Heller’s Catch 22: American Business

Catch-22 satirizes American business through Milo Minderbinder. In chapter 24, Milo points out that, in business, truth is often in inconsequential detail. He starts a business called M & M Enterprises in which the M & M stood for Milo and Minderbinder, and the & was inserted “to nullify any impression that the syndicate was a one-man operation.” This name sheds light on two very important details, that truth is inconsequential when it comes to the pursuit of profit and that egomania rules all. Milo could have disguised the fact that the enterprise is a one-man operation by using any number of fake names. For example, the name could have just as easily been M&K or M&T.  But his ego and pride don’t allow him to part with any of the credit, even if that means giving credit to an imaginary person that he made up.

Yossarian views Milo the way that American society tends to view Wall Street. He thinks that Milo is “a jerk” but also knows that “Milo was a genius.” Society is fascinated by Wall Street single-minded pursuit of profit and their lack of allegiance to anyone, even to their own country.  Accordingly, Milo displays a similar lack of allegiance when Major Danby points out that “we are at war with Germany, and those are German planes.” Milo replies, “They are no such thing! Those planes belong to the syndicate, and everybody has a share.” Besides showing a lack of allegiance, this response also points out the way that Milo and corporate society tend to argue out of both sides of their mouth. On one hand, they make public statements about a kill or be killed style of unregulated capitalism and, on the other hand, they try their hardest to construct as pure all the communistic society as possible, one that revolves entirely around what’s good for the small number of people at the top of the corporate ladder who rule the corporation.

Heller’s Catch 22

Heller presents Yossarian as a somewhat peculiar individual whose aim or primary concern is to avoid getting killed. He appears preoccupied with this idea however he is not depicted as a paranoid. Unlike the characters and other stories that deal with war, Yossarian is not disillusioned by war and likely never had illusions about it. He never wrestles with his conscience for his perceived lack of courage. Instead, he’s almost single-minded in his focus on his own survival. Catch-22 is narrated using the third person limited omniscient point of view.

The novel is divided into chapters that focus on different characters. In the beginning of the book, Yossarian seems to be the main character but focus soon shifts. The advantage of this method of narration is that it gives the reader a fragmented view of reality. In other words, the novel presents life in a series of episodes, like a series of short stories. These short stories all come together as one work of fiction but since they are episodic in nature, the work as a whole leaves certain loose ends. This approach lacks a consistent narrative and makes the book difficult to read. However, this fragmented view of reality is also the feature of the novel that makes it so true to life. Everyday life is episodic in nature, rarely following a linear or consistent narrative. As a result, I would argue that Catch-22’s fragmented narration style is almost hyper realistic.

Chaplain Tappman is a very endearing character who is frightened by loud voices and aggressive men. Heller, who does not treat other characters in the book as delicately as him, portrays him without sarcasm or satire. As a result, the chaplain reminds the reader that the novel is not a joke and that behind every aspect of life that the book satirizes and mocks there is true pain. Just like Huckleberry Finn, it’s doubtful that Catch-22’s black humor would work nearly as well without these periods of seriousness. One significant scene happens in chapter 25 where the chaplain has a crisis of conscience about God. He wonders whether there is even a way to be sure about God. He struggles with his inability to know and feels deceitful presiding over funerals. Heller describes his genuine desire to help by saying, “the chaplain was sincerely a very helpful person who was never able to help anyone.” It seems to me that this tends to be true of people who feel things deeply. They are driven to help but then despair at their inability to help completely. What people like this often don’t realize is that their struggle is indicative of the fact that they actually do care and are perhaps the only people who should actually help.

Catch-22’s Limited Omniscient Narrator: A Subtle Weapon in the Satiric Attack on American Business

A Catch-22 is a rule that makes two opposing and contradictory claims both of which are true. For example, a man who wants to fly many missions is insane because a sane man would not risk his life in this manner. Simultaneously, a man who does not want to go on flying missions is not insane because, if he were really insane, he would not mind flying the missions. This paradox is at the heart of Joseph Heller’s novel which, among other things, explores the absurdity of military life during World War II. While Catch-22’s numerous characters and seemingly non-chronological events present a rather convoluted plot, its third person omniscient narrator helps Heller avoid preachy rhetoric in his satiric attack on American business.

Catch-22 is divided into chapters that typically focus on different characters. The advantage of the third person omniscient narrator is that it gives the reader a fragmented view of reality by presenting various incidents from different perspectives with, what appears to be, a non-chronological plot. But events only seem out of order on the surface. In reality, the novel is structured around free associations and random connections between various characters and events. For example, in the first chapter, Yossarian uses the name Washington Irving to censor the letters he reads. The name is then adopted by Major Major, in chapter 9, who uses it to forge official documents prior to switching to John Milton. This use of free associations creates something of an inconsistent narrative that nevertheless strengthens the impact of the novel’s satire. In particular, it allows Heller the opportunity to discuss different characters and events episodically.

The main character of Catch-22 is Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier, whose primary concern in life is to avoid getting killed. Yossarian’s preoccupation with this idea is almost single-minded in focus and borders on paranoia. But unlike the main characters from other classic works of literature, including Huckleberry Finn, Yossarian is less of a prominent protagonist and more of a common thread that runs throughout the story.

Heller launches his attack against one of the most important American institutions using the character of First Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder, a mess officer at the US Army Air Corps. In chapter 24, Milo started a business called M & M enterprises. The two M’s stood for Milo and Minderbinder and the “&” was inserted “to nullify any impression that the syndicate was a one-man operation” (Heller 253). This decision sheds light on two important details that encapsulate Heller’s satire of American business. First, truth is inconsequential when it comes to the pursuit of profit and, second, egomania rules all. The one-man operation could have been disguised using any number of fake names, like M & K or M& T. But Milo’s ego and pride do not allow him to part with any of the credit, even with a fictitious third-party.  

Later in the same chapter, Milo’s men painted over German swastikas and replaced them with the sign: M & M Enterprises, Fine Fruits and Produce. Once the syndicate grew into “an international cartel” and reached its saturation point in clients, Milo formed “a wholly owned subsidiary” and expanded his operations into fancy pastries (Heller 254). Milo’s corporate model is the quintessential American business, a stereotype that remains appropriate today. For instance, in 1919, the automobile manufacturer General Motors formed a subsidiary called GMAC in order to provide automobile financing and, in 1985, expanded their business into home purchases by forming GMAC Mortgage. In 1999, the company bought Bank of New York’s asset-based lending and factoring business, acquired a number of mortgage loan operations including Ditech.com, and created GMAC Commercial Finance Group (Our History). In 2005, the enterprise launched Residential Capital, a new parent holding company for its global real estate mortgage business, before finally becoming a bank, in 2008. Unfortunately, the absurdity of a company transforming from an automobile manufacturer into a bank is so common in today’s society that it is barely noticeable.

Besides satirizing the expansionist model of American business, Heller also satirizes the relationship between corporations and war. In chapter 24, Milo makes two deals, one with American authorities to bomb a bridge held by the Germans and another with German authorities to defend the bridge against his own bombing. Even though both countries paid large sums of money for their military contracts, Milo wastes none of the syndicate’s resources “to bomb and defend the bridge” because both countries have “ample men and material right there to do so and were perfectly happy to contribute them” (Heller 255). As a result, Milo, like many military contractors, “realized a fantastic profit” off the war effort “for doing nothing more than signing his name twice” (Heller 255). As a character, Milo is the embodiment of capitalism and his willingness to contract with both sides of the war is a scathing satire of corporate America’s uncompromising business tactics.

The third person limited omniscient narrator allows Heller to portray Yossarian as someone with a kind of sick fascination with Milo: “Yossarian thought that Milo was a jerk; but he also knew the Milo was a genius” (Heller 253). This portrayal is similar to American society’s view of investment bankers. On one hand, society is astonished by Wall Street’s lack of allegiance to the nation and their lack of remorse for closing factories and sending local jobs overseas. On the other hand, society is impressed by Wall Street’s single-minded pursuit of profit and the traders’ ability to make money out of almost nothing. Unfortunately, the American people only tend to be less impressed and more astonished during economic recessions, despite the fact that Wall Street’s intentions, however deplorable, remain consistent throughout.

Accordingly, Milo’s approach to the structure of his syndicate is likewise satirical of the internal structure of corporations. In chapter 24, Major Danby points out that Milo’s company is using German planes to which Milo replies: “They are no such thing! Those planes belong to the syndicate, and everybody has a share” (Heller 254). This insistence on sharing is likewise found in corporate advertisements that refer to employees as family members in an effort to build loyalty and get the employees to invest their retirement. The sad reality, however, is that the corporation’s ruthless pursuit of profit makes it impossible for them to be loyal in return. The betrayals are evident in the cutbacks and layoffs of low-level employees and in the stock splits of their 401(k) plans. The result is an entity, reminiscent of Soviet society, which acts solely for the good of the few at the top.

In addition to displaying yet another lack of allegiance to either his country or his fellow soldiers, Milo’s response to Major Danby is also an example of the way that corporations tend to argue out of both sides of their mouth. On one hand, Wall Street firms lobby for less regulation in order to facilitate a kind of ultracompetitive, kill or be killed, approach to capitalism. On the other hand, they lobby in order to merge and consolidate until they are so ingrained in society that they are deemed “too big to fail” (Stern and Feldman ix). The result is a kind of corporate welfare in which their financial losses become subsidized by taxpayers. By talking out of both sides of their mouth, corporate America makes two opposing claims. Since both claims cannot be true, these actions are a kind of contemporary Catch-22.

By portraying Milo and his business ventures from the perspective of a third person omniscient narrator, Heller is able to present the readers with an overarching point of view. This view, which is grounded in facts, figures and details, is not muddled with unnecessary emotions. It allows events to unfold from an appropriate distance without incorporating an ounce of preachy rhetoric and the result is a highly effective satire of one the most important American institutions.

Work Cited

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.

“Our History.” Ally.com. Ally Financial, n.d. Web.  20 October, 2011. http://www.ally.com/about/company-structure/history/

Stern, Gary & Feldman, Ron. (2004). Too Big to Fail: The Hazards of Bank Bailouts. Maryland: The Brookings Institution, 2004. Print.