declarative sentences as the dying Snowden’s “I’m cold.”
Although modernist in its portrayal of an absurd universe, its black humor, and its fragmented time scheme, Catch-22 can trace its protagonist’s heritage to nineteenth-century author Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of the self-reliant hero. Yossarian belongs to that category of American heroes who come to realize that “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” As the novel unfolds, Yossarian witnesses countless examples of carnage, greed, and brutality, and must open his eyes to the frailty of both the human body and the human spirit. Heller alludes to Yossarian’s role as the archetypal, or original, man as the bombardier, naked in a tree, watches Snowden’s funeral and resists Milo’s serpentlike offer to eat chocolate-covered cotton. Yossarian again faces and rejects Satanic tempters toward the novel’s end, when Colonels Cathcart and Korn offer to send him home if he promises to carry only positive reports of them back to the States.
Heller emulates James Joyce in providing naturalistic details and in using the device of the epiphany, a scene depicting a character’s moment of insight. Furthermore, Heller credits Joyce’s characterization of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses with inspiring his own creation of Yossarian. Another modern writer who influenced Heller is Franz Kafka, with whom Heller shares an aversion to bureaucracies. The nightmarish trial scenes of Clevinger and the chaplain are particularly Kafkaesque. To William Faulkner, Heller attributes his structure, noting that he strove to present bits of information and connect them only at the end of his book, as Faulkner did in Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. Heller modeled his prose style on the work of Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Vladimir Nabokov; in content, the author’s most important predecessor is Jaroslav Hasek, who showed the absurdity of the military in The Good Soldier Schweik. Feodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Dante’s Inferno provided inspiration for the surrealist chapter most critics consider Catch-22’s finest, “The Eternal City.”