He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt • Catch-22, Joseph Heller - Post-war Writing • 1945–1970

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt • Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Post-war Writing • 1945–1970




American black humour


1939 The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West satirizes the grotesque vanity of Hollywood and its hangers-on during the Great Depression.

1959 Philip Roth’s fiction collection Goodbye, Columbus humorously deals with the dark or taboo side of subjects such as sex, religion, and cultural assimilation.


1966 Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 explores the failure of communication and the absurd and disordered nature of the world.

1969 The search for meaning in increasingly fractured times is satirized in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, inspired by the author’s experience of the fire-bombing of Dresden and the absurdity of war.

With a fascination for the morbid and the taboo, black humour uses farce to make light of controversial or serious issues. Such humour often comes from despair or horror and frequently highlights the futility of life. Many dark, satirical novels came out of the USA in the latter half of the 20th century, when the nation assumed leadership of the West after the shattering of Europe through two world wars, and the onset of the Cold War nuclear age.

The madness of sanity

Catch-22, the satirical novel by US writer Joseph Heller (1923—99), is set in World War II, although the book can be read as a commentary on the ongoing Vietnam War.

It follows the exploits of Captain Yossarian and his fellow airmen, who serve on bombing missions. Unmoved by patriotism, Yossarian is furious that his life is at risk; convinced he is surrounded by crazed idiots, he tries to avoid his missions by faking illness. Yet he and his comrades are in a “Catch-22” situation (which refers to a military code of practice): they can apply for discharge on the grounds of insanity, but the very process of claiming madness using the correct protocol proves their sanity and so they must continue to fly.

The madness of war so clearly seen by Yossarian is underscored through Heller’s use of paradox, absurdity, and the kind of circular reasoning exemplifed by Catch-22 itself. True to the conventions of black humour, the novel is by turns bleak, hilarious, and tragic.

"Anything worth dying for … is certainly worth living for."


See also: The Crying of Lot 49Slaughterhouse-FiveAmerican Psycho