3 out of 5
As I’m sure many reviews – positive or lukewarm or negative – have commented, for about all of the 600 pages of Joseph Heller’s sophomore novel, Something Happened, nothing much of note actually happens. It’s a long, obsessive, and often exhaustive spiel on mundanities; daily offenses (as we might interpret them); building up to a punchline in its last few pages. It’s a logic expansion on what was accomplished with Catch-22, even if it wasn’t received with (after a while, and then decades later, as well) nearly the same amount of acclaim, but it’s even more abstracted and internalized, with Heller’s wartime novel moving a few narrative threads forward while jumping around the hypocrises of wartime mentalities and poking and prodding at some of the underlying hypocrises, and Something Happened nearly dropping any sense of narrative and fully moving the commentary to within the mental realm of one Bob Slocum, moderately affluent business type at a vaguely defined sales organization.
Heller was not the first to write a book about “nothing” – in the sense that all of the text is just observation, and not detailing much action – nor was he the first to try to pick apart the falseness of happy families with good jobs and smiling wives and children; however, Something Happened does push beyond those templates’ borders a bit by being fairly mean. Bob hates his wife; he hates his kids; he hates his job. He hates the affairs he has. He hates his past. He hates his future. Approached with the same sense of snark as Catch-22, Heller prevents this from being overbearing, but even with hundreds of pages of similar wordplay, it is still often rather blunt.
I do think this is what made self-loathing, fearful-of-the-world Me fall in love with the book as a teen, as it appealed to those mindsets. My emotions were confusing, but I was smart enough to try to apply some reason to it, and if we extend that far enough forward, you get Bob Slocum, a wonderfully fantastic character name because of how gross and also normal it is, fully informing the character’s attributes from the get-go. Sure, I was a kid then and Bob was an adult, but the way he admits to his feelings so openly, of generally sacrilege thoughts – he wishes death upon his children! – landed with me, and the love / hate feelings the character has toward sex (always wanting it, but hating the associated “hassles” of it) certainly also made sense to my hormone-fueled self at a certain age.
Nowadays, of course, it reads a little bit differently, just as Catch-22 does. There are still some absolutely vital stretches of text here, but I see the style over substance that was intriguing to me at the time – the rule-breaking of unbroken paragraphs stretching across 3 pages, and the way Heller / Slocum narrates across different conversations as though they were all one conversation – which I now question as to the true purposefulness. In part, it’s to make the final punchline land – but is 600 pages worth that? – and in part, it’s to juxtapose a later chapter in the book when Slocum’s feelings get equally clearer (they’re more about him than they are projected outwards) and more surreal, with the character switching the focus of his thoughts without any indication up front, just a full-on stream of self-doubt. At this point, the book achieves something more revelatory, digging at the wound of Self aggressively, somewhat similar to when Catch-22 briefly gets very dark and linear towards its end. But Slocum pops back out from this, so we can move on to the final joke of things, and I again have to ask if the overall structure of the book merits this short, affecting section – that is: does the latter balance out the former? And I don’t really think that it does.
Something else that’s interesting, but harder to parse, is Slocum’s racism and sexism. Tackling the latter first, Heller’s female characters generally don’t fare well, because they’re either “bitches” or sex objects, and then often both. In Catch-22, I found this more tolerable because there really aren’t any characters in the book – even Yossarian is just a figurehead for ideas, and as such, is presented as equally simplistic, and stereotypically. However, Bob Slocum is definitely a character, and through him, his wife and his daughter become characters as well. Setting aside how much of this was apparently taken from Heller’s own life, while Heller is clearly trying to make a point about inherent sexism at points, with Slocum’s attitudes towards women, there’s also the ingrained sexism of a male author’s point of view, and trying to draw a line between mindsets of the 60s, and what Heller might’ve been trying to say, and how the author actually felt is difficult. The racism aspect isn’t ingrained, I don’t think, and is more clearly a character attribute, but it’s just sort of tossed in there at points as though to make the whole dejectableness of Slocum, and his class – there’s ongoing fear-mongering chatter about his daughter dating a black man – clearer. In both cases, there’s just not enough depth or purposefulness in application to actually make these pursuits feel like they have the intended effects.
Overall, I do think this is a better novel than Catch-22, as it takes even more risks, and Heller was really pushing himself, even if the results of that were still, ultimately, pretty limited. Mixed in with Bob Slocum’s rants about the girl who used to lead him on at his old job; his dissatisfaction with his wife and daughter; his disregard for his intellectually disabled son; his potential for a raise at his current job; and other random asides, there’s a lot of challenging stuff scattered about, picking apart the Modern Male and Ideal Family templates that still have their parallels today. The aggressiveness with which Heller has Slocum state his take on things can, indeed, draw one to question their own obsessive thinkings, and that aside, while Heller’s narrative playfulness can be tiring at length, it’s also pretty damn funny at points, too. But the book is definitely an uphill climb, and my memories of it are more about its attitude and style than its actual content, which can be occasional pages-long churns to get through.