Catch-22's non-chronological narrative

The narrative of Catch-22 is deliberately hard to follow due to its bewildering chronology. Heller makes the chronology confusing in a number of ways. For example, the narrative begins with Yossarian’s “first sight” of the chaplain, which is in the hospital. In the next chapter, Heller begins to write about events previous to what the narrative has already described. These events are introduced in the middle of the chapter, simply as being what happens “just before” Yossarian goes into the hospital. The narrative then jumps straight into what happens when Yossarian returns “to the squadron from the hospital”. It skips forward and backward throughout the book in this manner. It is deliberately confusing in order to mimic the chaos of war, to create a surreal atmosphere which seems to be void of “logic and normal behaviour”, and to be able to reveal parts of events without fully describing them at any one time.

One of the ways Heller destroys conventional chronology is by not using conventional narrative. A typical narration might introduce characters or concepts in a way that explains them, their history, or their relevance. Heller does this for most of the characters in Catch-22, often naming chapters after them, but that makes it all the more alarming for the reader when Heller suddenly mentions “the dead man in Yossarian’s tent”, without warning or explanation. It is not until later in the book that the narrator explains why there is a dead man in Yossarian’s tent. Until then, the reader is enveloped in a sense of mystery, which reflects the mystery that is created for Yossarian. It’s as if the reader is a stranger who has just barged in on someone else’s life, and has to get used to it. Heller also wants to increase the shock of these images, and does so by slamming them into the plot.

Heller also uses new chapters to take the reader to a different character or situation, and often it is not mentioned whether the narrative has gone backward or forward in time. For example, chapter 26 opens with the chaplain’s troubles, but the narrator quickly starts to describe the relationship between Nately and his “voluptuous” friend. The bouncing narrative completely removes the reader from everything that happens in the previous chapter.

Another way Heller destroys traditional techniques is by writing about a single event more than once, and from different viewpoints. When the chaplain sees Yossarian naked in the tree, he is struck by the serenity and strange circumstances. Later in the book, Heller writes about the situation from Yossarian’s point of view as he sits above the cemetery. This use of chronology is effective: by returning to events again and again with new information (or even just repetition of old information), Heller highlights the episodes that he wants the reader to take away from the book.

No matter how much Heller’s non-chronological narrative confuses the reader, it is usually possible for the reader to locate what part of the story he is at by finding the number of combat missions needed by the pilots to go home at that point in the book. Even though the narrative is constantly bouncing back and forth through time, it generally follows Yossarian’s descent into mental instability. Yossarian’s mental health is slowly damaged by a number of factors, and one of them is the frustration of never being able to reach the number of combat missions one needs to fly before being sent home. As the colonel -who sets the number of missions- “always increases the number” before anyone can reach it, the reader always knows where he is in the story when a character mentions the number of combat missions, because this number only goes up. It is a general route to follow through the vague, hazy madness of the story, which gives the impression of what it is like to serve under the incompetence of leaders like Major Major, Peckham and Cathcart, and what it is like to be Yossarian as all that is normal fades away.

Heller is also careful to make sure that he never does more than mention a character that has died. Once the narrative describes the disappearance or death of: Havermeyer, Nately, Dunbar, Orr, Clevinger, Kid Sampson, Hungry Joe and McWatt, it never depicts a scene with any of them again. The narration may continue to go backward and forward through time, but the sense of loss is still created for the reader, and the anti-war message is strongly imposed as Yossarian’s friends leave the plot one by one. Just like death in reality, the end of a person’s life is a point in which there is no turning back. The non-chronological narrative is extremely effective in terms of changing the atmosphere at any given point. Just as the narrative can jump from McWatt’s suicide to the government’s treatment of Mrs. Daneeka, the mood can change from the tragedy of the accident to the humorous refusal of anyone to believe that Daneeka wasn’t “killed in the crash”. In this way, Heller pins his readers to the pages, constantly oscillating between comical and depressing moods.

The most effective use of Heller’s non-chronological narrative is the way the story of Snowden is treated. The episode of Snowden is mentioned for the first time in chapter 5, and described for the final time in chapter 41. The story of Snowden is slowly revealed, bit-by-bit, throughout the book, in such a way that the full horror of the incident is savoured until the final depiction, when Snowden “spills” his internal organs all over the airplane. Until this final passage at the end of chapter 41, Heller only hints at the horrible ending of Snowden’s story. Were the story written in one passage it would not have the same effect. Instead, Heller integrates the story with humour by taking the reader to a different time and place, repeatedly, before revealing what happens in full detail.

The non-chronological narrative is also effective, in the case of Snowden, because Heller can suddenly take the reader into the Avignon mission, from a different story, before the reader fully recognises what is happening. For example, in chapter 5, after Doc Daneeka tells a long humorous story about newlyweds which completely disarms the reader for the impact of Snowden, Yossarian talks with Orr about “flies in his eyes”. The narrative subtly slips from this conversation about flies in the eyes into “the day of the milk run to Parma”, and then starts describing the “stable and dependable B-25s”, and most importantly the “narrow, square crawlway”. The narrative quickly and quietly shifts to the crawlway’s role in “the mess over Avignon”. After so many skips and leaps in the order of events, the reader suddenly stumbles, completely unprepared, upon the first passage about Snowden. It is a delicate, deliberate and effective use of non-chronological narrative, and every delay and moment of humour, such as Daneeka’s story, is crucial to increasing the impact of the new tail-gunner who lies “dying in the back”.

In addition to quickly leading the narrative to Snowden, Heller quickly leads the narrative away from him. In the opening of chapter 22, after another revelation of what happened on the flight to Avignon, the narrative jumps from Snowden laying stretched out in a “dead faint” to how Dobbs is “the worst pilot in the world”. From there, the narrative moves on to Orr, and then Milo, but not back to Snowden until much later.

There is an element of suspense that is included in the story of Snowden, as it is interrupted various times before it is completed. This combines with the way Heller uses his non-chronological narrative to jump from the seriousness of his work to the light-hearted satire, and then back again. The reader is tugged and thrown between tones and atmospheres, between raillery of bureaucracy and invective of war, between the peanut brittle on Havermeyer’s face and the death of Snowden.

For the new reader, the non-chronological narrative is a challenging obstacle that creates a surreal world in which the characters live. The reader will fall right into the traps: he will feel at ease before discovering, page by page, the seriousness of the satire, and he will not know where in relation to each scene the passage that he is reading is at. But on re-reading this book, the reader has an entirely different attitude. The deliberately confusing narrative does not affect the re-reader because he knows what will inevitably happen, and he knows that no matter what small jumps the narrative takes, its general direction is a downward spiral of death.

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