The Best Book You've Never Read: 'Something Happened' by Joseph Heller

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When I read something saying I've not done anything as good as Catch-22,   I'm tempted to reply, 'Who has?' —Joseph Heller

Kurt Vonnegut lauded it in The New Yorker. The Guardian stated Heller was "famous for the wrong book." Even Jonathan Franzen thinks it's one of the best. Yet, Something Happened, which took Heller 12 years to write, has been alternately banned, reviled and ignored.

'Something Happened,' which took Heller 12 years to write, has been alternately banned, reviled and ignored.

Bob Slocum is an everyday hero—he fights to hold on to his sanity at a soulless corporate job. He worries about his wife's drinking and his children's growing pains as he clings the American Dream.

Bob Slocum is a dick. He treats his wife like a prostitute and his prostitutes (and his  girlfriends, secretaries and married lovers) far worse. His efforts at parenting are driving his children insane. As the story opens, he's just about to get a promotion, but only if he stabs his best friend in the back.

Something Happened makes about every writing faux pas you can think of. It's too long. (Almost 600 pages.) Takes place almost wholly in the head of the (progressively unstable) narrator. Despite the title, very little actually does happen. (Until the end.)

Oh, and Heller uses way too many parentheses. (At least one on almost every page.)

Yet, what this book can teach us about the uses of Interior Monologue, Point of View and the use of a character's past makes this an invaluable study in how to portray the horror of everyday life.

The Interior Monologue of an American Psycho

A man's head is his castle. —Bob Slocum, Something Happened.

If the above is true, then Slocum is the King of Pain. His interior monologue composes the majority of the novel and allows us a view into the world of an everyday madman in some important ways.

A large part of Bob's life is  spent trying to control an out-of-control world. His work days are spent making "Happiness Charts", where he plots the hierarchy of his corporation based on who's afraid of who. He regularly disguises his voice and identity and phones the switchboard of an old job to inquire whether his first love, who he last saw decades ago, still works there. The answer is always the same: "She killed herself. She did it with gas." "Did she go all red?" Bob-in-Disguise asks innocently.

He never tells us the names of certain, important characters, thus revealing his feelings towards them. We learn that first love is named Virginia. Everyone else in the book—colleagues, mistresses, frenemies—is also given a name. Everyone except his family. His wife, his daughter, and his "boy" are who his family is composed of, as though they are merely appendages, however disappointing.

It's the abundant use of parenthetical statements, however, that offers an original insight into a desperate mind. Slocum's parentheses serve not only as a way of showing the reader his verbal sparring technique, but also how adept he is at hiding his true feelings to himself. In an argument to his teenaged daughter as she pleads:

"...Why must you be this way?"
(I don't know.) "What way?"
"You know."
"I don't." (I do.)
So what? So what if it is all true? (...my father was much worse, ha ha. He was hardly  around at all after he died. Ha ha.) 

Bob Slocum is not  an unreliable narrator as such; we usually know what's happening. Bob does too, only he doesn't know why, and the use of interior monologue gives us an insight into the self he alternately fights to reclaim and destroy.

The Sex Life of Savages and the Use of Point of View

I can't fall in love. That's probably what holds my marriage together. —Bob Slocum, Something Happened.

One of the reasons Slocum is such a chilling character is because he never denies his actions. He's simply unable to connect them to the effect they have on others. This disconnect often makes him feel he is the victim of their pain.

"My wife is unhappy" frets the title of the third chapter. Bob's wife chauffeurs her kids around all day hopped up on wine and is often nursing a whisky when he comes home in the evening. She flirts (badly) with other men at parties. What happened to us, Slocum wonders, then proceeds to reminisce about all the "fun" they had in the early days of their relationship. A big fan of public sex in his youth, Slocum was constantly compelling his shy young girlfriend to have sex on the beach, at the park, at her parent's house. "She did not like to screw in the back of my car (or the front) and I always had to force her...I didn't care whether she enjoyed it or not; just as long as I got mine." Now that his wife is a (barely) functional alcoholic who seduces him in places that horrify even him, Bob is not happy. "You did it," she tells him. "You made me this way."

I really cannot say to my wife 'I'm sorry". She would think I was apologizing.

It's with his children, however, that he tries the hardest and fails the hardest. A happy announcement of his promotion at the dinner table quickly turns sour.

"You don't have to shout..." my wife says.
"I'm not shouting."
"Yes, you are...Don't you hear yourself?"
My wife is right...I have been shouting at them again. The children sit with their eyes lowered. They seem too fearful even to fidget.
...I whirl upon my son without warning, shoot my index finger out at him and demand:
"Are you mad or glad?"
"Glad!" he cries with laughter and delight, when he realizes I am joking again and no longer irate.
I spin around toward my daughter..."Are you mad or glad?" I demand with a grin.
"Oh Daddy," she answers. "Whenever you make one of us unhappy, you always try to get out of it by behaving like a child."
"Oh, shit..."
"Must you say that in front of the children?" my wife asks.
"They say it in front of us." I retort. I turn to my daughter. "Say shit."
"Shit," she says.
"Say shit," I say to my son.
He is ready to start crying.

By crafting devastating scenes of cause and effect, Heller portrays the narcissist's dilemma. Bob Slocum is a man who has steamrolled his way through life and now wonders why the world seems so flat.

Speak, Memory

Something must have happened to me sometime. —Bob Slocum, Something Happened.

A life-changing promotion places Bob at the top of his game and is the catalyst for making him wonder why he's not happy. The more he examines his current life, the further it leads him back to the past. "I can laugh about it now, because it happened so long ago." he blithely muses about the time he walked in on his older brother seducing a not-too-bright prepubescent kid. One thing he can't laugh about is Virginia, the lovely, wounded girl from his first job. Virginia slept with everyone except for the 17 year old Slocum, but he remembers every stilted, yearning conversation they had. He saved her from being gang-raped by older employees, only to find her flirting with them minutes later. As a 22 year old officer fresh from the war, he is finally brave enough to ask her out on a date, only to find out from the office switchboard that she has committed suicide.

(through tears, I saw banner headlines and front page photographs...ARMY OFFICER ABANDONED IN TERMINAL PHONE BOOTH...)

He reveals an incident of childhood abuse but concludes "That didn't count." He claims not to remember his father. ("I miss my father, they told me.") The more he delves into, and discards, aspects of his psyche, the narrative begins to spiral. Song lyrics interrupt his thoughts. Random words—doggie, cotton candy, little boy—move him to tears. What makes this largely unsympathetic character so poignant is Bob's desperate search to find out what made him the monster he's become. But then, just when it seems Bob is about to discover who he really is...something happens.

(I know so many things I'm afraid to find out.) —Bob Slocum, Something Happened.

It's hard to write crazy. While mental instability is often portrayed as ranting in the street and violent mayhem, souls often show their fractures in far quieter ways. Something Happened is a perfect example of how to turn the story of that soul into a complex but rewarding narrative. One the reader can't help but see through to its shocking end.

Image of Something Happened
Author: Joseph Heller
Price: $16.86
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (1997)
Binding: Paperback, 576 pages
Image of Something Happened
Author: Joseph Heller
Price:
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (1974)
Binding: Hardcover, 565 pages
Naturi Thomas-Millard

Column by Naturi Thomas-Millard

Naturi is the author of How to Die in Paris: A Memoir (2011, Seal Press/Perseus Books) She's published fiction, non-fiction and poetry in magazines such as Barrow St. and Children, Churches and Daddies. At Sherri Rosen Publicity Int'l, she works as an editor and book doctor. Originally from NYC, she now lives in a village in England which appears to have more sheep than people. This will make starting a book club slightly challenging.

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ryan elliot wilson's picture
ryan elliot wilson from los angeles is reading Threats by Amelia Gray January 22, 2014 - 12:37pm

Great call Naturi. This book sent me into a strange state of mental anguish which I couldn't name. Though I can't say I "enjoyed" it, I did find myself obsessed and engrossed with the consciousness trip it was. I can now see, ten years after reading it, how much it influenced my own writing (a completely unintended consequence) and what I need from novels.

What is a book "supposed" to do? If the answer is connect, alter, challenge, prod, then this does it all.