Joseph Heller faced an enormous task with his second novel, Something Happened. Catch-22 cast a massive shadow on his productive aspirations. However, Heller conquered the “sophomore slump” and proved himself to be one of the twentieth century’s most versatile writers, worthy of attaining bestseller status with Something Happened. The thirteen-year gap between the two novels saw Heller, in addition to picking up teaching gigs, organizing vignettes and mastering the art of kvetching, all of which he funneled into Something Happened. The work involves Bob Slocum’s broken relationship with himself and his family to flesh out a loss of personal control through mechanisms such as struggles with temporality and Oedipal rage. Between the novel’s powerful prose and the cloud of excitement surrounding its release, it is simple to see why this book took off as an immediate hit. If nothing else, Slocum and Heller alongside him ought to be remembered as two of the best complainers this country has ever produced.
Slocum has a wife, a daughter and two sons, only one of whom, his mentally challenged son Derek, is a named character. So from the start Something Happened does not operate like a traditional novel. There are no separate viewpoints, for instance. The mind’s eye of Slocum is the source of content for the reader; lengthy internal monologues span the bulk of the book’s pages. His mind acts as a filter that parses through the work’s sparse action. His relationship to himself stands out, then, as an obvious point of distinction in this novel. We witness firsthand Slocum’s self-estrangement.
The instability of his identity pops up in various fashions. For instance, he notes that he sources material for conversations and even his handwriting from people around him. This traps him, “inside their smaller vocabularies like a hamster in a cage.” (Heller 74). The unraveling of his agency thus impacts decisions as tiny as how he should craft his uppercase “R.” This habit and others leads to deep fissures of self. These splits of self emerge, for example, when Slocumb (frequently) questions his individuality. “That was somebody else, not me” is his reply while reflecting on the person who indulged in sordid diversions (“satisfactory erotic dreams…the sports pages of the New York Daily News…canned salmon sandwiches…”) during the Vietnam War. (Heller 135). This sequence is a self-referential on Heller’s part, since he saw combat in World War II and of course penned the greatest novel that addresses that conflict. However, this passage shows the important differences between that work, Catch-22, and Something Happened. Slocumb (unlike Yossarian, whose main goal is escape the bureaucratic hegemony of Colonel Cathcart) does not have the luxury of laughing off the pitfalls of modern life.
Clearly, Slocumb’s problems corrode his consciousness and disrupt his sense of temporality. Indeed, negative happenings continuously reverberate through his mind irrespective of how long ago they occurred—or if they even occurred at all. He moves through past, present and future at a rapid pace with no clear indications of why particular events come into his mind. “I can transfer myself into my mother’s, brother’s, sister’s past to see my present and my future. I shift my glance into the future of my children and can see my past. I am what I have been. I incorporate already what I am going to become.” (Heller 402). These should not be the words of a married father of three who leaves his cushy insurance job every day for a tidy house in a Connecticut suburb. But, time, here, unsticks for Slocum, and its unraveling generates the conflict of the novel.
Slocum, then, typifies the “schizophrenia” coined by Frederic Jameson in his pioneering essay on postmodern aesthetics, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capital.” Jameson claims schizophrenia occurs when a subject experiences a breakdown in “the signifying chain” (the successive semiotic signifiers that constitute a phrase or event’s meaning) which leads to a disintegration of temporality (Jameson 71-2). Jameson applies this to language and then extends it to events themselves. History is sorted in our mind as a series of textual images, and we lean on our temporal sensibilities while interpreting them. In the schizophrenic man, a breakdown in effective meaning frees the present from its natural duties and effects and instead “engulfs the subject with indescribably vividness, a materiality of perception properly overwhelming.” (Jameson 73). Slocum refers to these episodes as “the willies” (Heller 3).
Grievously, manic thoughts and hallucinations consume him by the works end; his “willies” do not get any better. Slocum moans, “I walk around with jitters, headaches, and sadness ballooning and squiggling about inside me that seem to belong to somebody else. Is this schizophrenia, or merely a normal, natural, typical, wholesome, logical, universal schizoid formation?” (Heller 506). There is a temptation to consider Slocum as improving since he is occasionally aware of his issues and depersonalization. But he basks in the mania instead of shedding it. Just a few pages later, he delineates the pros and cons of killing his wife. His belief that his emotions “belong to somebody else” runs parallel to Jameson’s schizophrenia. It distorts the meaning of the emotions because the proper chain of signification is not in place.
Sigmund Freud provides another helpful point of entry into the events (and non-events) of the work. His name and ideas are explicitly mentioned numerous times during Slocum’s soliloquies, especially his views on dreams and bonds between family members. These will shed light into Slocum’s mind. Now, Freud posits that dreams let us indulge the deepest recesses of our brain. (Freud 578). Our mind wanders at night because it is free from a censor of sorts that, when we are awake, prevents us from conjuring up the often fantastical images we find in a dream work. Perhaps Freud’s most important contribution—and biggest connection to Slocum—is the impetus behind dreams. He claims that “a dream is a “disguised” fulfillment of a (repressed or suppressed) wish. (Freud 194). This is significant because Slocum’s narrative roots itself in a constant battle (an intense, aching wish, that is) for control. He repeatedly pines for the death of those who ought to be closest to him: “There are times I wish everyone I know would die and release me from these tender tensions I experience in my generous solicitude for them.” (Heller 343). The “tender tensions” disillusion him to the point of delirium. This robs him of a conventional, productive existence.
To continue our interaction with Freud, this novel’s protagonist offers us numerous examples of his dreams and opinions thereof. While considering the peculiar nature of dreams, he ponders, “What is happening to me when I am not conscious of myself?” (Heller 171). For most people, these slips into unconsciousness occur only during dreams. This is in line with Freud’s ideas. However, Slocum’s mind is off kilter. The factors responsible for this—chiefly his fractured relationship to his family and to time—deny him the ability to parse out the differences between waking and dreaming life. His wish to break off all ties with the outside world generates a chaotic example of a dream that loosens his grip on reality.
Slocum dreams that his family’s maid called him at his office to let him know that his son (it is not clear which one) is lying breathless and motionless on the floor of his living room. (Heller 345). Although the phone call viscerally affects him in the dream itself, upon waking up, Slocum is nonplussed. “More than anything, I think I would feel inconvenienced,” he intones (Heller 345). He considers how much of a hassle it would be to time his arrival back home properly as to avoid the emergency personnel who cart off his son. His instinct for violence and broken relationship with his family repeatedly manifest themselves in dreams such as these. Most people would consider them nightmares. But Slocum classes dreams like this as mere “inconveniences” whose content is not all that objectionable. This demonstrates how Slocum pushes the theories of Freud to their limit by indulging in wishes that ought to be so beyond the pale they never manifest themselves, not even in our vulnerable dream state.
This dream, much like the bulk of the Slocum’s grievances, involves the protagonist’s family. It is worth touching on their dynamic, then, especially because Freud informs this facet of the novel, too. The “Oedipus Complex,” Freud’s most iconic theory, states that a boy is blissfully happy with his mother but sees his father as a rival; “it is the fate of all of us to direct…our first hatred and first murderous wish against our wish” (Freud 296). Slocum’s Oedipal dynamic is not this clear cut, though, because his father died when he was a young boy. This is partly another biographic move on Heller’s part, since his biological father died when he was only five years old. Heller dredges up the death of Slocum’s father from time to time to reinforce its impact. Slocum states his father’s death causes him to feel “guilty and ashamed.” (Heller 3). But it offers a narrative to justify despair: “If I was unhappy, I could always tell myself it was because my father was dead.” (Heller 206). This resonant despondency allows Heller to deconstruct our popular notion of the Oedipus Complex. The rage reverses and flows forth from the father down to the son—“That’s the part they all leave out of the Oedipus story…His father wanted to kill him” (Heller 337). This is significant because it traces out the origins behind Slocum’s discontent for both of his sons.
Plenty of Slocum’s rage is directed at Derek, his disabled son. He lays bear his contempt for Derek’s condition to start one of the novel’s chapters: “It is not true that retarted… children are the necessary favorites of their parents…we do not love [Derek] at all.” (Heller 359). However, Slocum does not foster a substantial relationship with his other son, either. A turning point occurs after his son gets into an altercation at a summer camp during a camp activity. His son disrupts a relay race and the situation collapses very quickly. The children of the camp swarm Slocum’s son with all of the ire that pent up summertime energy can possibly foster. “It was a mob scene,” as Slocum puts it (Heller 314). After this occurs, the notion that the two could one day reconcile is dispelled. His son becomes a repeated victim of his father’s discontent and, ultimately, rage. This malevolence morphs into violence when Heller pushes Slocum to the brink at the close of the work. An unnamed youth cries out, “Something happened!” outside of a shopping center. Heller pans his prose to capture a shot of Slocum’s son writhing in pain. (Heller 562). He ultimately dies of asphyxiation. And this is probably Slocum’s fault—“I can’t bear to see him suffering such agony and fright ... I hug him tightly with both my arms. I squeeze.” (Heller 562). In one final act of paternal turpitude, Slocum makes good on his word to eliminate his bothersome son. This impactful moment demonstrates a total evacuation of morality.
In a redoubtable move from Heller, the work’s final five pages, which tidy up the loose ends of the plot that follow the death of Slocum’s son, take a positive tact. Slocum basks in a newfound agency over his life. He gets a promotion, settles old qualms with his wife, and starts to climb the social ladder. The book closes with an eerie pronouncement: “Everyone seems pleased with the way I’ve taken command.” (Heller 569). At last, he attains dominion over his life. Sort of. In the end it is a pyrrhic victory. The loss of his son of course robs the “achievement” of any laudability. Moreover, His newfound social status forces him to endure even more hollow social pleasantries. These are the very same rituals of modern life that made him rebel in the first place. Also, his transformation lacks staying power; in between showers of praise, the same broken man who commits infanticide muses, “People seem dazzled by the swift competence with which I appear to be taking things under control.” (Heller 566). This statement evinces Slocum’s lack of attrition. He spends the entire book indulging in evil in every way possible. How, then, does a work steeped in cynicism and madness find itself on the bestsellers list?
A couple points of importance can show us why Something Happened sold 143,276 units the year of its release alone (Schott). To start, Heller’s masterful command of language lulls the reader into relishing the ebb and flow of Slocum’s thoughts. Heller’s humor, for instance, darkens. The deadpan humor contrasts with the meticulous, circular wordplay found in Catch-22. Slocum, in his internal monologues, makes plenty of jokes to himself. For example, he tells us, “I hate funerals…and I do my best to avoid going to any (especially my own, ha, ha).” (Heller 8). Laugh out loud moments such as this do not appear as often as in his debut, but their appearances invigorate the reading experience. Indeed, plenty of characters joke in the work. Forms of the word “laugh” appear 140 times (Something Happened). So, Heller’s trademark levity remains intact.
Moreover, in spite of Slocum’s tenuous grip on reality, Heller’s prose possesses lucidity. A scholar like Jameson would be tempted to class this work as “postmodern.” However, this work does not possess the opaque feeling as a canonically foundational work of postmodernism such as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. There are certainly tricky sequences in the work. At no point, though, does the work careen off a linguistic cliff. Slocum’s thoughts dance across the page, ensnaring the reader into his web of madness. Parentheses appear on almost every page. Their usage gives Heller flexibility to weave in and out of Slocum’s mind at will. It provides the work a distinct feel and allows us to pear into his mind in a much more accessible fashion than the high flying “stream of consciousness” of an author such as Joyce.
Lastly, the immense popularity of Heller’s debut novel must be taken into consideration. Catch-22 has sold over 10 million copies since its release according to Wikipedia (Wikipedia). Plus, it was turned into a quite striking movie (starring Paul Newman). So, Heller was on the radar of every mid 1970’s reader.
All of these factors, in combination with the books brilliant dialogue concerning the estrangement of the modern man, culminate in what many critics and casual readers alike consider Heller’s best novel. Jameson’s discourse on schizophrenia helps us piece together Slocum’s broken mind. Meanwhile, Freud’s appearances cloak the work in a dreamlike mist. Moving across societal mores, Heller weaves together a tale that is solipsistic without being soporific. Something Happened does not boast the sweeping romantic energy or engrossing action of most bestselling novels. Slocum shows us, though, that “the willies” work just as well.
Bernier, Michael. Fox, John. Jr, 20th-Century American Bestsellers. http://bestsellers.lib.virginia.edu/submissions/153. Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.
“Catch-22.” Wikipedia, 14 Apr. 2018. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Catch-22&oldid=836408858.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by James Strachey, Basic Books, 1998.
Heller, Joseph. Something Happened. 1st ed., Alfred A. Knopf ; Distributed by Random House, 1974. University of Virginia Library.
---. Something Happened [E-Book]. Dell Publshing Company Incorporated, https://www.amazon.com/SOMETHING-HAPPENED-Joseph-Heller-ebook/dp/B005IQZ894/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1523973004&sr=8-1. Accessed 14 Apr. 2018.
Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Capital.” The New Left Review, no. 146, Aug. 1984, pp. 53–93. UVa Collab.
Schott, Timothy. Something Happened, 20th-Century American Bestsellers. https://bestsellers.lib.virginia.edu/submissions/374. Accessed 15 Apr. 2018.