In Something Happened, Joseph Heller’s new novel, the story is told by the hero as if he were dictating secretly to some device implanted in his brain. We overhear everything while he reports what is going on at the office and at home from day to day, and reports too the fantasies and memories that haunt him and drive him and that give us eventually what he says is the story of his life.
He knows somebody is listening. His gadget is attached not to the preconscious like Leopold Bloom’s, where bubbles of words helplessly welter up and break on the surface of the stream to give us clues about what is going on down underneath. Rather, this hero is permitted to strike conscious verbal postures for us, to make wisecracks, to brag, to whine, to beg and threaten. “Ha, ha,” he says to us when he makes a joke, mocking himself with that little epistolary flourish from the penny postcards of a simpler and happier America: “I am not always able anymore to deceive myself (if I were, I would not know that, would I—ha, ha).”
Poor Poldy never guessed he was bugged. Heller’s man never forgets it, although, in the end, he seems to think we will keep his secret for him (who does he think we are?) and his last brief session is called, “Nobody knows what I’ve done.”
It seems a pity to abstract the setting and plot from all the author’s elaborate presentation, and to tell, even, the well-kept secret of what it is that finally happens. But this is not a detective story to be discarded like a toy balloon when popped. The way the story is told, it takes a long time for us to learn even the name of the fellow we are eavesdropping on; in the way these things have gone since novelists learned to put us in the blinkers of a point of view and to keep their own mouths shut, it seems almost forever before we find out enough of the protagonist’s vital data to fill out the three by five dossier card that will hold it all. As it happens here in this book, we never do learn things like the names of Bob Slocum’s two oldest children, or the name of the company he works for, or even, just as in Chad Newsome’s case that Henry James was so coy about, what kind of monkey business the company is in. I can’t be sure now if we know his wife’s name or not. (Heller is reported to have been pleased when somebody noticed that Yossarian is once only and in passing, in all of Catch-22, given his Christian name.)
Bob Slocum, then, seems to be a man of early middle age doing well in a big New York-based “company.” Married, three children, house in suburb, cars. Army vet, plays golf.
His father died when Bob was six, his older brother died later. His mother had bad strokes and was a long time dying. His sister moved away. His youngest child, Derek, is hopelessly retarded.
Other things happened, not for the file card: he was shocked by the primal scene, and by his sister naked, and by his big brother screwing Billy Foster’s kid sister. When his father died, he was ashamed. He came to realize he would never have broad shoulders or huge biceps. He hates and scorns his company and his fellow employees and plays office politics hard.
He is fond of his wife, tirelessly chases tail and catches it, but thinks obsessively about a young woman he loved at seventeen and never made. (She killed herself, later.) His wife has taken to afternoon tippling. He is constantly terrified that something dreadful is going to happen to his children. He recognizes many faults in himself. He calls himself “anaclitic,” locked in the infant’s libidinal life. “When I grow up,” he teases himself, “I want to be a little boy.” “Things are going on inside me I cannot control and do not admire.” And—of course it is not all inside him. “I cannot fight and nullify a whole culture, an environment, an epoch, a past….” “I’ve got the decline of American civilization and the guilt and ineptitude of the whole government of the United States to carry around on these poor shoulders of mine.”
Slocum loves to tie people up in pointless conversations and torture them for hours on end. He does this to his colleagues and his wife and his daughter and his son and his girl friends, and to people over the telephone. He sounds like Albee’s Martha and George, both of them. It goes on so long that we can’t help feeling he is torturing us, too (whoever he thinks we are). He has given us, right from the start, the chief symptom of his illness, which is an overwhelming urge to attack and destroy any suffering thing, mouse or man, woman or child. “If I kill my wife, who will take care of my children? If I kill my children, my wife can take care of herself. A prudent family man,” so Slocum wisecracks to himself and to us, “must plan ahead towards possibilities like that in order to provide for his loved ones.” “‘Let’s kill the kid,’ I used to joke jauntily….”
For more than five hundred pages we suffer these fantasies of his, so compulsively repeated that when something finally happens—and in addition Slocum has now begun to hallucinate—this reader at least had to blink and go back to make sure it really happened and was not just another of Slocum’s foul daydreams. Like the secret Snowden spilled to Yossarian in the B-25 over Avignon, what happens has been foretold again and again, here not in those blinks and flashes that finally burst through Yossarian’s merciful repression into full and horrid recovery, but in the cracks and crumbs of Slocum’s mind as he moves to act out his most dreadful wish.
It is a long time coming, and meanwhile we listen with the trapped bored disgust of an FBI man hunched in a little dark closet or of a psychoanalyst. We know our subject is guilty by nature but we have to wait and wait for the last rotten bean to spill. Had I not been on assignment, like the agent or the analyst, I doubt I would have endured it. Always clever, Slocum is, and often enough endowed with the cruel clairvoyance of the psychopath. But such a miserable worm! What he does in the end, what “happens,” is that he kills his own nine-year-old son. He couldn’t bear to see him bleeding from a minor accident, and asphyxiates him—literally smothers him in his loving arms. Having done this, Slocum proclaims he is free of all his misgivings and proceeds to be an efficient manager and real bastard down at the office.
The way the story is told really is the plot and the circumstance, is itself recognition and reversal, as our doctrine these days says it ought to be. The manner of revelation is itself what is revealed. And therein may have lurked, for Heller, a key miscalculation—but I will come back to that.
It would be easy to dismiss Something Happened, and probably wrong. For as he did so unforgettably in Catch-22, Joseph Heller pushes at us here a deadly moral and we may well find ourselves impaled on it. This is not just another punishment of the same old organization man. No, Slocum’s scummy, slimy nature is calculated to trap us in his horror as surely as Yossarian’s adorable boyish farce did in his horror. Something Happened does not have anything like the marvelous clowning, the poignant camaraderie, the wild caricature, the pure acetylene contempt of Catch-22; large corporations are pretty funny but nothing can be as funny as an army. Nor does business life provide quite such shocks as can the military. (Those shocks, the slaughters that the military must take as their career-goal, are of course why warriors have always had to work themselves up to such funny lifelong frenzies of hierarchical ritual and sacred self-adornment.) So there is nothing here like those indelible images, archetypal now, the white plaster soldier, Kid Sampson on the raft, the man in the tree, Snowden’s secret.
Surely nobody expected Heller even to try things like that again. Nor can we expect that Something Happened is likely to enjoy the fate of Catch-22, progressing from random cheers and groans to cult observances and then, through the years of a hideous American history it seemed to predict, to its place as a “contemporary classic” by mass acclaim and academic instauration. In Frederick Kiley’s and Walter McDonald’s A Catch-22 Casebook (1973), Heller is seriously and analytically compared by various hands to masters including Homer, Virgil, Dante, Dickens, Joyce, and Ken Kesey. The title is a phrase of the language.
But the ruminations of Slocum do become as insidious as muck. The voice is so familiar. He describes the head of his sales department.
His name is all wrong. (Half wrong. Andrew is all right, but Kagle?) So are his clothes. He shows poor judgment in colors and styles, as well as in fabrics, and his suits and coats and shirts do not fit him well enough. He moves to madras and paisley months after others have gone to linen or hopsack or returned to worsted and seersucker. He wears terrible brown shoes with fleur-de-lis perforations. He wears anklets (and I want to scream or kick him when I see his shin).
These sketches and snatches of vision, which we ought to be ashamed to share, slowly work on one another and fester richly as we learn of their sources in what happened to Bob Slocum since he was born, and then the whole mess begins to give off an elemental stink of life.
“Not mine,” I hope you can say. I feel less lucky than that. For me, Joseph Heller has to an unusual degree the power to disturb. I recall thinking about Catch-22 back in 1961 that I didn’t want women I knew to read it, a squeamishness perhaps strangely enough projected—not sufficiently unlike, perhaps, Slocum’s own deadly tenderness. Some of us at least are going to be reminded by this book of too many things we put away in unmarked places, the bad luck of too many deaths too close to home, too many bad habits of the way some of us live, too much bad faith, bad dreams, and how we are still frightened by things long after we should have gotten over them. These accuse personally. Yossarian’s innocent revelation only accused the world. “They’re trying to kill me.” “No one’s trying to kill you.” “Then why are they shooting at me?” “They’re shooting at everyone. They’re trying to kill everyone.” “And what difference does that make?” “You’re crazy.” Ah, to be crazy again in that harmless fashion.
I can deny Slocum is now or ever has been any semblable of mine or any frère. Maybe I will deny that his life is in any way the life of myself, of my generation, my USA, my era, or even, to spill Slocum’s secret that Slocum never quite spills, that his nasty life is human life—is the life of the hearth, of the tribe, of civilization itself. But no less a rough great stake than that does Heller try to leave us stuck on.
It is too much. Heller’s man may induce in some of us qualms of recognition but he will not bear the burden of being Everyman. I believe it is not overinterpretation to say that Heller expects him to do this. Slocum pleads with his boy’s gym teacher not to torment the kid: “‘And you’re not going to get even, are you? Take it out on him because I came here to ask?” ‘No, of course not,’ Forgione exclaims indignantly. ‘Why would I want to do that?’ (Because you’re human, I think.)” This is a view familiar enough these days, but is Slocum enough to prove it? The way society manages the biological events of our lives turns us all into monsters like Slocum, so this view goes, and if we are to join this society and be grown-ups (“When I grow up, I want to be a little boy”), then we must of necessity visit all these cruelties again on our children.
At least since Salinger, there has been a strong movement in American fiction to persuade us that it would be better for all of us if we could remain little boys—and Slocum does the brave favor for his little boy of granting him this absolution. By this view, we are not to ask whether or not in our gray flannel suits (our denims, our double knits) we are better or worse than the other monsters of history, the men of Caesar or Attila, of Hitler. In those terms, on that level, of course it is foolish. It cannot be one of the great human evils to sound exactly like Esquire magazine, crazed by a glimpse of hide between trouser and sock. There is some radical loss of perspective here. Catch-22 may well be, for a generation, its book of War, but Something Happened cannot team up with it to make a War and Peace.
And then there is that slight miscalculation I mentioned, about the way the story so artfully stays all in the hero’s mind. Once upon a time, heroes defined themselves and became representative by actions. The fictional heroes of our time do it by displaying their sensibilities. There is a rule here. Let not our worms try to turn, to become men who act, unless they act farcically. Slocum’s essence comes from what he is, from sounding like Esquire, from not letting his kid become a man by not being one himself—not from actual physical murder. When he is made to do this, his story becomes a case history rather than a sad predicament. Nor will its great nameless “Company” serve to make it an allegory.
We don’t expect authors to interpret their own writings, but Heller, in 1962, when he was already at work on Something Happened, told an interviewer that his material derives “from our present atmosphere, which is one of chaos, of disorganization, of absurdity, of cruelty, of brutality, of insensitivity, but at the same time one in which people, even the worst people, I think are basically good, are motivated by humane impulses.” So says many a proverb, but it is a conflict indeed, perhaps a conflict almost as great, in the form of abstract statement, as that made by Heller before, when he showed how World War II did have to be fought and yet to those in it, no matter how necessary the cause, it felt like Catch-22.
Good stories make conflicting morals. Heller probably tries too hard to make his stories cover all the moral points, and readers, or critics anyway, tend to forget the value of the narrative as they ponder the moral of Yossarian’s desertion, and as they may ponder the moral of Slocum’s murder. Heller’s imagination is serious, really serious. I don’t know how many today urge us to the depths where things, rather than being merely and easily absurd, truly resist our categories of what ought to be. But Bob Slocum, I am afraid, does not quite take us along. We have all heard those tour guides who think to charm us by showing how they seduce themselves with their own voices. Slocum is exactly such a one, and far too long-winded ever to talk us all the way down with him.