In our new ‘Classics’ series, we ask writers to read – or reread – literary classics. In this first instalment, Claire Corbett discovers the military horrors of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

For a new reader, a novel’s status as a classic can obscure its true achievements because its meaning and influence have already been decided. The blackly comic view of war is now so commonplace it’s easy to forget that Catch-22 was bold, in 1961, in its use of humour to explode the heroic narrative of World War II. A WWII bombardier himself, Joseph Heller showed us, before Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), that military authority is not just arbitrary but actually insane.

What does this classic have to say to us now that we’re all so well schooled in the absurdity of war after Vietnam? A great deal, as it turns out.

Catch-22 is the story of bombardier Yossarian, who tries to escape certain death from flying the ever-increasing number of missions demanded by his commanding officer. He is a victim of military regulation Catch-22, however, which states: If he flew them [the missions] he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

Catch-22 forms a Moebius strip of logic, its eternal loop expanding to encompass every bureaucratic trap through which authority can demean and overpower the individual: Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.

At first, I struggled with this book. We all have our prejudices, and black comedy is among my least favourite genres, especially if it features a bewildering array of two-dimensional characters burdened with names as symbolic as anything in The Pilgrim’s Progress – Lieutenant Scheisskopf, Milo Minderbinder, Major Major Major Major.

Then, after about 200 pages of seemingly disjointed narrative, the story spirals in on itself, focusing fragmented scenes into meaning and zeroing in on its targets like the bombers Yossarian directs over Italy.

Like Slaughterhouse 5, which frames the firebombing of Dresden within a repetitive, non-linear narrative, Catch-22 has to circle the unbearable, revealing glimpses of Yossarian’s pain through partial flashbacks. Recoiling from the worst, Yossarian, and the reader, do not confront the full horror of his experience until the end. This book has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

From about halfway, the book reads as increasingly contemporary, eerily relevant to our times. This is partly because of Milo Minderbinder, mess officer and black marketeer, who gradually bestrides the story, a colossus. His planes criss-cross the continent, ferrying produce, bombing one side, then the other. He’s the perfect one-man representation of Blackwater, of Halliburton, of the profiteering on an almost unimaginable scale that is such a feature of modern warfare.

Milo was the corn god, the rain god and the rice god … overlooking primitive stone altars red with human blood.

Like many great satires, the true subject of Catch-22 is violence done through manipulation of language. The insights of Catch-22 into war and bureaucracy have only grown in power during our never-ending War on Terror, with its ‘weapons of mass destruction’, its ‘extraordinary rendition’ and ‘redaction’. Ad man Heller knew that language is the main tool used by institutions to control their subjects, even if such control is ultimately backed with violence.

Time and again in Catch-22, reality buckles before the malign authority of words. Doc Daneeka, the gloomy, hypochondriac squadron doctor, is mistakenly declared dead and though he stands alive before them, his colleagues treat him as dead and his wife receives a pension. The odious Captain Black forces the airmen to sign pledges of allegiance all day long or be considered unpatriotic. It’s not their combat missions that count but the pledges, a fact grasped by anyone who lived through the McCarthy era.

Heller achieves far more than delineating violence, hypocrisy and despair, even if he makes us laugh while he does it. Yossarian becomes more than a symbol. His frantic, disruptive determination to survive, his enduring guilt and grief for his pals dying around him, bring him to life for the reader as a compassionate moral guide through the inferno of war.

Yet Heller does something greater than making the reader weep for Yossarian, or even for ourselves in Yossarian. He shows a sliver of light shining through the smallest perforation imaginable in the bleak Moebius strip of Catch-22.  But to see this light, to feel the rush of hope it brings, we have to persevere through Yossarian’s trials, experience his trauma and read on to the book’s very last line.

Claire Corbett is a writer. Her first novel, When We Have Wings, was published by Allen & Unwin in July 2011.