Heller, Joseph (Vol. 8)
Heller, Joseph 1923–
An American novelist and playwright, Heller rocketed to literary prominence in 1961 with the publication of Catch-22. A hard-hitting indictment of war, free enterprise, and the American way of life, Catch-22 is a satirical farce, utilizing black humor in the vein of Waugh in Men at Arms and Mailer in The Naked and The Dead. Heller has also written a play, We Bombed in New Haven, and a second novel, Something Happened. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Heller's vision of the horrifying absurdity of service life in World War II is, as the constant references in [Catch-22] to its wider implications indicate, merely an illustration of the absurdity of the human condition itself. Catch-22 reflects a view of the world which is basically that of Jean-Paul Sartre and the early Albert Camus. The world has no meaning but is simply there; man is a creature who seeks meaning. The relationship between man and his world is therefore absurd; human action having no intrinsic value is ultimately futile; human beings have no innate characteristics. Reason and language, man's tools for discovering the meaning of his existence and describing his world, are useless. When a man discovers these facts about his condition he has an experience of the absurd, an experience which Sartre calls "nausea." But there are innumerable contemporary novels which are fundamentally Existentialist. What is interesting about Catch-22 is that the experimental techniques Heller employs have a direct relation to Existentialist ideas; they are an attempt to "dramatize" his view of the human condition rather than merely describe it. (pp. 75-6)
The question of authority is central to the novel. God certainly no longer runs the organization, though He lingers on in certain distorted images some characters still have of Him. (p. 76)
Duty is now owed to such vague abstractions as patriotism and free enterprise, which have become exactly the tyrannous absolute values that Camus talks of in L'Homme révolté. The old man in the brothel in Rome exposes patriotism as illogical: "Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for"…. Capitalism and free enterprise lead Milo to bomb his own unit and he excuses his action with the old slogan that what is good for money-making interests is good for the country. "Incentive" and "private industry" are "goods" and their evil results cannot change anyone's attitude towards them.
Such assertive values as patriotism, then, are merely words, words which have become divorced from meaning. Heller's awareness of the separation of word and idea, which Sartre talks of, is apparent in several places in the novel. General Peckem who "laid great, fastidious stress on small matters of taste and style" … has lost all sense of what words mean and writes his directives in a manner which combines impeccable grammar and trite adjectives. Language no longer communicates but serves to confuse things further. When Yossarian makes a game of censoring letters, declaring one day "death to all modifiers," the next declaring a "war on articles" and finally blacking out everything except "a", "an", and "the", he finds that it creates "more dramatic interlinear tensions … and in just about every case … a message far more universal"…. (pp. 76-7)
Catch-22 is, of course, Heller's illustration of the irrational nature of the world. Any attempt to argue logically and reasonably ends in a paradox; one reaches that point where thought reaches its confines, which Camus talks of….
Catch-22 is composed of rules which apparently operate to make it impossible for a man to find a reasonable escape from them. They do not exactly contradict each other, but are continually inadequate to the occasion and always disregard the individual human life. They are intended to impose order upon chaos, but life so exceeds these rules that they only serve in the end to create more chaos. One of the clearest examples of this is the firemen who leave the blaze they are attempting to control at the hospital in order to obey the rule that they must always be on the field when the planes land….
Since the rules do not work, anything may happen. There is no reasonable justice. (p. 77)
In a world where philosophical ideas, traditional morality and reason itself are apparently useless, all man has to hold on to is his own physical body. The value which Heller supports throughout the novel is that of human existence, the individual human life…. There is no talk of love or even of close friendship in the book; the pleasures of life are purely physical—food, liquor, sex—just as the only real horror is physical pain and ultimately death. "In an absurd universe," writes Frederick Karl, "the individual has the right to seek survival;… one's own substance is infinitely more precious than any cause" [see CLC, Vol. 1].
The view of the world in Catch-22, then, is the same view as that presented by Sartre and Camus, and the aware individual in this world comes to very much the same realizations about it as do Roquentin and Mathieu in Sartre's novels. He realizes that there is no ultimate reason for doing one thing rather than another…. (p. 78)
The aware individual realizes, too, that there is "no way of really knowing anything."… [We] learn that there are always two widely divergent official reports for every event that takes place.
When everything is questionable, it is a small step to questioning one's own identity…. Names, uniforms, marks of identification are all a man has in Heller's world to assure him of his own identity.
Yossarian and the chaplain, probably the two most aware characters in the novel, both have experiences of the absurd very similar to those of Roquentin in Sartre's La Nausée. The chaplain experiences "terrifying, sudden moments when objects, concepts and even people that the chaplain had lived with all his life inexplicably took on an unfamiliar and irregular aspect that he had never seen before and made them seem totally strange."… Yossarian's experiences also have the effect of alienating him from his environment, but are less concerned with the strangeness of objects than with their profusion and gratuitousness. (pp. 78-9)
Heller, like Sartre and Camus, is not however totally pessimistic. Valid action is possible for the individual; there is even the suggestion of a sane universe which Sweden may represent. The hope of Sweden is perhaps a false note in the novel, but it is important to remember that it is only a possibility, a state of mind rather than a real place. Although Orr has, at least reportedly, reached Sweden, ironically by pretending to be "crazy," Yossarian at the end of the novel does not really expect to get further than Rome.
In a discussion of the techniques which Heller has employed to convey his view of the world it would be easy to ignore the obvious. Catch-22 is a very funny book. It would be easy to ignore this because, in spite of the laughter it evokes, the overall impression is as much of horror as of humor. The laughter evoked is not of the kind that unites us warmly in sympathy with the human race as we enjoy its foibles, but rather that which serves to alienate us by exposing the bitter ironies of existence. Nevertheless I believe that humor is a way of understanding the techniques of the novel. Laughter, as Bergson suggests, is caused by incongruity, by a frustrating of our expectations of a certain result, and it is a failure to fulfill certain of the reader's expectations which is the link underlying the so-called absurd techniques of the novel. (p. 79)
[When] the reader is confronted with the juxtaposition in one sentence of references to several unrelated events about which he so far knows nothing, we cannot say that it is not like life. Actually it is; we often overhear conversations which are meaningless to us because we do not understand to whom or to what they refer. Yet we are surprised to find it in a novel. In this instance, obviously, it is our expectations about the nature of the novel, not about life, which are not being fulfilled. This is, I think, the key to defining the absurd techniques. In some way each of them plays against and frustrates the reader's expectations of a novel, the illusions, one could say, that he has about the nature of the novel….
It is obvious that the narrative technique of Catch-22 does not fulfill the expectation of the reader for a continuous line of action in which one episode is related to the next, at the very least chronologically, and in which events are life-size and probable. Situations which are initially familiar enough to the reader may be gradually exaggerated to the point of absurdity. (p. 80)
The futility of all human action is suggested by Heller in the number of times events or conversations are repeated so that the reader, like Yossarian, eventually has the feeling that he has "been through this exact conversation before."…
The narrative technique serves to confuse the reader about time and to destroy any certainty he may have about what has taken place, thus creating in him the same doubts about reality that Yossarian experiences and that Sartre and Camus speak of. Heller employs three basic methods of disrupting the expected chronological flow of the action. The first is a simple one. He often makes a statement about an event which has taken place and deliberately omits the clarification which the statement requires. Therefore many of the major events in the novel are referred to two or three times, sometimes in increasing detail, before the full account is given….
The second device creates confusion in the mind of the reader by presenting him with two apparently contradictory statements about the same event before providing a clarification. (p. 81)
The third method is an extension of the second: contradictory accounts are given of an event and no solution is provided. The reader is left uncertain of the truth and in some instances asked to believe the incredible….
As well as confusing the reader about the time or exact nature of the events in the novel, Heller also frequently shocks him by adopting attitudes to objects or situations opposite to the expected ones. By introducing these unexpected attitudes in a very casual way, he not only challenges the traditional value system but suggests through his tone that nothing unusual is being said, thus doubling the shock effect….
Heller's methods of characterization, like his narrative techniques and his use of tone, depend upon a frustration of the reader's expectations. (p. 82)
There are two possible ways … of failing to fulfill a reader's expectations about character in a novel: one is to change the character's identity, provide multiple personalities for the same name, or one name for various figures, and thus disturb the reader's whole conception of identity, as do John Barth and Samuel Beckett; the other is to provide caricatures, figures who are no more than puppets and in whom the reader is not expected to believe. Heller occasionally appears to experiment with the first method, as, for example, in the scene where Yossarian pretends to be a dying officer whose parents fail to recognize him, or where Yossarian and Dunbar discover they can change identities by changing hospital beds. But although in these scenes the characters experience doubts about their identities, the reader is always quite clear about the identity of the character and no real confusion is created.
Most of the characters in Catch-22 are, however, caricatures, cardboard figures who are distinguished for the reader by their particular obsessions. Each lives with an illusory view of the world which isolates him and makes the results of his actions very different from his expectations. Each is, in his way, the unaware individual who, as Camus illustrates in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, believes that he can operate in the world as he imagines it and that his actions will achieve their purpose. (p. 83)
Most of these characters are introduced to us in deceptively explanatory paragraphs which appear to sum up their personalities in a few adjectives, but which really provide the reader with irreconcilably opposite traits…. Gradually the characters become increasingly absurd as the personality traits of each are seen to be one, an obsession. It is believable that one of Milo's moral principles was that "it was never a sin to charge as much as the traffic could bear,"… but by the time his activities have taken over Europe and North Africa in one vast syndicate and he has bombed his own men, he has become little more than a personification of greed. Scheisskopf's enjoyment of parades may be initially credible but his childish delight in calling off parades that have never been scheduled is not. These characters may have names, parents, heredity, professions and faces, but we cannot very long sustain the illusion that they are "real" human beings.
The most important device a novelist has to suggest an irrational world is, of course, the treatment of reason itself. Reasoning, in Catch-22, invariably ends up in some variation of Catch-22; apparent logic is used to destroy sense. The reader is led into following an argument which progresses logically, but which arrives at an absurd conclusion. (pp. 83-4)
Sentence structure is used throughout Catch-22 to add to the reader's confusion about characters and events and contributes to the impression of an irrational world. The novel is full of complex sentences in which the individual clauses and phrases are not related to each other or are related at a tangent…. (p. 84)
Frederick Karl describes Yossarian as "the man who acts in good faith to use Sartre's often-repeated phrase," and claims that all Yossarian "can hope to know is that he is superior to any universal force (man-made or otherwise), and all he can hope to recognize is that the universal or collective force can never comprehend the individual." He goes on to call Yossarian's final decision "a moral act of responsibility," "reflective, conscious and indeed free," while the other characters are not free, he considers, because they are unaware. This is all true; it is obvious that Yossarian is a man of whom Sartre would approve, but it does not go far enough. Certainly awareness is a prerequisite to the right action as Heller sees it. It is proved useless to be simply good like the chaplain or merely innocent like Nately, unable to detach himself from his father's values. And certainly Yossarian acts in freedom, but in the name of what? I do not think that it is only in the name of his own individual life, although this is his starting point. What most critics have overlooked is that Yossarian changes, is the one character who learns from his experience in the novel.
At the beginning of Catch-22 Yossarian attempts to exercise his reason to escape from the situation he is in. "Everywhere he looked was a nut, and it was all a sensible young gentleman like himself could do to maintain his perspective against so much madness."… He soon learns, however, that everyone considers everyone else "a nut" and that when he attempts to argue logically against flying more missions he comes up against Catch-22. He realizes that to use reason in the face of the irrational is futile and that the way out of Catch-22 is simply to rebel, in Camus' sense, to take a stand, to say "no." He refuses to fly any more missions. This is, of course, the way the problems of Catch-22 have been solved earlier in the novel: the young officers solve the problem of the "dead man" in Yossarian's tent simply by throwing out his possessions; Major de Coverley solves the "great loyalty oath" Catch, which is preventing the men from getting their meals, simply by saying "'Give everybody eat'."…
Until the final episode in the book, Yossarian is the great supporter of individual right…. "That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance and Yossarian was willing to be a victim of anything but circumstance."… Yossarian indeed realizes, as Karl suggests, "that one must not be asked to give his life unless everybody is willing to give his," but by the end of the novel he has come to realize the logical extension of this concept, that, if what is true for one must be applied to all, then one cannot attempt to save one's own life at the expense of others. One cannot give tacit acceptance to other people's deaths, without giving everyone the same right over oneself. (pp. 85-6)
Yossarian is given the chance to save his own life if he lies about Colonels Cathcart and Korn to their superior officers. He will, in accepting the offer, probably act as an incentive to his fellow officers to fly more missions in which many of them may be killed. He is given a chance, in Camus' terms, to join forces with the pestilences. After accepting the offer he is stabbed by Nately's whore and realizes perhaps that by joining those who are willing to kill, he has given everyone the right to kill him. If one rebels, one must rebel in the name of a value which transcends oneself, human life is the value for which Yossarian rebels and runs off to Rome, but it is not merely his own individual existence. (p. 86)
If we look back at the novel in the light of what Yossarian's decision reveals, we can see that Heller has presented us with a series of character studies of selfish men and has shown how their actions for their own gain have involved death for others. They are all like Major Major's father, "a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism."… Milo, another "rugged individualist," bombs his own men; Colonel Cathcart, aiming at impressing the Generals to obtain promotion, keeps raising the number of missions his men must fly. To claim as Karl does, that these characters "are not really evil in any sinister way" but just "men on the make" is inaccurate. The "man on the make" is evil to Heller, since he gains at the expense of others and asks them to do what he is not willing to do himself.
The last ten pages or so of the novel may be sentimentally handled, as critics have suggested, but they present the key to a full understanding of what Heller is saying. In an irrational and gratuitous world the aware individual has to rebel, but his rebellion must be a free act and in the name of a value which can be applied to all men and does not limit their freedom.
The style of Catch-22, like the narrative technique, the tone and the methods of characterization, serves to frustrate the reader's expectations…. The reader expects to be drawn into the world of a novel, then, but Catch-22, while initially providing him with familiar human situations, ends by rejecting him. The novel itself becomes an object which provides the reader with the experience of the absurd, just as the trees provide it for Roquentin in Sartre's La Nausée. After attempting to relate his preconceptions about novels, his "illusions" about the form, to this novel, the reader is finally stripped of them. Catch-22 simultaneously shows man's illusory view of the world, employs techniques to suggest the irrational nature of the world and is itself an object against which the truth of its statements may be tested. (pp. 86-7)
"Jean E. Kennard, "Joseph Heller: At War with Absurdity," in MOSAIC IV/3 (copyright © 1971 by the University of Manitoba Press), Spring, 1971, pp. 75-87.
"Something Happened" … is, I'm extremely sorry to say, a painful mistake. I've read that Mr. Heller spent twelve years on this very large novel; perhaps that is one of its problems. For "Something Happened" resembles nothing so much as a fifties story of anxiety and despond among the corporate worker bees in the honeycombs of New York and the flowery fields of Fairfield County.
"Something Happened" is a novel of anomie, of the imminent disintegration of the social and moral order, and Mr. Heller puts his considerable talents (this is a well-written novel) at the service of his point. So much so, in fact, that he indulges in overkill. When we have seen Bob Slocum [the narrator] suffer a failure of nerve (or a failure of common humanity) in a dozen different situations, we do not need to see him fail a dozen times more; when we have heard a score of hateful, baiting conversations among the Slocums en famille, we do not need to hear a further score. Yet the book plods ponderously on for nearly six hundred pages, building a Watergate-size mountain of evidence against this society (or is it that society—the America of the late fifties, in which this novel must surely have its roots?) before a new note of menace is sounded: gradually (and skillfully, in terms of technique), Slocum's dogged, despairing monodies become more ravelled and disjunctive, and long before he suspects himself of going mad we see that that is what's happening. Now, at last, the long, slow buildup of the earlier pages seems to promise a dividend. Once the stage has been so painstakingly set, we think, we are to witness the self-destruction of an incipient madman as it happens from inside—from his internal point of view. But no: in an inexplicable flinging away of all he has built, Heller permits an unconvincing cataclysm—the death of one of Slocum's children by his own inadvertent hand—to arrest Slocum's fall and, amid double incredibility, to restore him to purpose and respectability, if not to real manhood.
One of the reasons this books is (or was for me, at least) so difficult to read is that its characters—Slocum in particular—do not command respect or empathy. And this in turn is because they are too often archetypes or paradigms and not real people. It is discouraging to learn that Slocum's friends, enemies, and overlords in his anonymous company possess such deliberately anonymous names as Green, White, Brown, and Black; it is destructive of the humanity of the novel and of its ultimate purpose when we discover that there are never first names for his wife, daughter, and young son. (Perversely, his other son, the idiot, is referred to by his first name. This is but one example of the playing with paradox that allowed "Catch-22" to work but is utterly out of place—and false—in this utterly different novel.) The flatness, the blankness, the non-humanity of these characters makes the book tractarian, and it is a tract for other times. Too much has happened since 1960 for Bob Slocum's trials and miseries to seem quite apposite today. (p. 193)
L. E. Sissman, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 25, 1974.
Although Catch-22 is a war novel, the death in it is not just a result of war; the logic of death that Heller establishes early in the novel makes his ending false…. (p. 14)
[Ultimately] Heller suggests that the absurdity of dying in war is only in degree greater than the absurdity of dying anytime, anywhere…. Heller shares with the other Black Humorists, then, an interest in death as an element of existence, both as it affects the living and is a result of stupid policy decisions by a self-serving bureaucracy. For Heller, as for Donleavy and others, death is an absolute end … which forces men into closed survival systems or desperate flight. That Heller felt the need to lessen the burden of survival in the ending of Catch-22 illustrates … that affirmation for the writer who knows and presents death's potency is desired but difficult to achieve.
In his more recent Something Happened, Heller treats paranoia and survival anxieties within a peacetime context…. A profound study of domestic life and the ramifications of death anxiety in our time, Something Happened extends the primal (and social) insights of Catch-22. (pp. 16-17)
Thomas LeClair, in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © James Dean Young 1975), Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1975.
Mr. Heller seems to me to accede, in [Something Happened] at least, to the view that American society is incapable of direction or restraint. Taking up such a position has not only affected the content but the form of his novel. His main character, Bob Slocum, is not in control of his environment and realising this, is unable to act positively. Not only American society, but Bob Slocum himself, avoids Mr. Heller's control, leaving us with an overlong and shapeless novel…. The tones of anxiety and despondency so dominate his novel (more so than his black humour) that he cannot direct, even within the novel, what makes him so despondent. (p. 68)
Bob Slocum … is the only consciousness in Mr. Heller's book and he always sounds as if he were speaking to an audience…. I find not only the content of Slocum's talk but his mannerisms (ha, ha) annoying, particularly bearing in mind that he goes on in this way, without change of pace, for 569 pages. The reader has to rely solely on Slocum who is completely self-indulgent; there are no other lenses and this leaves not only the reader but Joseph Heller in Slocum's hands. Does Heller intend to annoy the reader or does he himself think the mannerisms genuinely funny or fruitful?
For me, the most interesting sections of the novel are 'My daughter's unhappy' and 'My little boy is having difficulties.' Despite their faults they are remarkable for their portrayal of intense, irrational (at least as much so on the part of parent as child), and extraordinarily wounding conflict. One cannot but recognise that many of the pressures on Slocum are generated by the nuclear family itself and by the establishments in which the family is trained; thus children reflect one's own worth; and competiveness, rather than co-operation, is valued. Although Slocum's son, for instance, is a fast runner, he is unable to win races. His sympathy for slower children makes him slow down in order to allow them to catch up. Such behaviour angers both his peers and his teachers. His father, unlike the others, can understand his son's behaviour and is sneakily proud of it though he would prefer the boy (for his sake as well as his son's) to act conventionally. It does not occur to him to help the boy weigh up alternatives nor does he support the boy's unaggressive stance. Indeed, he adds to the pressures the boy feels. Mr. Heller presents such concrete episodes memorably, indeed brilliantly, but he cannot stop Bob Slocum who keeps referring to the same incidents, remembering others, and piling detail upon detail without a concomitant extension of range or purpose. I was left with mixed feelings about something happened. I do not think it is a novel which will survive (if one wants to talk about survival). Mr. Heller's unwillingness or inability to distinguish between his own aims and values and those of Bob Slocum, the wordiness which he seems as incapable as his character of staunching or shaping, has too seriously injured his book. Yet it is, at the same time, an extraordinarily interesting novel both because of the problems explored and the problems exhibited in the execution. (pp. 68-9)
Elaine Glover, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 16, No. 3 (1975).
Something Happened is an apparently problematic work. Most of the seeming difficulties, however, can be attributed to three basic features of the novel: the extremely limited mode of narration, the unheroic nature of the protagonist, and the ostensibly pessimistic quality of the novel's message. (p. 74)
The entire book is narrated by the protagonist, Bob Slocum, a middle-management executive…. Consequently, Heller is not at liberty to indulge his own considerable powers of verbal agility and satirical humor that were so evident in Catch-22. Something Happened has none of the linguistic inventiveness or antic authorial satire that so distinguished the earlier novel. Slocum, a businessman rather than a man of letters, is by necessity a limited narrator. Although articulate and aware of the fundamentals of grammatical expression (which he sometimes touches on in his numerous parenthetical asides), he is not a writer. His mode of speech—and the book has the feel of being spoken, rather than written—is flat, ordinary, and unexciting, and is an accurate reflection of his personality. (pp. 74-5)
Additionally, Slocum is completely unheroic, a conventional man. Worse, he is not even a good man…. Slocum's failure as "hero" becomes clearer when he is contrasted with Yossarian, the waggish protagonist of Catch-22. Yossarian is concerned not simply with surviving but with preserving his honor in what he perceives to be a dishonorable world. To Slocum, however, survival is everything. He is an integral part of the unacceptable situation in which he finds himself—the ruthless, cutthroat, immoral realm of big business. Further, Yossarian is the embodiment of that time-honored American literary conception, the individual…. Not so with Slocum, who conforms rigidly, punctiliously, to the system that he despises.
Accordingly, Yossarian is an outsider, as even his Assyrian cognomen implies, while Slocum's name is indicative of his WASP origins, which render him more acceptable in an environment that is distrustful of ethnic minorities. (pp. 75-6)
Perhaps the essential difference between these two protagonists can be best explained as the conflict between innocence and experience. Yossarian, although no naif, maintains a high-minded sense of individual responsibility to self, while Slocum—older, lacking in illusions, and basically corrupted—has long since relinquished any such idealistic notions….
If a principal theme of Something Happened is the bankruptcy of the contemporary middle-class American experience, it finds its most effective expression in Slocum's preoccupation with lost innocence and integrity. Although Slocum's ideas on sex are badly askew, he is nevertheless capable of entirely appropriate responses in many other areas. If he sometimes waxes inordinately maudlin over relatively inconsequential matters, he addresses himself just as often to topics of legitimate concern, and his three children serve to dramatize his being upset with certain distressing realities, especially lost innocence.
His older son, for example, functions as a living metaphor for the idea that artless virtue is doomed in a hostile, antagonistic world. (p. 77)
Slocum's daughter, a sullen, contentious teenager, seems to have lost her innocence practically at birth and serves almost as an updated version of the Greek chorus, as she constantly goads her parents while delighting in their unceasing domestic strife…. In view of the novel's underlying concerns, that the daughter survives while the son does not is hardly surprising.
Slocum's other son, hopelessly brain-damaged, further exemplifies the notion that innocence has no fully realizable potential in a corrupted world. Like Faulkner's Benjy, he personifies the idea that total innocence is conceivable only in harshly qualified terms. (pp. 78-9)
This, then, is the raw material of Something Happened: an unexciting narrative style, a flawed protagonist, and a decidedly depressing set of "givens." How, one might reasonably ask, does Heller finally manage to surmount these potentially overwhelming obstacles and engage and hold the reader's attention? Does he so succeed?…
Heller is certainly not breaking fictive ground in his choice of a pusillanimous protagonist; numerous instances of this sort of main character come to mind, Dostoevski's Raskolnikov and Stendhal's Julien Sorel being just two. Moreover, strictly moral considerations aside, Slocum evinces a number of minor personality quirks and personal habits that we can all relate to, bits of ourselves that we recognize and draw us to the character in spite of (because of?) his very fallibility and unattractiveness. (p. 79)
The resulting sense of identification that the reader experiences is related to one other aspect of the novel which lends it additional impact: Heller's skill at playing upon the reader's indulgence of morbid curiosity…. The novel capitalizes upon the unwilling but very human fascination for the painful and grotesque…. Something Happened is to an alarming degree an accurate social documentary that mercilessly captures some very real elements of the contemporary American situation.
Preoccupied with the irremediable emptiness of a certain segment of modern life, the novel offers none of the stated affirmations that we sometimes get from, say, Bellow or Malamud and none of the comic relief that characterizes Vonnegut's books or Catch-22. The novel, however, conveys an implied affirmation; it is a relevant, affirmative, ultimately moral book—clearly an indictment and a recommendation for something better. (pp. 79-80)
Something Happened is … in one important respect a better book than its predecessor. Catch-22 depends for its effects upon boisterous exaggeration that does not always convince, and the novel too often verges on self-parody. Something Happened is actually far more sophisticated in its method. Heller has turned from hyperbole to implication; in opting for a less strident, less obvious statement, he has produced a more mature work. (p. 81)
George J. Searles, "'Something Happened': A New Direction for Joseph Heller," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1977), Vol. XVIII, No. 3, 1977, pp. 74-81.