Bob Slocum gets the willies when he sees closed doors. Somehow, he can't seem to rid himself of the thought that something horrible might be happening behind one door, behind the next. Something must have happened to him sometime, something to put the fear in him the way the fear is in him now; hell, the way the fear is in everyone now, like how in the office in which he works there are five people of whom he is afraid, and each of these people is afraid of five others (except the secretary who is slowly going crazy, and of course everyone is afraid of her), of superiors with fat egos and of subordinants who look hungry.
Bob Slocum's wife is unhappy; she was prudish once, but since that's been out of style for years, she tries her best to swear, to drink, to enjoy sex, to flirt blatantly with her husband's co-workers while he's watching. She flirts poorly, unlike her husband, who's had a list of willing mistresses throughout nearly his entire adult life, and who, though well into middle-age, still has his way with women in their early twenties on occasion.
Bob Slocum's daughter is unhappy. Her parents, she says, are a matter of "supreme indifference" to her. She wouldn't, in all honesty, be able to feel sorry if they were to die in a car accident or of brain tumors (provided they did so quickly). She suggests that it would probably be best, though she's only sixteen, if she were to get an apartment of her own. Which is fine with Bob Slocum: "I'll pay for it," he suggests. She angrily walks out of the room.
Bob Slocum's boy is bright and fast, but having some difficulties in school (in phy. ed.) because he seems to be without any sort of competitive spirit: In basketball, he often gives the ball to some slow, inept boy on the opposing team. In relay races, he slows to allow the other runners to catch him.
Derek, the second sun, the "idiot child" is perhaps the only happy member of the Slocum family—unable to speak or reach a mental age beyond five. Oh, to have so few worries.
- - -
Accidentally reading the back cover of my copy of Joe Heller's Something Happened (Scribner Trade Paperback, 1997), I got through an entire quotation (blurb?) from The Philadelphia Inquirer before I even realized what I was doing:
The test of a novel is when it deserves to be read a second time. People will be rereading Something Happened, and fifty years from now they'll be reading it still.
Now normally I try to stay away from reading the Jacket Copy, the glowing three-word reviews, all the meaningless bullshit that's pasted all over the cover space (and sometimes the first couple pages), because (1) I want to approach the book with as little foreknowledge as possible, and (2) most of the stuff said means fuck all even when taken in context. But this one got me. I was sitting on the bus on my way home from Barnes & Noble, transparent shopping bag on my lap—anyway, the point is it sort of caught in my head, because I don't know what kind of books this particular critic has been reading, but the way I see it, the test of a novel is whether it works some sort of change in you, probably while your not looking, so that when you feverishly blow through those last twenty pages, you're a different person (just a little) than you were before you read the thing. That's my test. I'll probably never re-read Heart of Darkness, though it was a brilliant work, and I'll not be reading Winesburg, Ohio again for a number of years, if ever. And I'm not sure I can handle Something Happened again—because when a work does its job on you, it isn't with soft words and gentle encouragement, it's with a razor so sharp you don't even feel it cut. But you remember, you anticipate. Paging through the novel this afternoon, trying to find some sort of tone for this review, I'd stop on one paragraph, then another, then another, that hit me as the height of tragedy. The daughter doing, saying, everything she possibly can just to be noticed by her father, while the father sees her "rebellion" as an expression of her loathing for him; the wife, sadly, ham-fistedly flirting with inarticulate men; the boy just trying not to be broken by a world that is, by its own nature, bitter and mean-spirited over being broken itself.
Maybe it's just raw right now. I've given it a month; maybe next year I'll be up to it. But here, see, this is the thing: This is a novel populated by (in almost every case) highly intelligent and clever characters. Nearly every one of them surprises me, at one point or another, with some quick, bright, biting comment. Disregarding the "idiot child," none of the characters are space-fillers or naive and sentimental ignorance-is-bliss types. If they were, if Bob Slocum, his wife, his boss, his children—if each of these people lost maybe fifteen IQ points, this novel would be a comedy rather than a tragedy. Kurt Vonnegut's thesis in his novel Galapagos is that the real problem with humanity is our brains are too large. This he argues in his over-the-top, Slapstick style, which I suppose makes the fairly dire idea more palatable. Joe Heller argues basically the same point in this 570 page sledgehammer he calls Something Happened, and I believe it is because he makes the argument so effectively that this novel has not attained the success that Catch-22, his first novel, did. Catch-22 suggests that government is, for lack of a stronger word, insane. Something Happened suggests that intelligent people, when placed in a room together, will, through the struggles of establishing superiority and through simple miscommunication and self-consciousness and spite, begin to loathe one another.
The really brilliant thing about this novel is that, though it was published over a quarter of a century ago (and written over the span of thirteen years, before that), feels immensely contemporary. The only real reminder that this novel was written in another time are a couple passing references to Eisenhower and Nixon. I don't know if I'd use a word as strong as prophetic, but I think Heller hits the vein of apathy and frustration that's been the common stance of probably the last three generations in America. Two other writers of the period stand out, in my mind, in describing this common feeling—Vonnegut, with his discussions of the collapse of the extended family, and Hunter S. Thompson, with his endless eulogizing about the Death of the American Dream—but somehow, Heller seems to capture the real, honest tragedy in a way the other two have not.
"Nothing Happened," the famous two-word review that has quite predictably attached itself to the novel, is accurate in a manner of speaking. I mean, in an existential sort of way, nothing ever really happens, or nothing extraordinary happens, or (these things do get muddy, don't they?) it is all relative anyway, so what's the use? But I don't think this particular critic (who's name I have not been able to find, which I think says something) was referring to anything so . . . metaphysical; I believe he was simply taking an easy shot (like all the true wits of the musical criticism scene who refer to the band Garbage, every chance they get, as aptly named). Yes, the novel itself is definitely concerned with useless corporate dick-waving and favors sharp, ironic dialogue to serial killers or vampires or dinosaurs, but I'd suggest this might perhaps not be the monumental shortcoming that, initially, it seems.
Oh, and the "something" that supposedly happens does, in fact, happen. Sort of the way a good solid kick in the ribs "happens."
Something Happened by Joseph Heller
569 pages, © 1974 by Scapegoat Productions, Inc.
(Paperback trade edition published by Simon & Schuster's Scribner division)
ISBN: 0-684-84121-5 (Paperback)