A Killer Detail: Catch-22

Rewriting a manuscript requires reading other writers and learning from them new ways of using the language—unthinkable ways, uncomfortable ways, unlikely ways. This is a quick list of what I took away from Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22.

Rhetorical Devices

WWCASWhen Joseph Heller doesn’t use alliteration, he uses anaphora, or anacoluthon, or asyndeton—or everything else in the book.

“There was not an organ of his body that had not been drugged and derogated, dusted and dredged, fingered and photographed, removed, plundered and replaced.”  – Catch-22, p. 23

Sometimes he creates his own words, if he needs to.

“There was a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma; there was a pathologist for his pathos, a cystologist for his cysts.” – Catch-22, p. 23


Catch-22His dialogue works as counterpoint to his exquisite narration. The dialogue is not symbolic and it is not distilled. There are lots of thankyous and goodbyes. The characters talk to each other without catching a breath, as if that would prolong their lives in an alien world where death is waiting to strike the moment people shut up and get onto the battlefield.

“Yes, I do. No, a mart. Do you know what a mart is?”

“It’s a place where you buy things, isn’t it?”

“And sell things,” corrected Milo.

“And sell things.”

“All my life I’ve wanted a mart. You can do lots of things if you’ve got a mart. But you’ve got to have a mart.”

“You want a mart?”

“And every man will have his share.” – Catch-22, p. 76

Although this simple dialogue doesn’t seem to do much work, its lines weave themselves with similar ones throughout the chapters, creating a coherent support of symbols and facts, and allowing for a solid reality to emerge from all that clamoring. Nothing is random in this book. That last line is what Milo will use to justify his syndicate’s crimes.

Creating Humor

Heller creates humor using the simplest method: juxtaposing unexpected images in the same sentence or paragraph.

“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him.” – Catch-22, p. 17

“Doc Daneeka was Yossarian’s friend and would do just about nothing in his power to help him.” – Catch-22, p. 37

In most cases when Heller uses these kind of disjoint sentences, the previous lines are dead serious, and it’s this continuous juggling of seriousness and hilarity that takes the reader out of any comfort zone, out of any predictable experience, and makes this writing so memorable. After all, this is a story about war, and it’s a story about the fear of dying, which are always dead serious subjects.

Pictures at an Exhibition

Heller does something quite unusual for a novel: he repeats the stories and the words of his characters across multiple chapters. The story of Appleby who had “flies in his eyes,” the story of Orr and the whore who hit him in the head with a shoe, Milo’s adventures—they recur until the reader feels trapped into a whirlwind of familiar crazy faces. The lack of visible plot for hundreds of pages adds to the effect. We are watching pictures at an exhibition, it seems, not a story unfolding, and Heller’s habit of jumping back and forth in time enhances this feeling of being trapped with no chance of escape. That’s what Yossarian must’ve felt every time Colonel Cathcart increased the number of missions soldiers had to fly before being sent home. What makes the reader stick to this crazy story (“Are you crazy?” is one of the questions the characters ask each other most often) is the writing itself: the rich narration, the humor, the absurd dialogue, the exact depiction of the absurdity of war.

Said What?

Writers know that they should just use “said” after a line of dialogue, and strive to convey the emotion through the words uttered or the gestures and facial expression of the speaker. Going for the extreme, here is a list of verbs that Joseph Heller uses instead of “said,” to the effect of turning expectations on their head once more. Oh, and these verbs come with their “-ly” adverbs more often than not, such as “inquired curiously” and “barked gruffly” and “insisted lamely”—in case anybody misses the point.

Accused Commented Interrupted Repeated
Acquiesced Complained Jeered Replied
Addressed Concluded Joked Reported
Admitted Confessed Lament Reproached
Admonished Confided Lashed out Responded
Advised Conjectured Laughed Retorted
Agreed Contended Maintained Roared
Announced Continued Moaned Screamed
Answered Corrected Mocked Scolded
Apologized Countered Mourned Scoffed
Applauded Cried Mumbled Shouted
Asked Decided Murmured Shrieked
Asserted Declared Mused Snapped
Assured (him) Decreed Noticed Snarled
Barked Demanded Objected Sneered
Began Directed Observed Sobbed
Begged Emphasized Offered Spoke
Bellowed Exclaimed Ordained Sputtered
Bleated Explained Ordered Stammered
Bluffed Exploded Persisted Stated
Blurted out Faltered Persevered Suggested
Boasted Gasped Pleaded Taunted
Bragged Gloated Pointed out Teased
Brooded Grieved Pouted Threatened
Cackled Groaned Prodded Thundered
Called Grumbled Promised Told
Cautioned Guessed Proposed Urged
Censured Guffawed Protested Wailed
Chanted Hastened (to explain) Purred Wanted to know
Charged Hesitated Queried Warned
Chided Hissed Reasoned Went on
Chortled Howled Rebuked Wept
Chuckled Ignored Recalled Whimpered
Coaxed Inquired Reflected Whined
Comforted (him) Insisted Rejoiced Whispered
Complained Instructed Remarked Yelled
Commended Interjected Remembered Yielded

10 thoughts on “A Killer Detail: Catch-22

  1. Roxana: this is an excellent post. You’re reading like a writer, you’re looking at the words and how they work on the page:
    Readers read for entertainment. Writers read for structure. Entertainment-structure, the great divide in the writing world. Readers get caught up in the romance, the mystery, the memory, the characters of what they’re reading. They give up—the famous ‘suspension of disbelief’—something in order to be entertained. Readers glide over the words looking for drama and memorable characters, something to talk about with other readers in a book club.
    Writers look for structure. Writers want to know how the author put this piece together. The question becomes: ‘How did he do that?’
    Your read of Catch 22 answers some of that. Keep going. It’s always good to watch another writer at work.

    • It’s also a daunting task, to read for structure, because deconstructing really great work doesn’t always show more than a few tips and tricks, the rest is still a mystery. But yes, I keep thinking about Bob’s Weekend Novelist Series and about everything I’ve learned from you throughout these years when I read a novel or watch a movie. Especially with the movies, it’s hard to not see the three acts, the midpoint, the plot points, etc. and it does take away the suspense, but I do love the reverse engineering puzzle-work involved.

  2. This was such a good post. Took me back 40 years! (Yeah, I am that old.)
    You are so right, Roxana. Rhetoric is ONE of the building blocks of story. Everyone loved “Catch 22.” Waited for the next book. Heller may have run out of STORY after “Catch 22.”
    I don’t know. I remember the review of “Something Happened.”
    It was titled, “Nothing Happened.”
    Eventually, you run out of rhetoric.
    I didn’t write that review. But it made me think. STORY????
    Love reading your blog. Keep it up. Your insights are terrific.
    Happy Fourth. See you soon.
    PS: Thanks for the comment on “Margaret!”

  3. Roxana, this was/is brilliant. Of course coming out of your pretty little head I’d expect no less. But seriously, brilliant. I’m going to read Catch -22 again for the first time in over 20 years, just to catch what I didn’t catch the first time. Thanks for this. I’ll be tweeting it out to the twittersphere. Mindy

    • Thank you, Mindy, for sharing my link. Reading Catch-22 is a good use of a writer’s time, while rewriting, or while getting a manuscript ready for print :) Looking forward to seeing your book in ink and paper soon!

    • Fascinating stuff, indeed, Jan. Sure, please, share this list with your students. Like anything else in writing, if the person who breaks a rule does that knowingly, the effect is fresh, fascinating stuff. Many of the verbs on the list are used just once, which makes me think that Joseph Heller put a lot of effort in finding these verbs – at least 148 different ways of saying “said” (I might have missed some).

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