Heller, Joseph 1923–
Heller, an American novelist and playwright, won immediate recognition with his first novel, Catch-22, a "lethal blend of farce and fantasy, sick humour and icy casualness." Heller's long-awaited second novel, Something Happened, is a depressing and profoundly affecting statement about the condition of modern mankind. With the publication of this second work, Heller is recognized as a major contemporary novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[The] alternating play of humor and horror [in Catch-22] creates a dramatic tension throughout that allows the book to be labeled as a classic both of humor and of war. It is not "a comic war novel" despite the fact that comedy and war are held more or less in solution, for the war is not comic but horrible—this we are not allowed to forget. The laughter repeatedly breaks through the tight net of frustration in which the characters struggle only to sink back as the net repairs itself and holds the reader prisoned in its outrageous bonds. (p. 190)
[The] artistic strategy relating to the thesis of the novel,…, put simply, is this: War is irrational; and the representative things that happen in war are likewise irrational, including man's behavior in war. This thesis is an underlying assumption, a donnée, illustrated not documentarily but imaginatively throughout the book. It is, in terms of the book, unarguable—you take it or leave it—for the author has seen to it that all the evidence favors his thesis. What he asks, and it is everything, is that his readers accept the credibility of his characters and their actions, if not at face value, then as wild, ingratiating exaggeration that nevertheless carries the indestructible truth that war is irrational. (p. 191)
The responsive reader of Catch-22 is … made to walk a tight-rope as he leans first to riotous humor and then tips to the side of black tragedy. There is much in the book that illustrates Charlie Chaplin's dictum that humor is "playful pain."…
The humor in Catch-22, we are forced to conclude, is only secondary. Where Heller comes through in unalleviated horror is where the message lies. The book's humor does not alleviate the horror; it heightens it by contrast.
It is not therefore the disinterestedness of pure humor that we find in Catch-22. It does not accept the pain of life with wry resignation. Instead it flaunts in bitterness the desperate flag of resistance to the wrongs of this life—wrongs suffered, not by the wholly innocent, but by the insufficiently guilty. And the wrongs are perpetrated not only by unscrupulous, ignorant, and power-hungry men, but also by the inscrutable Deity. (p. 197)
Louis Hasley, "Dramatic Tension in 'Catch-22'," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1974, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Winter, 1974, pp. 190-97.
[In] Joseph Heller's very fine, wrenchingly depressing new novel (his second), Something Happened … Bob Slocum is the narrator. The book is his story—his ruminations, memories, gags, guilts, self-analysis, fears-at-the-abyss ("I've got anxiety; I suppress hysteria")—a parable for our times (Heller's clear intention), a contemporary Job (here robbed even of Jewishness), a sort of Pilgrim's Stagnation…. (Personally, Catch-22 and I never really got on. It seemed to me a succession of terrific and then not-so-terrific punch lines, and when it meandered, so did my attention.) But Something Happened is very different. It gnaws at one, slowly and almost nuzzlingly at first, mercilessly toward the end. It hurts. It gives the willies. (p. 78)
Something Happened is composed with complete deliberation, of a series of conditions...
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of survival (some call it living) that are being constantly recapitulated and subject to all the various tones and moods at Slocum's articulate command (anger, self-mockery, stoic frankness, confession), and that loop back on each other in ever-tightening coils. The central theme is fear—fear in every aspect of his life, at work, at home, out on the town. Fear is seen as the necessary webbing of the social order. Sometimes fear is almost a thrill to Slocum. At work, he wants and expects small but appropriate displays of fear from those who work under him (as he provides same to those above); absent such displays, he feels threatened and confused. The safety valve is mockery: for example, Slocum doodles company organization charts showing lines, not of responsibility, but of "envy, hope, fear, ambition, frustration, rivalry, hatred, or disappointment."
What's wrong with Slocum is that he has become sharply aware of fear as a set condition of his every movement, of his every human relationship. It provides him with some very sharp insights…. It also leads to many jokes, on which he hones his guilt. Slocum is in extreme pain. He mocks it in order not to succumb to it entirely; otherwise, he might simply scream, like one of Bacon's popes.
The story—there are plots and subplots—is an accounting and a self-analysis, and it is truthful. But as a process of therapy, it does not and cannot work for Slocum—nor can it work in Heller's view, for any of us. Slocum's agony is not from "something" that "happened" to him that can be exposed and thereby defused, but instead seeps up through the accretion of everything that happened to him, everything that he is, all the circumscribing circumstances of his life—including his articulation of self-consciousness, all the yearnings, guilts, and clever japes. Slocum's agony is thus not a sickness that can be healed, but an appropriate response to his reality, to the way life now is. Something Happened is like a dirge, a chant. It is Heller's diagnosis of the modern human spirit, which, he says, is living in hell, has got the willies, is near to death. (pp. 78-9)
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Heller's Hell," in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Eliot Fremont-Smith), September 30, 1974, pp. 78-9.
Like Ralph Ellison in these if in no other respects, Joseph Heller is notable for being a slow worker as well as for being one of the few American novelists able to sustain a reputation on the basis of a single book. With hindsight, it is possible to see that Catch-22 (1961), Heller's first and only other novel, was a well-aimed bomb. To cite works only in its own direct line, the novel has clearly been the intellectual sire of the film "Dr. Strangelove" and, more recently, of the movie and now television series, "M.A.S.H." It brought comedy to the essentially grim subject of war, and thereby demonstrated its utter absurdity. Before the appearance of Catch-22, anti-heroism in American fiction was well on its way to being established; it took things a step further, however, and can be read as a mass over the death of heroism itself. It held that, in the mad, impersonal killing of modern warfare, heroism was a joke, and only seeing after one's own survival made sense: in an insane world, only the man who pretended to insanity can be judged sane. Beginning as a cult novel, Catch-22 spread in popularity to the point where, along with Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd and the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, it has to be accounted one of the key books to understanding the fashionable nihilism of the past decade.
There was a catch in Catch-22, as the novel's more perceptive critics pointed out. The catch is that Heller, till nearly the end of his novel, does not mention the Nazis, and thus nowhere suggests that, absurd though modern warfare most truly is, there really was no alternative, except the unthinkable one of knuckling under to Hitler's Third Reich. Evil is the missing component in Catch-22, and if one is to go all the way with one's nihilism, as Heller was not in this novel, then one must proclaim World War II to have been an outright fraud, which Heller was not prepared to do. Still, it took a certain courage for Heller to use World War II as the background for Catch-22—Korea was then available, and of course today Vietnam would be an absolute patsy for demonstrating his argument. On the other hand, it may come down to no more than the fact that Heller's own experience was of World War II, and he is not a writer who works well outside the boundaries of his own experience.
Despite the flaw running up the center of Catch-22, the novel had a winning exuberance and a wealth of comic invention. Between its energy and its comedy, Heller was able for the better part of 400 pages to sustain interest in the grotesquely mad world he set before his readers. More than with most novelists, the universe of Heller's novels is a self-enclosed one. Accept his assumptions and his conclusions inevitably, sometimes hilariously, follow. The assumptions of Catch-22 are that courage, bravery, liberty, love of country, and other human virtues are all a joke, a hideous cover-up for the urge toward self-advancement, the will to power, and simple craziness. Interestingly, in its assumption Catch-22 is a precursor to much of the fiction that arose out of the past decade, but with an even deeper skepticism about conventional explanations of human character and how the world works. In the fiction of Donald Barthelme, Leonard Michaels, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Coover, among others, this skepticism slices to the bone: character counts for nothing; plot is a laugh, since cause can no longer be held to explain effect; and language itself is no more than the stick of a blind man, a thing which we use to grope our way around in the dark but which really lights up nothing. A curious symbiosis is at work here; as Heller's first novel, directly or indirectly, fed the fiction of these younger writers of the generation following his own, so Heller's second novel [Something Happened] seems to feed off their work….
Something has happened, all right, but it is in the nature of the kind of novel Heller has written that we never learn what, specifically, it is. The quality of life is less good than it once seemed, relationships between husbands and wives and parents and children are impossible, the country is going to hell in a handwagon. "The world just doesn't work. It's an idea whose time has gone." All these points are duly, even repetitiously and dully, noted, but what exactly has happened to bring about the malaise that constitutes the only emotional climate of Something Happened is never pinpointed beyond this.
As a novelist, in Catch-22 as in Something Happened, Joseph Heller's method is never to explain but to let description suffice. "Description," wrote Wallace Stevens, "is revelation." Instead of an analysis of the malaise, then, we get a description of it. In the nearly 600-page monologue provided by Bob Slocum, there is no attempt to understand what is going on, but only to describe what it feels like to live under the malaise. Much as if he were talking to a tireless and well-paid psychoanalyst, Slocum rambles on confessionally, formlessly, repetitiously. Anxieties elide into fantasies, fantasies into terrors, terrors into nostalgia. It is almost as if we, the novel's readers, are in the psychoanalyst's chair, notebook on lap, a decanter of hot coffee on the desk, patiently awaiting the completion of the analysand's tale, so that we might then return to the quiet of our study, reassemble the data, and offer an answer to what exactly has happened. (p. 1)
Something Happened has none of the joyous energy of Catch-22, nor much of its comic invention. It is a novel of bleak landscapes and shadowy characters. It begins in anxiety and ends in despair. Nothing happens in Something Happened.
This is by deliberation. The nature of Slocum's work remains unknown. Most characters are not described, except for their deformities: a limp on one, a bit of spittle on the corner of the mouth on another, the overweight of a third. Like so much fiction of its kind, physical description is kept arid and abstract; concretion, interestingly enough, is lavished only on sex. Slocum's wife's buttocks, breasts, and other parts are described in detail; nothing is said about her face. Perhaps this is not surprising; perhaps it comes down to no more than a technical problem. If a novelist has no interest in plot, if he has no interest as well in character, if he cannot believe in the first and is bored by the second, then drama, the twists of plot out of which character is formed or revealed in fiction, is denied him also. This, if one wishes to write at novel length, leaves sex….
Pornography is a dead end in literature; it is better portrayed, if we must have it, in the movies. But given the loss of credence in character and in plot that is part of Heller's novelistic equipment, pornography is all that is left him, or any other writer who works under what is called the post-Modernist sensibility. Under this sensibility, despair is assumed, defeat is assumed, hopelessness is assumed. (Oddly, an ample audience for all this bad news is also assumed.) What results is, in effect, Kafka with screwing—which, as anyone who has looked into Kafka knows, isn't Kafka at all. It is merely writing about screwing under the guise of higher purposes.
If Something Happened turns out to be of slight interest in itself, it is of wider interest in demonstrating that fiction written under the assumptions of the post-Modernist sensibility cannot sustain itself over the length of a large novel. A Donald Barthelme can float a story or sketch under these same assumptions for eight or ten pages on sheer brilliance. But at greater length, things tend to flatten out—the literature of exhaustion itself in the end proves exhausting to read. In Joseph Heller's case there is an irony here that an ironist such as himself might perhaps appreciate. Thirteen years in transit, when the milk train of his second novel finally arrived at its destination the cargo had gone sour. (p. 2)
Joseph Epstein, "Joseph Heller's Milk Train: Nothing More to Express," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 6, 1974, pp. 1-2.
Mr. Heller might have …, at least somewhere in ["Something Happened"], used conventional, Chekhovian techniques for making us love a sometimes wicked man. He might have said that Slocum was drunk or tired after a bad day at the office when he spoke so heartlessly or that he whispered his heartlessness only to himself or to a stranger he would never see again. But Slocum is invariably sober and deliberate during his monologue, does not seem to give a damn who hears what he says. Judging from his selection of unromantic episodes and attitudes, it is his wish that we dislike him.
And we gratify that wish.
Is this book any good? Yes. It is splendidly put together and hypnotic to read. It is as clear and hard-edged as a cut diamond. Mr. Heller's concentration and patience are so evident on every page that one can only say that "Something Happened" is at all points precisely what he hoped it would be. (pp. 1-2)
"Something Happened" is so astonishingly pessimistic … that it can be called a daring experiment. Depictions of utter hopelessness in literature have been acceptable up to now only in small doses, in short-story form, as in Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," or John D. MacDonald's "The Hangover," to name a treasured few. As far as I know, though, Joseph Heller is the first major American writer to deal with unrelieved misery at novel length. Even more rashly, he leaves his major character, Slocum, essentially unchanged at the end….
The uneasiness which many people will feel about liking "Something Happened" has roots which are deep. It is no casual thing to swallow a book by Joseph Heller, for he is, whether he intends to be or not, a maker of myths. (One way to do this, surely, is to be the final and most brilliant teller of an oft-told tale.) "Catch-22" is now the dominant myth about Americans in the war against fascism. "Something Happened," if swallowed, could become the dominant myth about the middle-class veterans who came home from that war to become heads of nuclear families. The proposed myth has it that those families were pathetically vulnerable and suffocating. It says that the heads of them commonly took jobs which were vaguely dishonorable or at least stultifying, in order to make as much money as they could for their little families, and they used that money in futile attempts to buy safety and happiness. The proposed myth says that they lost their dignity and their will to live in the process.
It says they are hideously tired now.
To accept a new myth about ourselves is to simplify our memories—and to place our stamp of approval on what might become an epitaph for our era in the shorthand of history. This, in my opinion, is why critics often condemn our most significant books and poems and plays when they first appear, while praising feebler creations. The birth of a new myth fills them with primitive dread, for myths are so effective.
Well—I have now suppressed my own dread. I have thought dispassionately about "Something Happened," and I am now content to have it shown to future generations as a spooky sort of summary of what my generation of nebulously clever white people experienced, and what we, within the cage of those experiences, then did with our lives.
And I am counting on a backlash. I expect younger readers to love Robert Slocum—on the grounds that he couldn't possibly be as morally repellent and socially useless as he claims to be.
People a lot younger than I am may even be able to laugh at Slocum in an affectionate way, something I am unable to do. They may even see comedy in his tragic and foolish belief that he is totally responsible for the happiness or unhappiness of the members of his tiny family.
They may even see some nobility in him, as an old soldier who has been brought to emotional ruin at last by the aging process and civilian life….
We keep reading this overly long book, even though there is no rise and fall in passion and language, because it is structured as a suspense novel. The puzzle which seduces us is this one: Which of several possible tragedies will result from so much unhappiness? The author picks a good one.
I say that this is the most memorable, and therefore the most permanent variation on a familiar theme, in that it says baldly what the other variations only implied, what the other variations tried with desperate sentimentality not to imply: That many lives, judged by the standards of the people who live them, are simply not worth living. (p. 2)
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 6, 1974.
Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" was only ostensibly a novel about combat during World War II. Yossarian's war was a dodging, twisting exercise in survival within a surreal bureaucracy, and he might well have flown the banner of Walt Kelly's Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us." "Catch-22," reread, is as wonderful as I thought a dozen years ago, Dickensian in energy, inventiveness and exuberance. I went back to it because I was having a hard time with Heller's second novel, in which he has come home to a Manhattan office and a Connecticut suburb…. The new book is as morose, slow and thoughtless as the first was morose, fast and buoyant. Heller has not written "Son of Catch-22"; if he had, we would all jump on him. But "Something Happened" will take time to digest. I don't like it as much as I'd hoped to. (p. 116)
Heller has staged a kind of Dance of Death of the Quotidian. Those who are aggrieved that the best American novelists have often seemed to work outside ordinary life will find that Heller, confining himself to the family and the job, has written an epic of the everyday. "Something Happened" has a Tolstoyan normality, an open-hearted appetite for the ordinary, a willingness to explore inadmissible feelings—early-morning aversion to one's wife, hatred of one's children, fears of homosexuality, the sudden desire to strike out at those who arouse uncomfortable feelings of pity, the craven indifference to worthy causes ("Soon there'll be no more whales. My wife and I will just have to make do without them").
There is so much to admire in this long, funny, very affecting—and sometimes monotonous—book that I wish I could wholeheartedly believe in its final pages…. The event is as horrible as Snowden's death in "Catch-22" and as lengthily foreshadowed. I don't think it can be read without tears. But it leaves an aftertaste of contrivance.
I hardly have to tell you to read Joseph Heller's novel. He is a writer who arouses affection, and "Something Happened" has been awaited with the eagerness with which we once looked forward to a new work from J. D. Salinger. My own bemusement may be a result of exaggerated hopes. (p. 118)
Walter Clemons, "Comedy of Fear," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 14, 1974, pp. 116, 118.
What can a writer do for an encore who has already been compared—by a critic as restrained as Robert Brustein—to the Marx Brothers, Kingsley Amis, S. J. Perelman and Al Capp? For 13 years, ever since Catch-22 became an unparalleled publishing phenomenon and a cult book all over the world, that has been Joseph Heller's problem….
To announce that Something Happened is a terrific letdown is only to make the obvious comment on publicized great expectations. But how exactly does it fail? To try to answer that question is to get into certain kinds of bankruptcy that have to do not only with American lives but also with the novels that struggle to record them.
Something Happened, for instance, cannot really be read apart from Catch-22. It represents the second installment, so to speak, of Heller's War and Peace. Over ten years ago Heller explained: "The hero is the antithesis of Yossarian—20 years later." Of his Syrian-American bombardier in Catch-22 he had written: "It was a vile and muddy war, and Yossarian could have lived without it—lived forever, perhaps." Of his WASP business executive, Bob Slocum, in Something Happened, Heller might have written: It was a vile and muddy peace, and Slocum was dying of it—dying in slow motion.
With 100 little winks, grimaces and ha-has, Slocum describes (and mercilessly redescribes) himself and his life in a flat pattern of total recall….
"Something did happen to me somewhere that robbed me of confidence and courage," Slocum concludes from the depths of his boredom and anxiety. Endlessly he rummages through his childhood sexual initiations for clues. But it is not what has happened, but what has not happened to Slocum that constitutes his main problem—and Heller's. Can anything be more difficult than constructing a novel about a weightless figure with no pull of gravity morally or emotionally—a cipher whose brief sensation is of "standing still"? For brief, affecting moments Slocum feels love for his bright, affectionate nine-year-old son. But Heller clumsily resolves the relationship by making Slocum responsible for the boy's death. Improbably, he smothers him with a hug. Rather than being shocked, or moved, the reader is embarrassed by this climax, so abrupt, so calculated, in its symbolism. The son's death simply seems scripted in desperation to wrench the novel out of its passive mood, to interrupt at any cost the compulsive drone of self-pity—to break at last Slocum's death grip not only on his son, but also on the reader and on Heller himself.
"There are really so few things that can happen to people in this lifetime of ours, so few alternatives, so little any of us can become." Does Slocum's confession of impotence speak, too, for Heller's predicament as a writer with a dead-end novel on his hands?
A little naively, perhaps, readers still look to novels to provide models, or at least styles, for their own lives. From Catch-22 they received the antic message: In a mad world, the sane man runs for his life. What does Something Happened have to say? A tired retread of the anti-hero—a dated update of The Organization Man as crossed with Kafka—Slocum kicks his doubtless hand-cut English shoes against his casket and pronounces the epitaph on himself and his novel: "I wish I knew what to wish." (p. 87)
Melvin Maddocks, "Boring from Within," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 14, 1974, pp. 87-8.
The way [Something Happened] is told really is the plot and the circumstance, is itself recognition and reversal, as our doctrine these days says it ought to be. The manner of revelation is itself what is revealed. And therein may have lurked, for Heller, a key miscalculation—but I will come back to that.
It would be easy to dismiss Something Happened, and probably wrong. For as he did so unforgettably in Catch-22, Joseph Heller pushes at us here a deadly moral and we may well find ourselves impaled on it. This is not just another punishment of the same old organization man. No, Slocum's scummy, slimy nature is calculated to trap us in his horror as surely as Yossarian's adorable boyish farce did in his horror. Something Happened does not have anything like the marvelous clowning, the poignant camaraderie, the wild caricature, the pure acetylene contempt of Catch-22. (p. 24)
Surely nobody expected Heller even to try things like that again. Nor can we expect that Something Happened is likely to enjoy the fate of Catch-22, progressing from random cheers and groans to cult observances and then, through the years of a hideous American history it seemed to predict, to its place as a "contemporary classic" by mass acclaim and academic instauration….
But the ruminations of Slocum do become as insidious as muck. The voice is so familiar….
Joseph Heller has to an unusual degree the power to disturb. I recall thinking about Catch-22 back in 1961 that I didn't want women I knew to read it, a squeamishness perhaps strangely enough projected—not sufficiently unlike, perhaps, Slocum's own deadly tenderness. Some of us at least are going to be reminded by this book of too many things we put away in unmarked places, the bad luck of too many deaths too close to home, too many bad habits of the way some of us live, too much bad faith, bad dreams, and how we are still frightened by things long after we should have gotten over them. These accuse personally. Yossarian's innocent revelation only accused the world. "They're trying to kill me." "No one's trying to kill you." "Then why are they shooting at me?" "They're shooting at everyone. They're trying to kill everyone." "And what difference does that make?" "You're crazy." Ah, to be crazy again in that harmless fashion.
I can deny Slocum is now or ever has been any semblable of mine or any frère. Maybe I will deny that his life is in any way the life of myself, of my generation, my USA, my era, or even, to spill Slocum's secret that Slocum never quite spills, that his nasty life is human life—is the life of the hearth, of the tribe, of civilization itself. But no less a rough great stake than that does Heller try to leave us stuck on.
It is too much. Heller's man may induce in some of us qualms of recognition but he will not bear the burden of being Everyman. I believe it is not overinterpretation to say that Heller expects him to do this….
At least since Salinger, there has been a strong movement in American fiction to persuade us that it would be better for all of us if we could remain little boys—and Slocum does the brave favor for his little boy of granting him this absolution. By this view, we are not to ask whether or not in our gray flannel suits (our denims, our double knits) we are better or worse than the other monsters of history, the men of Caesar or Attila, of Hitler. In those terms, on that level, of course it is foolish. It cannot be one of the great human evils to sound exactly like Esquire magazine, crazed by a glimpse of hide between trouser and sock. There is some radical loss of perspective here. Catch-22 may well be, for a generation, its book of War, but Something Happened cannot team up with it to make a War and Peace.
And then there is that slight miscalculation I mentioned, about the way the story so artfully stays all in the hero's mind…. Slocum's essence comes from what he is, from sounding like Esquire, from not letting his kid become a man by not being one himself—not from actual physical murder. When he is made to do this, his story becomes a case history rather than a sad predicament. Nor will its great nameless "Company" serve to make it an allegory. (p. 25)
Good stories make conflicting morals. Heller probably tries too hard to make his stories cover all the moral points, and readers, or critics anyway, tend to forget the value of the narrative as they ponder the moral of Yossarian's desertion, and as they may ponder the moral of Slocum's murder. Heller's imagination is serious, really serious. I don't know how many today urge us to the depths where things, rather than being merely and easily absurd, truly resist our categories of what ought to be. But Bob Slocum, I am afraid, does not quite take us along. We have all heard those tour guides who think to charm us by showing how they seduce themselves with their own voices. Slocum is exactly such a one, and far too long-winded ever to talk us all the way down with him. (pp. 25-6)
John Thompson, "Caught Again," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 NYREV, Inc.), October 17, 1974, pp. 24-6.
[There] is evidence everywhere in [Something Happened] that Heller's originality is of the order that depends on the constant reexamination of imaginative premises and the deepening exploration of more and more complex areas of consciousness. Its driving impulse is self-renewal rather than self-imitation, and the terms of its expression are those wholly appropriate to the new work, hence derivative of nothing antecedent to that work. There can be no doubt that the author of Catch-22 wrote Something Happened. Tonal and stylistic continuities between the two books are numerous and unmistakable. But Heller has objectified his now greatly darkened vision of life through very different and much more complicated materials. He has discovered and possessed new territories of his imagination, and he has produced a major work of fiction, one that is as distinctive of its kind as Catch-22 but more ambitious and profound, an abrasively brilliant commentary on American life that must surely be recognized as the most important novel to appear in this country in at least a decade.
The size of Heller's achievement is perhaps best demonstrated by his success in coming to terms with what is unquestionably the most difficult problem facing the American novelist today: how to give dramatic life and, above all, dramatic concreteness to individual experience at a time in our cultural history when the most urgent awareness is of the undramatic nature of individual experience, and when the typifying obsession stemming from that awareness is with abstract states of consciousness—shifting and largely morbid psychological moods, anxieties arising out of a pervasive sense of the running out and running down of vital energies, entropic processes in society and within the self, the collapse of moral and social structures that once helped to give purpose and continuity to the individual life and provided the novelist with readily dramatizable materials. (p. 18)
[The] characteristic personal dilemma of our time is one in which the individual suffers, not from a conflict with oppressive social forces, but from the apparent absence of social forces that may effectively be engaged in conflict. This afflicts him with a helpless sense that society at large has no relation to him personally…. His mental state is shaped by chronic feelings of loss divorced from an understanding of what precisely has been lost. Hence, his response to the world is not heroic combativeness—since he cannot identify the enemy—but aggressive paranoia—since in a society seemingly governed by no principle of sanity or coherence literally anything can happen and probably will, and literally anyone may suddenly and for no reason become the enemy. The only reality is the constant likelihood of disaster, for nothing can reliably be known or relied upon, and the behavior of people, when they share no common moral assumptions and have no reason to be kind to one another, is altogether unpredictable. "A man was shot today in the park," says Heller. "Nobody knows why." "No one's in charge." The separation of action from motive, event from cause, creates anarchy in the public world and anomie in the individual. (p. 19)
To humanize a dehumanized condition in a novel would seem to be achievement enough. But to humanize a condition in which dehumanization is not merely the primary fact of life but the primary subject of consciousness is a nearly miraculous artistic feat.
Heller accomplishes this by making brilliant use of the technique of psychological realism. His theme is social and psychological entropy, and his material is the flow of impressions and memories through the mind of his protagonist, a middle-aged corporation executive named Bob Slocum, whose obsession is with the gathering evidence of the entropic processes at work within himself and his society. Slocum's consciousness is the very center of the drama and, in fact, constitutes the drama. The objective reality of the life he experiences is of small importance when compared with his subjective view of it. Hence, it is perfectly proper that the social context in which and upon which the action of his consciousness is played out should be rendered only marginally. His family, friends, business associates, and mistresses are finally realized in his perception of them, and it is his perception of them that creates their most significant reality. Like Dostoevski's Underground Man—and the whole of the novel is Dostoevskian in its compulsiveness and pathological morbidity—Slocum is a man raging in a vacuum, and the character of his raging identifies him as belonging squarely in the anti-heroic tradition.
In presenting such a portrait of Slocum's consciousness, Heller was faced with yet another technical difficulty: how to dramatize a condition of acute psychic disturbance, which may well be the most common and normal condition of our time, without making it seem actual mental derangement and thus untrustworthy as the locus of the novel's point of view. He also had to cope with the problem that it is of the essence of Slocum's exacerbated vision of reality that there should be so little objective justification for it. (pp. 19-20)
Heller has confronted, with an authenticity few writers possess, some of the most unpleasant truths about our situation at this time, and he has dramatized a crisis that is manifest in far more ominous ways than in shortages of fuel and natural resources, a failing economy, and the spoliation of our physical environment. In so doing, he has created a darkened, demonic, perhaps partly hallucinated fictive portrait of contemporary America, but one that has at the same time a disquieting verisimilitude. We hear from everywhere that we have fallen away from some large conception we once had of ourselves, a conception that gave meaning to the past and promise to the future and made the present endurable. Something happened. Heller does not attempt to tell us what. Like most major artists, he is an adversary force, offering no comfort whatever and recognizing no obligation except to honor his subversive vision of the truth. (p. 21)
John W. Aldridge, "Vision of Man Raging in a Vacuum," in Saturday Review/World, (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 19, 1974, pp. 18-21.
Something Happened is a monstrous effort to make literature out of pettiness. Relentlessly analytical about mean and mixed human motives, riveted to cynicism, essentially standstill, it unmercifully grinds out the paltriness to which one "successful" man's life, willy-nilly, can amount. Though no one could mistake its assiduity, the novel is a rout of creative drive and imagination, omitting as it does the low sun of Possibility against which its apparently huge, snarled ball of gnats could be measured. The book acquiesces in its own meanness with a clever shrug. It abdicates—and why if not out of punishing unbelief?—the high critical function of art.
Heller's popular Catch-22 was, by contrast, brilliantly empowered with rage. To be sure, it failed to suggest what was worth living for, but at least it showed, with fair and breath-stealing exaggeration, what was not worth dying for—the greed and ambition of other men. It was the work of a common sensibility with uncommon independence, a balking Falstaffian sense. (p. 377)
In Catch-22, the war, as Yossarian kept pointing out to slower minds, was trying to kill him, but Slocum [protagonist of Something Happened]—a tamed-down Yossarian with a wife, three children, and an acre in Connecticut—has nothing to fear from the company in which he is a minor executive except that it could "fire" him. Whatever its drawbacks—and with his ruthless instinct for honesty Slocum underscores these—at least it provides him with self-esteem, pays well, offers refuge from the piranha pool of his family, and even condones philandering, though not on company time. What else could a man want?
Slocum's smallness consists in this, that he doesn't know. (pp. 377-78)
Slocum seems to have suffered no more than the usual fears consequent upon being born an infant and mortal, and except for his anxieties about his older son—a pint-sized version of the sweet chaplain of Catch-22—his passes at panic, depression and Angst are the only perfunctory moves in a hard-working book. His "demons" might have been ordered from Sears, and neither metaphysical Dread nor the dark Unconscious proves a living power in the book….
But though Slocum cries "Wolf" for nearly 600 pages, the only wolf in sight is lubricious Slocum himself. In truth, he is not so much helpless as complacent. Just enlightened enough to be ashamed of his life, he doesn't try to change it because its sensual and egoistic gratifications are adequate, even considerable (for instance, he boasts, in reference to his wife: "No Women's Liberation for her. Lots of male chauvinist pig"). His emotional adolescence has proved so die-hard that he has taken the easy course and let it live.
Behind the sociological scrim of the book, its illustrations of William H. White's The Organization Man and Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd, beyond its depiction of what Goodman called the "apparently closed room" of modern America, in which "a large rat race [is] the dominant center of attention," beyond the examples of children "early resigned" to growing up with neither an "open margin" nor Faith, that sense that the world "will continue to support the next step": beyond all this squats the real villain of the piece: slothful, selfish human nature—equipped though it happens to be with a tirelessly rummaging mind that turns up every innate contradiction. The cultural allusions could all fall away and the substance of the book would remain undiminished, unaltered, unrepentant: quarrelsome, clever, horny, deceitful humankind….
[A] poorly reasoned capitulation to the worst in human nature justifies a self-interest that in Yossarian, given the horrendous circumstances, proves sympathetic: it is an interest, after all, in keeping alive. But Yossarian is no less self-centered than those who want to exploit and kill him. For Heller, there was simply nothing outside biology but lies. Now, investing self-serving behavior with neither mitigating circumstance nor inventive zaniness, he has built a repellent, granitic monument to it—in effect accepting it as all there is.
Heller's skepticism about culture, as opposed to involuntary vitality, is of course in the mainstream of modernism—that strong acid stream that wells as from the mouth of Nietzsche, passing now, in part, through the work of several American novelists (examples: John Hawkes, Joyce Carol Oates). If it were a service merely to look selfishness, in Slocum's phrase, "squarely in the eye," however dulled that eye, then Something Happened would rank as a serious contribution to modernism. But in fact it looks at selfishness askew, indulgently, and conceals beneath its clever surface a diagnostic ineptitude….
[The] novel is almost totally without dramatic impulse and significance—a "closed room."…
Although Something Happened fails to justify its frequent repetitiveness or its interior ordering, still, to give it its due, it proves readable, largely because of its gritty perceptions. The middle class—in its offices, its homes—has seldom been so remorselessly observed. All the same, how chafing that the book should rest content with what could not, after all, have taken much effort to discern. (p. 378)
Calvin Bedient, "Demons Ordered from Sears," in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), October 19, 1974, pp. 377-78.
Joseph Heller's [Something Happened] is exhaustive and exhausting, a major contemporary novel…. I was often bored and exasperated by it, the way we are bored by so many of our unpleasant friends. But I would have kept reading for as long as he kept talking, the way we keep listening to those same awful people spill out their trouble and bile. The fascination of the abominator.
Bob Slocum is no true friend of anybody's. He is a woefully lost figure with a profound emptiness, a sad, absurd, vicious, grasping, climbing, womanizing, cowardly, sadistic, groveling, loving, yearning, anxious, fearful victim of the indecipherable, indescribable malady of being born human. Heller goes the Beckett route (the novels) in creating Slocum. The book is a monologue with remembered dialogue, almost static in terms of time, but with some progressions eventually. It reads like a self-analysis and memoir dictated nonstop over a few weeks, but it covers a longer, not-quite definable span in which Slocum has a family disaster at about the same time he is promoted in his job and gets to do what he wants most to do in life: make a three-minute speech at the company's convention in Puerto Rico….
The speech is the metaphor for everybody's immediate, pressing but meaningless goal, the way the company is the framework for the society we live in, the way the combat group in Catch-22 was the framework of the war society. Heller is a big metaphor man. (p. 17)
The book is a baring of what Heller thinks is everybody's soul, at least everybody who shares the values of the corporate state, the company scramble, the family debacle. It will be a rare man anywhere, but especially in America, who doesn't see something of his own soul in Slocum's disastrously honest confession. (p. 18)
There is no way to sum up all Heller has put into this book. It is as rich in wit, social and psychological insight, American irony and memorable conversations as it is devoid of any story, plot structure, tidy continuity and other accoutrements of the conventional novel. His chief stylistic tool is repetition…. It is peculiarly Heller's and it echoes the repetition that gave Catch-22 such an original tone.
The new book will doubtlessly be compared to Catch-22 …; but this work is so unlike the first that similarities are important only because of their irrelevance.
Heller has learned from Beckett, Camus, Kafka, but he is clearly himself, a novelist who will be looked upon as one of the world's most interesting writers. (pp. 18-19)
William Kennedy, "Endlessly Honest Confession," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 19, 1974, pp. 17-19.
[All] good social anthropology has an intricate mythology carefully concealed within it, giving credence and structure to our urban lies; but when Heller spells it out [in Something Happened] and when its ligaments are revealed in all their breathtaking banality, the whole business lies down like a corpse and refuses to provide plot or character.
Somewhere there is life—endless, muggy life—outside these large corporate structures and Joseph Heller is not about to be undone. Bob Slocum has learned to live happily and wisely by copying everyone else—he even has an unhappy wife and unhappy children to complete the illusion. All of this is conveyed in an even and dispassionate prose, in which a falling cadence is a necessary part of the 'meaning': "There is no one else I would rather be than me, even though I don't really like me and am not even sure who it is I am." And no one else does, either. There is just this writing, sardonic and pathetic in turn, which leaves out no subordinate clauses and which spreads like a stain, only resorting to brackets, "(Ha Ha)", to relieve the more profound, more childish and less syntactically correct of gripes. The section headings are like cut-out cards, 'My daughter's unhappy', 'My little boy is having difficulties', but the shades of the prose-house darken this simple and direct little world.
A deadpan prose is not readily at the service of cheap sentiment; it is one which can make suburban dialogue sound as unreal and as funny as it really is, and one which can also conceal the most complex intentions…. Time seems to be coming to an end very slowly and very elaborately, and nothing actually happens to shake these musings among the ruins. (pp. 541-42)
It is true that the last section of the novel contains the remotest hint of action when Bob does something nasty to his son and is, at the same time, promoted in his company—like a transverse Oedipus. But any analogy with classical myth is spurious since with Something Happened we are in a world of flatulence and self-doubt with which no god or prophet will interfere. It may be something of a backhanded compliment to note that the novel conveys this monumental inactivity with some panache, but someone must make chaos out of our order and Mr. Heller has done it. (p. 542)
Peter Ackroyd, "Long Longings," in The Spectator; (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), October 26, 1974, pp. 541-42.
Catch-22 was more than a wildly successful work. It was also heralded as the classic fictional statement of [its] passionately antiwar decade and its nay-saying, antinomian, black-comic Zeitgeist. Though Heller was writing about World War II, his contemptuous denunciation of all war perfectly suited the American mood of mockery and disgust in the time of Vietnam.
Yossarian, Heller's exuberantly self-devoted hero, unequivocally rejecting the idiotic and lethal notion that any country, any cause, any ideal is worth risking one's life for, became a heady symbol. By asking a simple question—"Why are they shooting at me?"—Yossarian gave the lie to every bureaucratic claim to a soldier's patriotism, and an Army psychiatrist declared him crazy because "he has no respect for excessive authority or obsolete traditions." In Heller's brilliant inversion of the military ethic, Yossarian's fears became a heightened, a manic form of sanity: If he acted crazy because he didn't want to be killed, that proved he must be sane, since "a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind."
Heller's was a vast and immovable paranoid vision of existence. He was an early laborer in the vineyards that nourished as well such quintessential novelists of the '60s as Pynchon, Vonnegut, Kesey, and Burroughs, although his gusto and openness made him far more engaging and humanly accessible than the others. Yet, if the most spontaneous and delightful quality of Catch-22 was its powerful mocking vitality—untamed, extravagant, boisterously hyperbolical, coarse, raucous, bursting with irrepressible energy—the final impact of the book was seriously weakened not only by the author's surprising blunders into bathos but, worse, by his intellectual confusion. Until the end, Yossarian's enemy was the stupid and corrupt American military hierarchy; in the last episode, though, Heller remembered the actual enemy, Hitler, and suddenly Yossarian, the outrageous antipatriot deserting to Sweden, was replaced by Yossarian the moral idealist. This strange turnabout threatened the very foundations of the novel's irreverent comic scheme, and we were left with a point of view that was blurred and confused. (p. 17)
With Something Happened our confusion is twice compounded. For I can think of no other novel that reads like such a willful, disastrous exercise in futility. Throughout its almost 600 pages we are forced to listen to the turgid, self-pitying, unintelligent, scandalously repetitive, childishly narcissistic, suffocatingly tedious monologue of a faceless organization-man named Bob Slocum. In especially desperate moments during my Sisyphean struggle to finish Something Happened, I felt, paranoid as Yossarian, that Heller was trying to murder me—with boredom, not bullets. Enslaved by the tyrant of conscience, I persevered, discovering in the process that not until this trial by tedium had I really understood the term "bored to tears."
Ironically, the novel's opening pages promise a rare feast—a minute, unrelenting and unflinching confession of the representative Man of Anxiety in the waning decades of this mad century…. The premonitory rhythm of doom and decay is superbly sustained, for a few pages.
But soon we realize that the rest of the book is an endlessly repetitious movement within the same mood, circling the same unvaried ground over and over like a disoriented bird. In the first chapter, the dog-eat-dog pecking order of Slocum's company is described in exhausting detail; in keeping with the menacing abstractness of his working life, we never learn what product or service the company exists to sell, only the malevolence of its hierarchical and bureaucratized relationships.
Slocum's pointillist self-portrait becomes a dank web of distrust and dishonesty, lust and infantile rage, envy and hatred, punctuated with hollow cries of despair: "Is this the most I can get from the few years left in this one life of mine?" Everywhere he turns, burrowing into the past and enduring the present, Slocum is confronted with breakdown, madness, suicide, betrayal, and sloth. Within and without, his world is an unregenerate swamp of rack and ruin. Pathologically dissociated from himself, Slocum is a chameleon, taking on the gestures and vocabularies of whichever colleague he is with; even his handwriting is a forgery, borrowed from a boyhood friend….
When something finally does happen, it is so motiveless, so arbitrary, so perversely vague as to seem only another of Slocum's furtive dreams of murder, and it may well be only that. Even Heller seems to have dozed over his text at times—we are frequently informed that Mrs. Slocum is a churchgoing Congregationalist, but on page 472 she suddenly becomes Jewish! By then, however, I was beyond caring. If Slocum is meant to be a distillation of present-day America's pervasive sickness, Heller does not render this contaminating despair with sufficient urgency, and Slocum never extends beyond the bog of his sordid, dull particularity. He is not Everyman but no-man, and he can move us neither to pity nor to rage.
There is scarcely a link, an echo, a family resemblance of style or tone to be found in Joseph Heller's two novels. What happened to the manic wit, the running gags, the loony inventiveness and corrosive horror of Catch-22? Where did Heller mislay his descriptive agility, the violently grotesque gift for caricatures like Milo Minderbinder and General Dreedle? In Something Happened everything is merely told, in a spiraling proliferation of remarks that begin nowhere and fall in upon themselves.
Quite clearly, Heller has attempted here to write a particularly contemporary major novel. During the 19th century, authors aimed at showing reality objectively, by means of an omnipresent and unobtrusive narrator in absolute command of everything that occurred. But today's most innovative writers have abandoned this method. As though reality in our time has become increasingly incomprehensible, ungraspable, a mad world that cannot be contained within old-fashioned frames of reference assented to by novelist and reader both, books like Herzog, Portnoy's Complaint and now Something Happened do not present life, they describe it; and they do this in one voice, from a single point of view, apparently because life no longer lends itself to a wider, more dramatic manipulation of experience. But unlike Bellow and Roth, Heller has confined himself in Something Happened to a sensibility that is narrow and humorless, static and toneless, without the reverberations of variety. In the end Slocum—or Heller—is talking only to himself. For that reason we do not care. (p. 18)
Pearl K. Bell, "Heller's Trial By Tedium," in The New Leader (© 1974 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), October 28, 1974, pp. 17-18.
Something Happened is a lump compared with Catch-22.
Both novels resemble great stonelike objects, slabs of uniform consistency that may be cut up without disturbing the essence. One reason for this is that both come out of a terrible, indeed a heroic, simplifying urge, a monomania that can only elaborate more variations, illustrations of itself. Both in Catch-22 and Something Happened, the terms of the hero's plight are circular, solipsistic, and the novelist is prepared to demonstrate the logic of it until Doomsday (which will never dawn). Both Yossarian and Slocum are stuck in an eternal present time that never changes or holds out prospects of ending, except in death: everything except death repeats itself; the fear of death especially repeats itself. Yet Catch-22 was buoyant, Something Happened sinks. Catch-22, a perfectly serious comic novel with a point to drive home, was loaded with belly laughs; Something Happened, also serious and with a lesson to teach that is not all that different, provides at most five natural laughs in more than five hundred pages. It is an unrelievedly dreary book—perhaps only a comedian when he isn't cracking jokes could be as dreary. Slocum is given to making mirthless puns and comments on his own complaints, following these up immediately with an indicative, crippling, parenthetical "(ha-ha)."… Yossarian was scared stiff and dead serious all the time, and never spoke directly to the reader (he was Heller's creature); Slocum buttonholes the reader and doesn't let go (there may be questions where the dividing line is between him and the novelist). Better say that the sense of humor that vitalized Catch-22 has been reduced, pinched down, into a small solitary nerve of dreary irony. (pp. 78, 80)
The essential dreariness of Something Happened can best be compared to the feel of another novel of the early 60's, Philip Roth's Letting Go, that catalogue of contemporary misery every entry of which the writer rubbed his reader's face into. If anything, Something Happened is more thoroughly dismal than Letting Go, for Heller is hopeless where Roth is mean….
The seed planted in Catch-22 has come to bloom in Something Happened. Although it is doubtful that eight million readers really took this to heart, Heller's easily-interpreted real message in 1961, not unconnected to his experiences in World War II, was that everything eventually stinks, albeit with hysterical and sensual consolations. His clear message now … is that life is absolutely rotten and apparent consolations are tricks. As it turns out, not the war or the army was at fault, but modern life is the villain—in short, life—and people are its agents…. Catch-22 was a nightmare that it was theoretically possible to wake up from (on V-E Day?); Something Happened chronicles wide-awake reality through Slocum. Here is life—smell it, the book is saying. Here are people—aren't they vile? Insanity is institutionalized as if hell were mundane, and nothing extraordinary or allegorical about it. Things are what they seem, neither heightened for effect nor symbolized. Now there is no hope even, for this ordinary state of war will never end—"I hate my neighbor," Slocum says, "and he hates me." (p. 80)
The terrible thing about this potentially is that Slocum is a fellow with compassionate, loving urges—particularly toward his normal son. Because these are not developed much, the book seldom generates the quality of everyday terror that Slocum is supposed to be feeling ("the willies"). The quality conveyed is of dreary whining grievance against life's built-in corruption factor….
Slocum sounds more like Heller's mouthpiece, like a troubled, interesting middle-aged male creature of our times from whom Heller must maintain a certain artistic detachment but doesn't. (p. 82)
Throughout, the style Heller gives Slocum is ideally suited to the purpose of low-grade complaint, unsuited to the more difficult purpose of evoking terror or accusing God. My soul is weary of my life…. Slocum isn't Job by a long shot, he isn't even marked by that residue of Congregationalism that Cheever's or Updike's authentic WASP suburban sufferers wear like a whimsical nimbus while they learn to be satisfied with crabgrass and good whiskey. Slocum's suffering, real enough no doubt, is an overgrown boy's, not a man's. The long ingrown parentheses on every page are the perfect scheme for handling his adolescent irony. (pp. 82-3)
Something Happened was meant to be simple, and it is, so Heller ought to be credited with another achievement, which is roughly artistic. By having Slocum sell out 100 per cent, Heller was faithful right to the end to the main idea of Something Happened, and thanks to this the book is finally more coherent and even more of a simple piece than Catch-22 was. It is a novel fashioned in cold blood—a cold stone of a book, braver than most, braver than Catch-22, not brave enough…. By comparison, although there may well be something jejune, even sinful, in the simplicity of Heller's vision in this second book, there is little doubt that his success in cleaving to it for all these years and pages gives Something Happened a sort of heroic, massive integrity so dense the book sinks under its weight. (p. 84)
Edward Grossman, "Yossarian Lives" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1974 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, November, 1974, pp. 78, 80, 82-4.
[In Something Happened,] Heller writes what I'd call the first person compulsive. His first person, Bob Slocum, is the sort of lapel-eating talker you come across in Holiday Inn bars at 2 A.M. Slocum's style, his whole schtick, is repetition. Sentences come in syntactically matched sets, like dinnerware: five will begin, say, with the same word; half a dozen will be draped on the same noun-adverb-verb armature. Slocum poses himself rhetorical questions, "What would happen if…." Then supplies rhetorical answers, "I know what would happen: nothing." He uses tautology as an ironic undertone. "The figures are photocopied on the latest photo-copying machines." Bad jokes are labeled "ha-ha," for your convenience. He backspaces himself with interjections, digressions, contradictions. Indeed, half the text is prophylactically sealed in parentheses. Something Happened could be an Evelyn Wood primer. It taught me to skim. If you miss a paragraph, a page, a chapter, it hardly signifies, you'll catch Slocum's drift next time around….
Reading, I remembered three old girlfriends—who are they now?—and my dead father's favorite gesture caught itself in my hands again. This is an effect of fine writing; there's no other way to account for it.
And yet the book irked me. It's a prejudice I have against spendthrift effort. The fact holds: you can start Something Happened on page 359, read through to the end, and still pass a multiple choice test in plot, character, style. It isn't cricket, I understand that, to criticize a marathon for being 26 miles long. Great length is the thing's nature. Recapitulation, compulsiveness, flashbacks to the same spot, the treadmilling define Slocum's character and his milieu. But you and I, we catch on fast enough, 300 pages would give us the gist. Who needs that much gist anyway? Something Happened is overlong, a bit of an imposition. Maybe it's Heller's trademark. A friend once told me that Catch-22, in first draft, was Catch-17. I believe him.
D. Keith Mano, "Fine Writing That Irks," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1974; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), November 22, 1974, p. 1364.
Slocum [the narrator of Something Happened] is not an ordinary neurotic. (Who is?) He tends to be a symbolist. He makes doors metaphysical entities. He is confined to his decaying body; he does not know what lies outside it, what awaits him in some outer world.
Slocum is so obsessed by doors that he tends to regard others as shadows behind frosted glass. He cannot really allow them to be fully seen. He has to keep them hidden. Thus when his wife and children try to appear as persons—with ambivalent motives and needs—he retreats into his mental office. He shuts doors on them. (pp. 272-73)
Slocum is an outline himself. He stands at times outside of his activities; he perceives his perceptions. He is no longer himself: "I miss my mother again when I remember how poignantly I missed her when I woke this morning. I miss the forsaken child. He's me. But I'm not he. I think he may be hiding inside my head with all the others I know are there and cannot find, playing evil tricks on my moods and heartbeat also. I have a universe in my head." Slocum is "suspended"; he does not understand where he begins or ends. He fears measuring his universe's limits; he refuses to go through doors by suicide.
"Suicide." The word haunts him. Is it because his father killed himself? Would he like to become his father? Does he dare to defend himself? Such questions trouble Slocum. He does not have the will to answer them once and for all. He prefers instead to say one thing—choose one role—and then another. He multiplies questions and metamorphoses; he won't stay put. He lacks the will to commit himself. Although we admire his crafty transformations, we also note, as he secretly does, his mad passivity. He kills himself every day….
Obviously, Slocum is a "maladjusted" man, but he perfectly adapts himself to other disturbed men. He is the organization man. He recognizes other workers as his reflections. He knows what to say, what to wear, what doors to open and close. And it is the final irony that Slocum, who seems so uncontrolled, finally "gains command."
I find that I have been so seduced by Slocum's personality that I have not bothered with his voice. His style perfectly reflects his concerns. He speaks in a flat, repetitive, charted way…. He chooses his words with care…. He is, however, so controlled in his speech that he forgets—or, better yet, neglects—the content. "Person," for example, is just another word….
Slocum … is, finally, something that happened. I will not easily forget Slocum and his doors. (p. 273)
Irving Malin, in Commonweal (copyright © 1974 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 20, 1974.
Joseph Heller's long-awaited second novel, Something Happened … was the best book I read this year. Not because it's perfect ("A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it" in Randall Jarrell's handy definition) but because it interested and bothered me most; it sticks in my mind and won't be settled. The craven Bob Slocum, circling and recircling the question of what went wrong with his life, is a comical and disturbing success. "I wish," he says, "I knew what to wish." I sometimes wished I were elsewhere—rereading "Catch-22" for instance—but this is a prodigious book. (p. 63)
Walter Clemons, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), December 30, 1974.
"Something Happened" is … a dead novel of manners. Its characters maneuver for status like ghouls in a mausoleum. One poor wretch signals his failure, as with a leper's bell, by invariably wearing the wrong clothes. The hero, Bob Slocum, claws his way through the web of power and fear known as "manners" in order to give a three-minute speech at the company convention.
The bit-players are called things like Mr. Brown and Mr. Green, indicating pieces in a game, and this is perhaps a little too dead. People who work in such organizations are actually named after long and interesting numbers. But anyway we bookfolk will not settle for last year's satire, however pertinent. We've already done dehumanization (like pollution) and we can't do it again. We want a satire for the future, however aimless and untrue.
Heller, a book person himself, seems to have felt the same thing. (His career maps cultural history like the traces of a glacier.) Back in the Pleistocene Age, when the book began, office satire was very much the thing. But since we all moved to Stamford, the Family took over, and so Heller changed his crawl to that direction, producing to my mind an extraordinary piece of work.
The subject is still manners, the tearing down and building up of protocols, and the application of management techniques to living people. Slocum tries the same silky manipulations and power-grabs, but his son is too good for them, and his wife too slyly vague, while his daughter resorts to anti-manners, the paralyzing weapon of the young. Slocum is rendered helpless by her lethal blasts of rudeness. Love, the alternative to manners, is unfortunately beyond him, buried under layers of performance. Or else lost in the mail room.
Reactions to "Something Happened" have been so disproportionate that one senses some nonliterary nerve being tapped. Heller's droning repetitions obviously have something to do with it—yet these match the set phrases people actually use and the set thoughts behind the phrases: those obsessions lined up like toothaches which one's tongue returns to maddeningly. In Heller, Manners is what you do while playing with your toothaches, to keep you from boring and maiming other people, and some readers may feel that a whole book about this is just too damn cute and nerve-wracking.
Well, so is life, according to Heller and I daresay to many people. Amy Vanderbilt's … etiquette book … is as airless and obsessive as any Heller, and I was mildly astonished to hear that some 2,750,000 are in print and moving….
Wilfrid Sheed, "The Good Word: The Novel of Manners Lives," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 2, 1975, p. 2.
The monotone of depression controls and shapes Something Happened, a novel of rigorous neurotic logic in which all significant causality is internal and nothing that can conceivably happen in the external world will make any real difference to the tortured sensibility of the protagonist-narrator. (p. 583)
Bob Slocum's life is a cliché: the fact defines his hopelessness. The book that contains him is not. Its manipulation of the commonplaces of late twentieth-century experience comprises an assault on the reader's sensibility as sadistic as the narrator's manipulations of other people. No one could like such a novel: its demand for attention to the minutiae of a distasteful man's distress torments us. Not a criticism of life but an imitation of the action of enraged misery, its expressive authenticity—however dismal the substance of what is expressed—compels the imagination, persuading the reader to participate, persuading him that he already participates, in the anger and despair that shape the novel and its protagonist. The familiarity of Slocum's life makes us almost as miserable as it makes him. One is tempted to attribute to the author a contempt for his society, his audience, and the creatures of his fantasy. The novelist, expertly evoking our masochism, implies that his punishing vision of upper-middle-class anguish reflects the truth of our condition. Acknowledging the partial validity of his claim, we may yet wonder about the implications of such reflecting—which lacks the energy or focus of satire, sounds too despairing to generate serious social criticism, seems totally implicated in the misery it depicts. Such profound depression as Slocum's amounts to pathology; can art consist in pathology's imitation? (pp. 584-85)
Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1975.