Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Happy birthday, Joseph Heller

It is the birthday of writer Joseph Heller, (1923), whose satirical novel Catch-22 (1961) skewered bureaucratic inefficiency and absurd circular reasoning, and became an idiomatic English-language phrase representing a no-win situation. The novel was set during World War II and concerned a fictional bomber squad stationed off the coast of Italy and conducting bombing raids. The Catch-22 of the title referred to a non-existent military rule applied to justify bureaucratic actions. One key instance was a pilot who sought to be excluded from flying the missions because it was too dangerous and anybody who flew them would be crazy to do so. However, Catch-22 said that if the pilot was concerned for his own safety that proved he was rational and, therefore, was not too crazy to fly missions. At first, Heller called his book Catch 18, because the number 18 had special meaning in Judaism, which at first played a larger role in the novel. His agent thought it would be confused with Mila 18, Leon Uris's 1961 novel. Catch-11 was suggested but seemed to conflict with the 1960 movie Ocean's Eleven. Catch-17 wouldn't work because of the World War II movie Stalag 17 (1953). The publisher didn't think Catch-14 was a funny number. Catch-22, it was. It had a duplicated digit like 11 and the 2 represented the déja vu events in the book.

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