February 15, 2012

Joseph Heller: Something Happened

Posted in Heller Joseph at 8:00 am by John Self

Last year I wrote a piece which suggested, among other things, that Joseph Heller is famous for the wrong book; that Catch-22, while good, is not a patch on his second novel, Something Happened. It attracted many comments, mostly calling me an idiot. I was “mental”, “wrong wrong wrong,” talking “utter tosh,” “showing off”, and simultaneously guilty of “critical cliché” and being “lazily contrarian” (which is a good trick if you can do it). I can’t say that any of these insults made me question my judgement – it’s mine, right? – but I did wonder if the book would hold up after all these years. How many was it again?

Something Happened was the first Heller novel I read (which in itself might partly explain the affection I have for it). I was 18 years old, at university, and trying to impress a girl who was reading Catch-22. Well, you don’t want to look too obvious by going for the same book, do you? I remember two things about that reading. The first is that it took a full month; I found the book daunting and difficult, but impossible to give up on. The second is that I finished reading it on Christmas Day. (Not a festive experience.) I read it two more times after that, in my mid-twenties and early thirties, and found it hilarious and terrifying respectively. When I decided to read it again, I wondered if being still closer to the narrator’s age, and life circumstances, would make it more resonant (or frightening) than ever.

Something Happened seems to me to be the evolutionary apex of the novel of suburban malaise. This type or genre (is it a 20th century phenomenon?) includes Babbitt, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Revolutionary Road, examples from the 1920s, 1950s and 1960s respectively. These are excellent novels, and they are brave because within a traditional form, they say things usually unsaid about prosperous middle-class Western society. The great struggles of life and death in literature in earlier centuries are reduced and compressed and constricted to the malaise of getting up every morning and getting on with it again. (Martin Amis called this the Theory of Increasing Humiliation.) The traditional form of these novels, which works so well to seduce the reader, is also a limitation: their protagonists are broadly sympathetic, are ‘good men’. (OK, maybe not Frank Wheeler.) Heller, in 1974, shook it up with Something Happened. (Perhaps only American Psycho matches it for taking ennui and turning it up to eleven.) Where those books set their characters’s unhappiness within a story, here the unhappiness was the story. Here was a narrator whose only definite quality was his apparent honesty: he did not know anything for sure. He did not care whether we liked him, and nor, it seemed, did his creator. He told his story in long unbroken paragraphs, mesmerising in their repetition, digressing into pages-long parentheses, but always returning to his favourite subject: himself.

He is Bob Slocum, an executive in his forties with an unnamed corporation. In a sense he is the only character in the book, although he tells us about others: his family and his colleagues, past and present. When he, like most of us, spends all his time either at work or at home, what else is there to say? His opinions are self-lacerating, horrible, funny and true. He fears his co-workers and they fear him. His wife, he thinks, is unhappy. He has long, hilarious passive-aggressive exchanges with his boss, Green (“He’s got the whammy on me”), which is an advance on the plain aggressive conversations he has with his 15-year-old daughter. His nine-year-old son, meanwhile, is filled with fear – his family, generally, are filled with the qualities Slocum has given them – and there is a third child, the only one whose name we know: Derek. He is disabled, and it is with him that Slocum’s refusal to look away from his own thoughts reaches its awful apex.

I used to like him when I still thought he was normal. I was fond of him and had fun. I joked with him. I used to call him Dirk, and Kiddo, Steamshovel, Dinky Boy, and Dicky Dare. Till I found out what he was. Now it’s always formal: Derek. (You prick.)

(Why won’t you leave us alone?)

When Slocum, straining for a positive, says of Derek, “he suffers less than normal,” it’s a sly joke – and a pretty bleak one. He means not just that Derek suffers less than most children with his disability (“handicap” as the 1970s language in the book has it), but also that his disability means he that suffers less than a ‘normal’ person does. Slocum is suggesting that, without the self-awareness and anxieties that beset us all, Derek is to be envied.

Everyone in the book is suffering – My wife is unhappy, goes one chapter heading; My daughter’s unhappy, another; My little boy is having difficulties – and we don’t know how miserable they really are, and how much of it is distorted through Slocum’s poisoned view. If all first-person narratives seem predominantly to be about the narrator, Something Happened removes all doubt. Slocum’s story is a towering monument to himself. Of his wife he says, “I want to be free of her before her health fails. I see an ailing wife in my future.” When his daughter tells him she isn’t happy, “I told her I wasn’t either and nobody had a right to expect to be.” His weakness for honesty is fatal to his family. To his worrisome son (who asks “If you do want to get rid of me, how will you do it?”), he is unable to offer the categoric reassurance he needs. His workplace is not much better (the salesmen are “a vigorous, fun-loving bunch when they are not suffering abdominal cramps or brooding miserably about the future”), though it has its compensations. (“This fiscal period, I am flirting with Jane.”)

The reason for Slocum’s unhappiness is that there is a hole in his life. Aptly – Catch-22-ly – the hole is that he does not know why he is unhappy. “Something must have happened to me sometime.” He visits and revisits key moments of his past, though the reader has the feeling that the only reason they are key moments is that they have been circled so often. Even these tend to centre on family and work – his mother’s last words; his tentative, teenage flirtations with a former colleague called Virginia (“Virgin for short but not for long, ha, ha”), and what happened to her. He cannot understand what is wrong because ostensibly nothing is wrong: he is successful, affluent, respected. He lives in prosperity and peacetime, which may itself be part of the problem. “It was after the war, I think, that the struggle really began.” He has no defined enemy, and so he creates them. In the upper half of society, near the summit of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he can see from the peak that there is nothing of importance there, and nothing more to strive for. “I don’t know what I want.”

Slocum is a modern man, living with the disenchantment of the world. He yearns for innocence, for the time before his fall into knowledge. “When I grow up I want to be a little boy.” He hammers the point – he is good at hammering – that he does not know what happened to the boy he once was. He extends this to his wife: “What happened to us? Something did. I was a boy once, and she was a girl, and we were both new.” He extends it to his daughter:

There was a cheerful baby girl in a high chair in my house once who ate and drank with a hearty appetite and laughed a lot with spontaneous zest; she isn’t here now; and there is no trace of her anywhere.

He extends it to – claims to speak for – humanity in general: “I ought to know by now that hardly anyone over the age of four ever has a good time any more.” You don’t have to extrapolate very far before you get to assertions like, “The world just doesn’t work. It’s an idea whose time is gone.” Its time, presumably, was before the Enlightenment, when men could reasonably suppose a higher meaning to life. Something happened to humanity when it discovered there was no God; something happened to men of Slocum’s generation when the war ended and they faced a lifetime of unremitting afterwards; something happened to everyone who ever grew up from childhood to adult.

I am conscious that in all this, I am responding to Slocum as a character in a way I don’t often do. The immersive quality of his voice – monotonous, hypnotic – encourages this. And it may be too that this is a book which requires some degree of identification with the narrator (I said some) for the best effect to be achieved. Slocum, warrior misanthrope, may be the perfect travelling companion for the reader who in one sense views life as something to get to the end of before anything bad happens. (He observes, not with regret but with relief, that “soon after my children die, no one will ever think of me”.) So, enough of Slocum as a person; what of him as a creation, and of his creator? Spending eleven years on a fat, pessimistic epic of domestic blitz surely makes Heller just as nuts as his character. (That’s a joke. Slocum looks stark staring sane, despite a few homeopathic hints late in the narrative that he may be losing his mind.) Mostly, when a novelist takes a decade or more between books, it’s time spent away from writing; but here, it’s easy to believe that Heller really did toil on this book throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. And we are the richer for him never having thought – or never having succumbed to the thought – “What I’m doing is mad!”

I have no doubt made the book sound so grim, so perverse and offputting that reading it four times seems only a little less mad than writing it. However Heller, a messy but riotous storyteller in Catch-22, shows control of narrative and voice which makes terrible things into compulsive reading, rather as Thomas Bernhard’s unbroken paragraphs seem initially unwelcoming but propel the reader on. The tension comes from wondering what, among the few events that actually take place in the book (conversations, mostly), will eventually happen. Something does. And if the something is worth waiting for, that’s not to say that the long journey there is a slog. It’s a bizarre delight. Sentence by sentence, Heller peppers the reader with irony, bravery and foolishness, sometimes simultaneously. The telling is technically immaculate: pages of dialogue with multiple counterparties flow faster and faster under the reader’s thumbs. It is structurally brilliant, with Slocum’s story flowing unnoticeably from past to present and from one worry to another – so the reader has no docking points to get off at even if they wanted to. It is a cautionary tale, which offers a compellingly nasty angle on a portion of society and the questions people rarely ask of themselves (“I often wonder what my true nature is. Do I have one?”). It oozes hot grief from the cracks in its tough, cool shell. It chucks a bucket of water over the reader when Slocum is at his most self-pitying: “It is too late to gather me all up and put me together again.” And when he says, “There are things going on inside me I cannot control and do not admire,” is he a proto-Patrick Bateman, or just like you and me?

It hardly matters what the author himself thinks of his book, but it’s worth taking a moment to dispel the notion that Heller didn’t think Something Happened as good as Catch-22. The exchange usually relied upon is between an interviewer, who asks why Heller hasn’t written anything as good as Catch-22, and Heller, who responds, “Who has?” A quip is hardly an endorsement (and I’ve been unable to find the true source; some links suggest Heller asked the question of himself in order to answer it), but anyway we know better. Heller definitely did say, “I used to think Catch-22 was my best novel until I read Kurt [Vonnegut]’s review of Something Happened. Now I think Something Happened is.” Vonnegut’s review is a work of art in itself, so much a part of my later readings of the book that it should be published in all editions as an appendix. It’s also worth hearing what Heller himself thought about Slocum, from his Paris Review interview: “I told several people while I was writing the book that Slocum was possibly the most contemptible character in literature. Before I was finished, I began feeling sorry for him. […M]any of my friends to whom I showed the book found not only compassion for him but strong identification.”

(A word, too, about the cover design of this new edition, shown at the top. It’s terrible. It kills the purity of the title, reduces it to a punchline, to the fag-end of a feeble sentence which fails entirely to sum up the book. The title alone: that’s what sums up the book. It should be permitted to stand alone, as in the first edition cover above. In fact my favourite design for Something Happened is the one I read to begin with, the Corgi paperback with the exclamation mark. Its iconography is perfect.)

This is a long review of a long book. As someone who likes things to end, I might have reservations about a book which doesn’t end for a long time. And Slocum likes things to end too: “I have never felt only sadness at the death of a friend or relative … Always there has been simultaneously a marked undercurrent of relief, a release, a secret, unabashed sigh of ‘Well at least that’s over with now, isn’t it?'” As Something Happened gets to, and then past, the bit where something happens (page 562 of 569 in my edition), there is more than a marked undercurrent of relief. This is a maddening, magnificent book where the exhausting length is both inexcusable – page after page the same! – and unavoidable. It’s too long, too much – of course it is! A life like this? A page of this is too much; six hundred not enough.

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