by Joseph Heller
Knopf, 569 pp., $10.00
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 …