Rereading Catch-22

December 24, 2011   •   By Jennifer Egan

FOR MANY YEARS, I BELIEVED that my favorite novel was Catch-22. I remembered reading it as a teenager and being transported by the interweaving narratives and impressionistic style. It seemed a perfect amalgam of radical originality and great human storytelling, and occupied the supreme position in my mental pantheon. Then, in my late twenties, I sat down and re-read the novel, and the magic was gone. 

Though I was disillusioned with Joseph Heller to the point of anger, it clearly wasn't his fault; one thing that had driven me back to Catch-22 was my discovery and admiration for a later novel of his, Something Happened. Heller was an excellent writer, no question. But I never lost myself in Catch-22 that second time, and — most bizarrely — my favorite narrative strand, a shivery account of a character recovering from a lung illness, was not in the novel at all. Somehow I'd conflated Catch-22 with another book, not to mention injected it with a whopping dose of teenage emotional paroxysm and revelatory self discovery. What novel could live up to all that?