MAY 15, 2015
THE MOST CRIMINALLY OVERLOOKED great novel of the past half century is a book called Something Happened, which this year celebrates the 40th anniversary of its publication. Joseph Heller spent more than a decade writing the novel and was so convinced of its genius that he stashed manuscripts all over Manhattan, ensuring that Something Happened would survive in the event his apartment burned down. When he finally brought the completed draft to his agent, he forced his daughter to accompany him on the trip — so she could deliver the pages in case he suffered a coronary or got hit by a bus. In 1974, 13 years after Catch-22 began its gradual ascent into the rarefied realm of idiom, Something Happened was released to a collective cultural shrug, delivering the book its first firm nudge down the slippery slope that bottoms at obscurity. Today, the novel is perhaps best remembered for Kurt Vonnegut’s artfully impartial appraisal in The New York Times Book Review, which described it as “one of the unhappiest books ever written.” Vonnegut wasn’t entirely wrong.
Something Happened is, by design, a punishingly bleak novel. It’s dense and overlong, sometimes sadistically so, and it offers a minimum in the way of resolution or plot. If the novel’s worldview were a color, the human eye would likely fail to perceive its darkness. What is surprising, though, is how by virtue of that same bleakness, Something Happened becomes one of the most pleasurable, engrossing, and in retrospect moving American novels ever written. If you’ve read Something Happened, and you get why others haven’t, then you make it your little mission to convince people that they should.
Understanding why Something Happened failed to achieve the distinguished status of its predecessor is a matter of historical and personal context. Few remember that Catch-22 was greeted with neither universal critical acclaim nor commercial success when it was released in 1961. Presumably, most Americans did not see World War II, i.e., the Good War, as a vehicle for farce, and at the time our escalation of troops in Vietnam was just beginning. When the antiwar movement coalesced a few years later, it discovered, in Catch-22, a madcap distillation of every argument against American Imperialism and indeed against war itself. Heller, already in his 40s, went from relative obscurity to cultural icon during those years. It took him 13 years to publish again, and the pressure of great expectations is apparent on every page of Something Happened. If Catch-22 appeared a few years before Americans were ready to read it, Something Happened jumped the gun by decades, and the novel was already forgotten when its comically bleak take on upper-middle-class life became a staple of fiction.
“I get the willies when I see closed doors.” The first of Something Happened’s nine chapters begins with that sentence, the initial admission of fear from its narrator, Bob Slocum. For whatever reason, Bob’s fears are legion. To list but a few, he is afraid of closed doors, what’s behind closed doors, his wife, his children, his neighbors, his co-workers, the government, the army, the Pentagon, the police, demotion, divorce, abandonment, the three-minute speech he has to give at his company’s retreat in Puerto Rico, and death. He can never quite be sure why he’s afraid of any of these things, which leaves the novel to play as an internal monologue detailing his doomed quest for certitude. All that Slocum knows for sure is this: “Something must have happened to me sometime.”
Like too many of today’s protagonists, Bob Slocum fits squarely into the hole of Privileged White Male Who Has Everything Yet Suffers Always. (If the following character biography doesn’t remind one of Mad Men, it should.) Bob is a successful mid-level executive at a corporate advertising firm in 1960s Manhattan. He is a war veteran with a beautiful wife, three loving children, and a big house in Connecticut. As if it needs to be said, Bob also has a scrupulously maintained double life of “lies” and “booze” and “sex,” but — as if it needs to be said — neither life makes him sufficiently happy. He pines for a divorce he cannot bring himself to ask for. He loathes the day job that he cannot bring himself to quit. His hyper-awareness of his and his family’s unhappiness paralyzes his ability to address that unhappiness. Mostly he sits around, thinks, and wonders why horrible things happen, until he eventually does nothing for so long something actually horrible happens.
A lesser novel would place this tragedy (What Actually Happens) at its forefront, making Bob’s grief the force that animates the events of the book and by consequence its reader’s engagement. Something Happened doesn’t do that. When What Actually Happens happens, it’s a tiny aside occurring five pages from the end, a diamond of action buried in a 600-page landfill of petty obsession, office politics, and petulant, reminiscent navel-gazing. In terms of page real estate, the event is utterly inconsequential, an afterthought — but therein lies the genius of the novel’s psychology. By constantly diverting attention from the event, Heller imbues What Actually Happens with a presence in absence: he argues that our lives will be defined by what we cannot confront. Writers and philosophers had put this “presence in absence” concept into practice before — Hemingway in his short stories, Derrida in his discussions of “trace” — but Heller articulates the idea with a verve that had never before been matched to the subject. Readers were not eager to view their own exquisite existential crises with the kind of flippancy that Heller had brought years before to the absurdity of war.
A common underlying argument for essays of this ilk, from Carl Van Doren’s resuscitation of Moby-Dick on, is that great novels are often overlooked because they are artistically “ahead of their time,” and that may or may not be the case with Something Happened. Thematically, Heller was walking on already trod ground; in fact, in terms of subject, Something Happened was ten years late to the suburban disenfranchisement party. Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, which touches prettily on many of the same themes, received immediate acclaim upon release a decade earlier, in 1961. Subsequently, as a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, Revolutionary Road lost to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a novel, like Something Happened, partially about a war veteran’s persistent ennui. (Another finalist for the 1962 National Book Award was, fittingly, Catch-22.) But what distinguishes Something Happened from its thematic predecessors is the application of the same untamable wildness that touched Catch-22, an élan in the face of the possibility that suffering may be meaningless.
At the same time, Something Happened demonstrates a prescience with respect to the concerns and subjects of present-day narrative fictions. In many ways, Bob Slocum was the archetypal male antihero before he became an archetype, before Don Draper and so many other mad men from television’s recent Golden Age, like Tony Soprano and Walter White. And so much of the internecine warfare and bizarre camaraderie in shows like NBC’s The Office, as well as in novels like Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, appear almost interchangeable with Slocum’s professional travails. To compare:
At the national level things had worked out pretty well in our favor and entrepreneurial cash was easy to come by. Cars available for domestic purchase, cars that could barely fit in our driveways, had a martial appeal, a promise that, once inside them, no harm would come to our children […] Still, some of us had a hard time finding boyfriends. Some of us had a hard time fucking our wives.
The company is having another banner year. It continues to grow, and in many respects we are a leader in the field. According to our latest Annual Report, it is bigger and better this year than it was last year. […] Most of us like working here, even though we are afraid, and do not long to leave for jobs with other companies. We make money and have fun. We read books and go to plays. And somehow the time passes.
The first passage is from Ferris’s 2007 novel, the second from Something Happened, and anyone who has read Ferris’s most recent book, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, will likewise find many more such resemblances in tone and subject. Though direct influence can’t be definitively traced, the corporate argot and paralyzing self-analysis that so defined David Foster Wallace’s writing seems to take distinct cues from Heller as well. There are more examples, ranging from A.O. Scott’s “Death of Adulthood” essay to Stanley Elkin to American Beauty, but the more one looks, the more Heller’s book appears to have hit on a nerve in American society that was not yet raw. As he did in Catch-22, Heller nailed the next sour flavor of our collective anxiety.
Which is all a very roundabout way to justify a discussion of what really makes this novel a classic: its counterintuitive pleasurability. As Vonnegut correctly surmised, Something Happened is one unhappy book, but therein rests the specific, untold pleasures it can afford a dedicated reader. Putting it lightly, Bob Slocum is a character defined by impotent rage and idiopathic dissatisfaction. He hates his family. He hates his coworkers. He hates his neighbors and their horses and the municipal laws that allow his neighbors to have horses. Never does he express his disdain outwardly. He stews on his hatreds, maddeningly circling a bottomless mental drain in futile search for their causes. He is profoundly unhappy as any character in literature, so much so that the reader is forced — by masterful sleight of hand — to learn how to find joy in Slocum’s perpetual misery. In terms of real life skills, literature offers few that are as indispensable.
Slocum’s rage becomes a lens that sharpens the resolution of every perceived detail, constructing a world and psychology of startling vividness and surprising insight. By any sane measure, Slocum is a totally reprehensible human being, yet his concerns register at their core as deeply human. He mourns his lost youth, his dimming love for his wife, his son’s troubles at school, and his daughter’s unhappiness. That Slocum grieves these calamities so wrathfully would be distressing — unreadable maybe — if not for the authority and energy and dark humor with which Heller imbues him. Slocum refers to his daughter’s sadness as “My daughter’s unhappy,” like it’s a noun, some cancerous, irremovable organ inside of her. The entire book is that deeply sad, deeply fun observation writ large. Even Slocum’s most damning characteristic, the wish that his younger, mentally handicapped son would die, is rendered so histrionically it constantly reminds the reader of its fictiveness as it enters the zone of high comedy, all while dragging said reader to the limits of empathy.
These limits are reached when What Actually Happens happens. Slocum plays witness to his older son being hit by a car, and, in what he perceives to be an act of mercy, he smothers the boy to death. Later, in the hospital, he learns that the boy’s wounds were entirely superficial. The only response he can muster is, “Don’t tell my wife.” It takes a patently warped psychology to read this passage as dark comedy, not crushing tragedy. Something Happened spends every sentence up to that decisive moment ensuring its reader’s mind is sufficiently warped to arrive there. The reader laughs where he or she would have cried, understanding that the line drawn between comedy and tragedy isn’t fixed. Ultimately, Slocum’s smothering his son is as paradoxically noble as Heller’s writing of this book: it is meant to alleviate suffering.
Works before and after Something Happened have played with a similarly paradoxical magic, creating a presence out of absence, crushing their characters’ hopes and certainties as a way to provide their readers with certainty and hope. Joseph Conrad shipped Charles Marlow into the heart of Africa to shed light on the darkness of British Colonialism. In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Melville’s character teaches the reader about class, rebellion, individual power — all things one could call “something” — by preferring to do nothing. Harold Pinter infuses his plays with a lack of information, granting every action onstage a wealth of menace and meanings. In his poem “Keeping Things Whole,” Mark Strand writes, “In a field / I am the absence / of field […] Wherever I am / I am what is missing.” This enduring contradiction is the essence of Something Happened: the heart of the novel is the empty space where its heart should be.
The great tragedy of the modern world may be the contrast between the seemingly proliferative causes of human unhappiness and our crushing inability to address those causes. Few novels articulate this reality as enjoyably or complexly as Something Happened. In an age dominated by questions of “likability” and inoffensiveness, Heller’s book should be required reading. For a novel that so consummately proves the enduring emotional and intellectual power of its form, Something Happened has for some reason been left out of the Great Novel conversation for 40 years. Let it be overlooked no more.