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Something Happened by Joseph Heller
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Something Happened (1974)

by Joseph Heller

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More than a few things happened.
One of my dearest friends has a photograph – quite possibly taken by her illustrious photographer-husband! – showing her and the incomparable Joseph Heller sitting close to each other at a dinner-table. For those who don’t know, Heller was a good-looking man, and in this picture he has passed beyond charm to an almost piratical grin as he either prepares for, or savors after the fact, the planting of a big wet one on my friend, who looks by no means displeased with the whole deal, and in fact has confessed same to me. Now, after reading his Something happened I want to turn back the clock and leap into that scene crying “Stop! Stop! You’ll catch something!” Such is the effect of this immense discursus -- 559 pages in my Corgi paperback edition -- on the theory and practice of desire and despair, fear and fornication. Heck, let’s go all the way: make it 3-D: desire, despair and derangement. And since both Heller and his narrator-protagonist Bob Slocum were war-veterans, let’s call it a study of a real 4-F case: fear, family, free-association, and fornication. The latter, of-course, is also free-association of a sort, and that linkage is the kind of thing which is central to this book. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Generations earlier, writing of another great novelist, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly vouchsafed one of the great critical tag-lines of all times. Summing up J-K Huysmans’ À rebours, he said, roughly, after such a work the only choice is the mouth of a pistol or the foot of the Cross. It’s a pity that he couldn’t have held-off a while to hang this on Something happened, but inconveniently for all, he died before Heller was born. Though aimed at the author, that observation was more than a bit of an admonition to readers also, and the good sense of it remains for this latter-day work, not that I advocate any reader’s taking his or her own life over a book, nor anybody’s undergoing a sudden violent conversion to Christianity or anything else. Besides, Heller was Jewish, and he would have been the least likely Jewish convert since Paul of Tarsus.
Meanwhile, what was it that I feared my pal might catch? Certainly we are well-advised to keep a clear distinction between authors and their characters, yet that is easier said than done, as some authors are successful enough in their art to generate an unanticipated sort of credibility. In his Journals Thoreau points-out a sad instance of the paradox that people often want the Ideal to be Real, but don’t want the Real to be Ideal. He says that if you go to Brittany and tell the people there that King Arthur is dead – or perhaps, more subversively, that he never existed (I don’t right now have the Journals at-hand to check) – they will throw things at you in the streets. So much for chivalry, as depicted by various worthies from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory. More recently, and more to the subject matter of Heller’s book, Henry Miller is reported to have dealt repeatedly with panting females appearing at his place in the Big Sur, eager to join “the sex cult”. His reported response was to buy them a bus ticket out of town and tell them to keep looking somewhere else.
So, I am on my best behaviour not to entangle Heller and his character Bob too inextricably. Not too much, I offer, because putting aside all the gifts of projective imagination and the collection of other people’s anecdotes and facetiæ, Bob’s story certainly has the ring of truth, to a disconcerting degree. Hence my concern for my friend, if only belatedly. It’s still not too late to give other persons the benefit of my reading.
As a fellow-Vermonter, I feel a trifle guilty at failing here to follow the exhortation of the fictionalized Maria Von Trapp – who has probably never before been bracketed with Joseph Heller – to start at the very beginning, which is often indeed a very good place to start. According to one’s lights, the title Something happened is, either the dead-on truth or deadly sarcasm. Viewed one way, almost nothing actually happens, and Porgy’s “I got plenty of nuthin’” just ain’t in it, compared to Bob Slocum’s endless ramblings. Or else everything happens, and 559 pages are insufficient to present it adequately. Regardless, in terms of old-fashioned narrative, there is indeed very little action, per se. If it’s Point A to Point B stuff you want, stop right now and grab something from a human word-processor like James Patterson or Faye Kellerman. Up to the very end, the incidents, such as they are, occur in recollections, and further recollections, and re-considerations of those recollections, and analyses of those re-considerations, and reprises on those analyses . . . you get it, to a degree of repetition that the layers of ancient Troy seem like only so much Schmutz on the dashboard, or the sediments in the Permian basin are just so many bits of debris from your Dust-Buster. The foregoing sentence, by-the-bye, would be a typical Heller sentence except that it’s brief. The man does go on, and on. More of that later.
Bob’s external world is that of New York and Connecticut, and the time is that of the late 1960s or early 1970s, though right away – after an opening paragraph in which he lists the people whom he fears, and who fear him, Bob plunges into a flash-back to his adolescent years, which is where he seems to have stayed for several decades, even during war-service, business success, and marriage – perhaps because of them. Who knows? But he’s sure as shootin’ going to try to tell you. See, he is cursed with a memory which is as restless as it is, to say the least, thorough and unforgiving. What separates his cogitations from being filed away like so many insurance-claim files – a Motiv which appears in the book, I dare say, at-least a hundred times (I kid you not) -- is Heller’s ability to ring changes on these repetitions, to show the process as more – or less, if you will – than simple obsession, but rather as the workings of a soul in the slow but irreversible descent into a Hell of its own making. The narrative-structure based on recollection of incident (perhaps one should call it the revisionist version), rather than description of it per se, is of-course, not a new thing in literature, with roots at-least a deep as Dante’s Vita nuova nine-hundred years ago. Over a century ago, Dostoyevsky, Proust, and Kafka likewise moved fiction irreversibly into a place where consciousness and empirical reality were not merely of equal value, but often indistinguishable from each other. But it was an earlier master, the Tudor poet Edward Dyer, who declared “My mind to me a kingdom is.”
What a sorry kingdom is Bob’s. He is good at a few things, and not trivial ones at that. He is a success in his unspecified business, he has a good mind, and obviously a good (though relentless, and curiously selective) memory. He is, moreover, a keen observer and glib story-teller, and he has something which he (and apparently other characters in the book, including his wife and scores of other females) consider to be an asset likewise, namely the sexual appetite and energy of a mink on steroids. Despite his pornotopian existence – no disease, impotence, rejection, jealousy, pregnancy, or commitment -- you won’t be surprised to hear that he is also completely good at suffering – or at-least mighty accomplished at it. Bob informs us that “Disasters troop across my mind unbidden and unheralded, like independent members of a ghoulish caravan from hell”.
One doesn’t need literary sophistication, psychological training, or experience of life then to figure that two terrible deficits match his so-called strengths: an ability to rationalize on a par with his misery, and a gross defect in human sympathy, despite his inner monologues to the contrary. When it comes to a matter of Bob versus anybody else, Bob always comes-out ahead, if only in his ability to beat himself up with his own guilt and pain.
In some ways, even if one tires of Bob after a while, for some reason it is ironically easier to take him, as created by Heller, than it is to take many aspects of Heller as a stylist in this quietly berserk anti-epic. Mind you, I am not obsessed with the alleged virtue of concision in fiction. Far from it, having perpetrated a book even longer than this myself. But there is what Schumann called – in another context – “heavenly length”, but there is also what the late great cartoonist George Price captured in his series of cartoons a killer-vine under the recurring caption, “Look out, George, here it comes again!” Or as Dr Johnson said in yet another context, “One never wished it longer.” But speaking of which, after a few pages of Bob’s erotic (and often anti-erotic) meditations, everything sounds racy – even Dr Johnson’s quote. Especially Dr Johnson’s quote. That is one reason why nobody should reflexively feel superior to this kind of thing. I said above that it had the ring of truth, and I suspect Heller knew that. Incidentally, when was the last time Schumann, Price, and Samuel Johnson were invoked in the same paragraph, nay even the same article?
Still, the book’s structure and style are quite other matters. In a foul mood, some might compare it to penal servitude, or even (forgive me), penile servitude. And the heavy-handedness of the narrative! I stopped counting the number of pages devoted to Bob’s wrangling with his young son over the latter’s harmless quirk of giving away pennies, nickels, and dimes. After four or five pages, I got it. After another dozen, an illiterate, even a dead man would have gotten it. And how about the fact that Bob incessantly catalogues his harem of hired and amateur floozies, many of whom by names if not by physical peculiarities, but never once in the book does he call his wife or his two older children by anything other than “my wife”, “my daughter”, and “my boy”. The only family-member ever named is his youngest son Derek, who is brain-damaged, silent, and mostly immobile through the entire book. We got the name-thing too, and it didn’t take a dozen repetitions either. Ditto the perennial vexation over the convention speech that never was but might have been. Even ten lashes of this might reasonably have been considered cruel and unusual punishment, and thus actionable at law.
So what does Bob remember? It would be another few years before Pop Culture enshrined something called Fear Factor among the dubious delights of entertainment and trendy phrase. Bob had it in spades years before these latter-day writers were still trembling in front of their PE teachers like Bob’s older son – who, of-course, is never even named by that worthy, a very credible dude named Forgione. Speaking of Pop Culture – and what has Mom been doing all these years? According to Bob, she has been getting sloshed during the day while he’s at the office, or in bed with some nafke (sorry but the Heller style is contagious, and this sentence is just a pop-gun shot compared to some of the thousand-word wonders which wind through the body of Something happened like so many strands of DNA -- I wonder if I’m the only reader who wonders whether the creators of the giddy TV series Monk ever read this book, as there are entire nightmare dialogues which I could just as well imagine in the mouths of Adrian and Sharona, or Dr Kroger, or Stottlemyer.
Fears. Bob remembers, no, he chews, he fondles, he bats-around, he plays hide-and-seek with his fears, and when he needs a break, he starts observing, imagining, or creating them in others. All of this behind a façade of bourgeois propriety, carefully catalogued and analyzed ad nauseam, along with an inseparable history of job-humiliation and job-conniving, added to family squabbles which lacked only Greek gods and sharp knives to resemble those of the House of Atreus, -- and by no means least, lechery most tactfully described in the choice phrase of the great but forgotten American writer Motley – John Lothrop, not Willard – as “vulgar and miscellaneous incontinence”.
And here we have at-least a half-hint of why some readers might put-up with Bob’s ravings, and Heller’s shamelessly self-indulgent narrative style. He is a very zesty writer on sex. Try this on for size:

Penny knows where to hit and strikes like an eagle. She knows exactly how much longer it’s safe to go on after I feel I positively will die in pieces if she goes on at all. And I’m glad she goes on.

Heller was one of the best since Henry Miller, and absolutely annihilates the competition, including trendies of yesteryear like Erica Jong and the various minor pious pornographers who flourished under the ægis of Grove Press. Incidentally, he shares a perfervid genius for denouncing modern life (e.g. page 427: Bob’s “I hear America singing fuckoff.” Poor Walt Whitman). But not even Miller would have had the nerve to include in a single book, not one, but two each of what I will call Monumenta pro membris virilibus and, with praiseworthy fairness, Vulva-Verzeichnisse. Still, enough is enough, and that has nothing to do with my being a bluenose, which I am not (I should throw in a parenthetical haha, just in the Slocum-Heller, spirit, as the book probably has over a hundred of them). Not surprisingly, in a tale of ruin, there will be some degradation, but beyond that, there is an overtone of casual cruelty in Bob which is utterly unredeemed by his oft-repeated assertions that he has suffered most of all. I had the unpleasant feeling that this gratuitous coarseness was more than a little of authorial self-revelation: God help him. Still, good ol’ Bob, kept coming back for more, as it were, and many of us – more than would admit it, much less admit it in print (even with a publisher’s hefty cash-advance haha), might do the same: God help us all. Anyway, if this is one of Heller’ real triumphs of characterization, I say it’s also a way to keep packing the book with his characteristically acidic but habit-forming prose and keep the reader in turn coming back for more. If you’ve got to keep spinning on Ixion’s wheel, you might as well have a few laughs – or a few surprises.
And the one-liners are good, as are the more extended rants, whether droll, insightful, surreal, touching, or just plain goofy. Heller certainly hadn’t written himself out in Catch-22, and as it turned-out, he had plenty more up his sleeve later when he created in Closing time, one of the best fictional statements on that collective horror know as The Reagan Era. Consider this.

. . . this festive family birthday celebration at which my old mother and my infant daughter are together for perhaps the very last time. And there I am, sturdy, youthful, prospering, virile (fossilized and immobilized between them, without knowing how I got there, without knowing how I will ever get out), saddled already with the grinding responsibility of making them, and others, happy, when it has been all I can do from my beginning to hold my own head up straight enough to look existence squarely in the eye without guileful wisecracks about it or sobbing out loud for help.

Or, speaking of his nine-year-old son:

. . . then he is apt to come very close to crumpling like a frail, inanimate bundle of little boy’s clothes, or spilling out emotionally all over the room like a sack of chips of some kind – potato, poker, wood . . .

Or later yet, two-thirds of the way through:

My id suppurates into my ego and makes me aggressive and disagreeable. Seepage is destroying my loved ones. If only one could vent one’s hatreds fully, exhaust them, discharge them the way a lobster deposits his sperm with the female and ambles away into opaque darkness alone and unburdened.

And finally:

I can’t see how my wife really expects me to feel sorry for her when I have so many good reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Among them, her.

No question that Heller at his best was a virtuoso writer. But if you will indulge me, virtuosity is not always a virtue. The best artists should all know when and how to hit the OFF-switch, even if, as in this case, it doesn’t happen. Imagine being locked in a room with three TV sets. You look at one and your only choice is a classic black-and-white baseball documentary of the 1950s and 60s: all you see are Mantle and Musial whacking home-run after home-run, except when you see Koufax or Gibson mowing down batter after hapless batter, or else Lou Brock stealing base after base, like some deranged cartoon-Roadrunner in a peaked cap. In desperation you try the second set, which shows an endless round of Pavarotti hitting high Cs, punctuated by Itzhak Perlman breaking the World Ground Speed Record in Ravel’s Tzigane or Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen. Then, thinking the Third Time is the Charm, you try Set Number Three, only to discover fifteen or twenty of Nashville’s hottest guitar-pickers, varied only by clips of mandolin solos by Bill Monroe, or banjo breaks by Don Reno, whose speed are matched only by their inexplicable vulgarity and futility. Or put it this way: after a couple hours with, say, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, and Red Skelton, wouldn’t you fall at the feet of someone who could just smile and ask, “Hey, how ya doin? How ‘bout them Red Sox?” A steady diet of boffo or hipper-than-thou is like any other fad diet: unsatisfying, probably ineffective, and possibly toxic – but also, as Nielsen ratings would probably show, guaranteed to get you talked-about for a while.
It is not utterly unfair to wonder whether any publisher, even in the post-Miller days, would have ever considered publishing a work of this immensity, and apparent repetitiveness, had it not come from one of the best-selling serious novelists of the age. While “No” – even “Hell, NO!” – might be a reasonable response, that really side-steps the fact that for better or for worse, there were very few other people who could have written such a book, length aside, and further, precisely because it was Heller, and nobody else, we have the chance to savour a style and energy unique not merely in his generation, but in the history of serious fiction. How many others – and I keep returning to Miller, though Pynchon might have been able before his talent inexplicably headed South -- could make the leap in a couple–hundred words from a frenzied reflection on the progress in modern porn-films and weaponry, through the Hell that is modern processed food, to the suicide of the Father of his long-dead pawing-partner Virginia Markowitz (self-described as “Virgin for short, but not for long”) -- and leave us laughing, assuming we are not breathless after that wild ride?
So, what does one gain after committing ones’ time and retinæ to this opus, beyond the simple fact of reading qua reading? Even to ask that question is to put myself in the camp of the conservatives (haha) again, as the idea that the reading of fiction has any definable purpose is pretty old-fashioned. Characteristically, I have a slightly different slant: despite being something of a writer myself, I have never been sure why people write fiction, beyond the ancient, almost atavistic, ritualistic need to tell stories. I do it because I want to do it, but unlike most of my pen-pushing – actually computer-caressing -- fellow-scribes I have no belief that anybody has any obligation to pay any attention to me. Of-course, by the time he confected Something happened, Heller was guaranteed that many people would pay attention to him. And pay good money too. Dr Johnson said that only a fool ever wrote for anything other than money, and would doubtless been impressed by Heller’s positive cash-flow, and then lit into him like seventeen devils. Johnson also said that we read so that we may enjoy life or endure it. Paradoxically, the message of Something happened seems to be that life is neither enjoyable nor endurable. And yet the books exists, will itself endure longer than most, and even give pleasure.
One wants to like Heller, for his daring, his flamboyant free-associations, his technical skill, and his evident enjoyment of at-least some of the finer things in life. But he makes it hard (o, there I go: the kind of phrase which would have set Bob off on some riff about the theory and practice of cocksmanship). He makes it difficult. And frankly, though on a lower level, his editors didn’t make it any easier on us either, not just the shameless indulgence of his parentheses and multipage paragraphs, but also a startling number of typos in my edition (Corgi, from the UK, ISBN 0552099309), including one on that spectacular page where Bob claims to have seen a brown ant crawling out of his penis. How I wish that this little essay could have been more in the nature of an Operator’s Guide, and less like a Consumer Product Safety alert. ( )
2 vote HarryMacDonald | Aug 20, 2012 |
I couldn't finish this tripe. I loved Catch 22, but what the hell was the problem with this generation of American writers (e.g. Mailer, Roth, Updike, Bellow, etc.) that they were so incredibly misogynist and racist? And egocentric and self-pitying, to boot! ( )
3 vote giovannigf | Sep 4, 2011 |
This book is a well-orchestrated, slow, crushing train wreck. Never have I ever experienced any piece of art ever in which the artist hates his subjects so deeply. Jesus H. Macy! Heller drives his characters around an ugly, cyclical, bleak existence in slow motion. As impressed as I am with the book as a piece of literature, I did not enjoy reading it, and I do not feel like it has revealed anything to me. I need a beer now (and I think that's what Heller wanted me to need). ( )
6 vote danconsiglio | Mar 30, 2011 |
It's Freudian psychoanalysis, isn't it, that requires the patient to speak his every thought aloud to the psychiatrist, literally for months or years of sessions, until the central issue is discovered? This novel reads like a transcript of such sessions, where it's the mid-1960s and forty-ish Bob Slocum relates his anxieties about his middle-manager office job; his mother, father, siblings; his wife; his current, former, and potential lovers; his increasingly independent teenage daughter; his very sensitive pre-teen son; and his mentally disabled pre-school son. That's pretty much the story: his anxieties. Everything feels true to the '60s; it feels true to today, too, though politically incorrect.

In Catch-22, Heller balanced the horrors of war with laugh-out-loud hilarity. Those extremes aren't present in this novel; instead, the general anxiety and melancholy are balanced only with mild smiles. Here, the polarity is the narrative focus -- 569 pages recounting absolute minutiae, contrasted with the merest paragraph that summarizes a terrible event. And when that event is voiced, as in psychoanalysis, the rest is wrapped up in short order.

One must be in the mood for Heller, and be agreeable to his methods of storytelling. If you are, or are interested in a retro story (think Mad Men), this novel is worth reading. ( )
1 vote DetailMuse | Dec 28, 2009 |
No. It didn't. ( )
7 vote PsibrReadHead | Feb 25, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0684841215, Paperback)

Bob Slocum was living the American dream. He had a beautiful wife, three lovely children, a nice house...and all the mistresses he desired. He had it all -- all, that is, but happiness. Slocum was discontent. Inevitably, inexorably, his discontent deteriorated into desolation until...something happened.

Something Happened is Joseph Heller's wonderfully inventive and controversial second novel satirizing business life and American culture. The story is told as if the reader was overhearing the patter of Bob Slocum's brain -- recording what is going on at the office, as well as his fantasies and memories that complete the story of his life. The result is a novel as original and memorable as his Catch-22.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:49:33 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Something Happened, Joseph Heller's second novel, turns the focus of the same jaundiced eye from life in the military to the work and home life of Corporate Man living the American Dream.

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