Abandoning the multiple points of view of Catch-22, Heller in Something Happened experiments with a first person interior monologue. Related in the present tense, Bob Slocum's monologue, however, is less important for advancing the action than for conveying his memories of key events in the past, his dire presentiments of the future, and his confessions of anxieties and moral failings. The time shifts in the narration, which occur with greater frequency as the monologue unfolds, reflect Slocum's psychological breakdown. Heller has explained, "Something Happened is written from the point of view of someone so close to madness that he no longer has the ability to control what to think about." Perhaps the most interesting dimension of the narrator's monologue is that it shows his avoidance of painful realities. For example, whenever, he starts discussing Derek, he digresses, most often to sex reveries. As in Catch-22, repetition is significant, with Slocum's recollections of his adolescent gropings with Virginia being the major unifying device revealing the futility of his efforts to romanticize his past.
The narrative structure relates closely to Heller's treatment of point of view. The monologue is divided into nine sections, which follow an orderly sequence of psychologically introducing Slocum, then portraying his company and each member of his family, then depicting two climactic events in Slocum's life — his acceptance of...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Readers who delighted in Heller's verbal wit and exposure of bureaucratic absurdities in Catch-22 may be disappointed in Something Happened. Often animated debate results between those who find reading the over five hundred-page pessimistic novel an exercise in tedium and those who view the book as a penetratingly accurate capturing of the stultifying routines of middle-class life and a brilliant rendering of psychic disintegration. Discussion groups may also consider whether they find successful Heller's use of a first person monologue.
Discussion of this novel make take a personal turn as participants compare Heller's depiction to their own experiences and perceptions of the corporate world and family life, especially the changing dynamics between husband and wife, parents and children as time passes.
1. Some reviewers complained that in Something Happened, nothing happens. Is that complaint fair?
2. Does Bob Slocum seem a reliable or unreliable narrator? Does his paranoia affect our evaluation of the trustworthiness of his perceptions?
3. Do you think Heller suggests that the events in Slocum's life are, as Slocum himself contends, beyond his control or that Heller condemns Slocum for avoiding responsibility for his decisions and actions?
4. How has Virginia Markowitz affected Slocum's life? Of what significance is her name?
5. Why does Heller not give the name of the...
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Like Catch-22 (1961), Something Happened exposes the moral vacuity of American society. In this later novel, the targets of Heller's satire are two: the cutthroat corporate realm and the suburbanite middle-class family.
Through the eyes of his narrator/ protagonist Bob Slocum, Heller presents the hierarchical relationships and the social and sexual intrigues of the employees of an unidentified company — a company that Heller has suggested in conversation has affinities with Time, Incorporated, where he worked as an advertising copywriter from 1952 to 1956. In portraying the corporate world, the author uses stereotyped situations: the executive burnout in the upper ranks, the incompetent secretary whom everyone is afraid to fire, the office party flirtations and sexual misconduct at company conventions, and the requisite golf games. Fear and distrust flourish as department competes with department and individual vies against individual for promotion. In such a high pressured atmosphere, nervous breakdowns are the norm, and suicides are an anticipated health hazard, as proven when Slocum nonchalantly reports: "We average three suicides a year: two men, usually on the middle-executive level, kill themselves every twelve months, almost always by gunshot, and one girl, usually unmarried, separated, or divorced, who generally does the job with sleeping pills."
Home life provides no more satisfaction than the corporate realm. The typical...
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The major influence upon Something Happened is William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929). Stylistically, Heller has adopted from Faulkner the use of a first person monologue, which in its fragmented chronology reveals the constant impinging of the past upon the present. Thematically, the similarities between the two works are quite apparent. Both chart the disintegration of a family, satirize the commercial orientation of the modern world, and lament lost innocence. Most obvious is the parallel between Heller's Derek Slocum and Faulkner's Benjy Compson, and in fact, Heller actually refers to Benjy in the section entitled "It is not true." Also Bob Slocum — in his bitter diatribes about modern life and his mistreatment of his wife and daughter — resembles Jason Compson.
In his penetrating self-diagnosis, Slocum is reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Underground Man and T. S. Eliot's Prufrock. Heller has said in concentrating upon the processes of Bob Slocum's mind he was trying to achieve a similar technique to Samuel Beckett in his trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Died (1951), and The Unnamable (1953). He also has asserted that he was trying to create a sense of the horrifying in the familiar, "the same sense of imprisonment, of intimidation, of psychological paralysis and enslavement" as in Kafka's works, but without Kafkaesque symbolism.
When questioned about the influences from his reading upon...
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Something Happened is most closely related to Heller's fourth novel, God Knows (1984), in the use of a first-person monologue that through memory links the past to the present and its moving depiction of the love and pain involved in the father/son relationship.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Craig, David M. Tilting at Mortality: Narrative Strategies in Joseph Heller’s Fiction. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1997. Craig analyzes the form and structure of Heller’s novels and includes a discussion on Something Happened.
DelFattore, Joan. “The Dark Stranger in Heller’s Something Happened.” In Critical Essays on Joseph Heller, edited by James Nagel. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. DelFattore explores Heller’s treatment of the stranger in Something Happened.
Heller, Joseph. “An Interview with Joseph Heller.” Interview by Charlie Reilly. Contemporary Literature 39 (Winter, 1998): 507-508. Heller discusses several of his books including Something Happened. The interviewer also comments on the detached voice of the first-person narrator of the novel.
Keegan, Brenda M. Joseph Heller: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. A comprehensive bibliography of criticism on Heller and his works.
Mellard, James M. “Something Happened: The Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Discourse of the Family.” In Critical Essays on Joseph Heller, edited by James Nagel. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Mellard details the narrative structure, symbolism and applies psychoanalytic approaches to the novel....
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