by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 remains a pillar of comedic literature. There are few novels that go for outright funny (though a hasty generalization, if there are unearthed troves of humor in the Western canon they remain obscured by the Vonneguts and Adamses and Robbinses, the Waughs, the Twains, the Pratchetts on the shelves, and Parker; enough seemingly to invalidate my argument, but bear in mind that these are drops in a sea of literature stretching back to Aristophanes, who set up and deconstructed all your favorite sitcom tropes in 411 B.C., proving that our universe truly is bounded, and compassed by Lysistrata and Two and a Half Men; and if this seems like a long parenthetical, that I am perhaps trying your patience, let us say that for all that is remarkable in our humor there is a great load of unremarkable works that have dissolved in that sea, and in these parentheses you will feel a grapheme of the disappointment aroused by Something Happened) but Catch-22 endures.
Individual works of literature that transcend genre and achieve abiding success give their authors much freedom. Perhaps too much. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was a peak his narrative style (arguably) never returned from. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy out-entertained what Douglas Adams produced afterward. Blood Meridian stands unrivaled in Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre as a singular act of violent brilliance (not a comedy per se but hysterical by definition). And then there is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which might disprove my argument had its author not been dead for a decade before it was finally published. Good work gives its author a wide berth, and much leeway (The Sixth Sense taught us that). We may blame the sublime.
So I turn, very wearily, to Something Happened, Joseph Heller’s second novel, the one where his editor was apparently drinking his lunches and napping on poor Mr. Toole’s manuscript. My love for Catch-22 inspired me to seek out as much of Heller’s work as I could find. I read Good as Gold, Something Happened, and God Knows in a series of months that began in the sublime and faded to confusion. Something happened to the author’s restraint.
Something Happened is the stream of the consciousness of Bob Slocum, a high ranking cog in a company without distinction who is about to ascend higher, and the story discusses, roughly in order, his job, his women on the side, his family, his wife, his daughter, his son and himself. No mas. Slocum’s ruminations about office life, sexual relations between men and women, mid-life rituals, all ring very true and are presented with a fun and even more incisive wit than in Catch-22. The first chapter in particular, detailing in incendiary boredom the personalities and machinations of his office politics will be familiar to anyone who has worked in a corporate environment. Yet Something Happened is half of a very funny book.
The book is 250 pages too long, packed with passages that recite Slocum’s history ad nauseam. The same shames and victories are told again and again. Nothing happens and nothing changes.
I grant that this is the point. Vonnegut, a fan of the novel, wrote, “This is black humor indeed–with the humor removed.” In its time, he allows, the book was marketed under false pretenses for a public “ravenous for a new Heller book because we want to laugh some more. This is as good a way as any to get people to read one of the unhappiest books ever written.”
Vonnegut was right to peg the book as a deconstruction of literary tropes. There is no happy ending, no resolution. These are true to life characters without good or evil in them just a long, slow-burning pasty gray. The book’s sin is not its characters, who are believably boring and helpless. The book’s sin is not even its plotlessness (at over 500 pages, the subject is open for debate). The book may not even have a sin, as sins are marks of corruption. A book alone cannot be corrupted by anything more than mildew and worms. Fine, we shall not say the book sins. But the book does commit a crime.
It repeats itself. From start to finish, Slocum is talking about a handful of events that are essential to his life. He remembers his teenage sweetheart, he remembers the best girls he’s laid, he remembers an argument at work, again and again. The same dialogues are repeated again and again, the same events are replayed with slightly more or slightly less detail again and again, events that may be imagined or advance the plot (or not) play out again and again.
Catch-22 repeats. Catch-22 tells the same story from multiple memories. But Catch-22 is funny. It is forgivable.
Something Happened could have skewered middle-America. It is true and hurtful. The plot is nonexistent but the story is humiliating and a far more accurate depiction of the secret heart and corruption of America than most modern anti-establishment works. And if Heller had cared to tell it, it would stand today superior to Catch-22.
It is not told well. A novel can be a work of art, but it requires time and patience and care. This novel was born, lived, and died. It is not art. It is such a human narrative that one almost believes it would sin, given sufficient freedom on the shelf. Removing it invites the unforgivable.