“Something Happened”: Joseph Heller’s Underappreciated Novel

“The best book you’ve never read.” Naturi Thomas-Millard, Lit Reactor, about Joseph Heller’s Something Happened

Ah, but I have. Not once, but twice—a rarity for me. Although Joseph Heller‘s Something Happened (1974) is, 40-plus years later, the fuzziest of fond memories, I can still list a few things I liked: the humor (which many would say is bleak), dysfunctional narrator Slocum’s continual inner thoughts (which many view as monotonous), and the theme (which many believe virtually nonexistent).

Oh, and the parentheticals! (And there are tons.) Naturi Thomas-Millard, Lit Reactor, notes that Slocum’s slew of parentheticals “serve not only as a way of showing the reader his verbal sparring technique, but also how adept he is at hiding his true feelings to himself.”

An oft-quoted example: “Maybe I am senile already and people are too kind to tell me. People are not kind and would tell me. (Maybe people have told me, and I’m too senile to remember).”

I can now see the probable influence on my own novel, Minding Therapy (2002), which focuses on a dysfunctional narrator, has dark humor, and features lots of internal parenthetical-like dialogue. (The fact that I never thought of this before makes me feel senile. Or maybe I have thought of it before and forgot.)

Carmen Petaccio, LA Review of Books, who calls Something Happened  “the most criminally overlooked great novel of the past half century,” sets it up further:

‘I get the willies when I see closed doors.’ The first of Something Happened’s nine chapters begins with that sentence, the initial admission of fear from its narrator, Bob Slocum. For whatever reason, Bob’s fears are legion. To list but a few, he is afraid of closed doors, what’s behind closed doors, his wife, his children, his neighbors, his co-workers, the government, the army, the Pentagon, the police, demotion, divorce, abandonment, the three-minute speech he has to give at his company’s retreat in Puerto Rico, and death. He can never quite be sure why he’s afraid of any of these things, which leaves the novel to play as an internal monologue detailing his doomed quest for certitude. All that Slocum knows for sure is this: ‘Something must have happened to me sometime.’

Another fan, one who asserts that Something Happened (not Catch-22) was Heller’s best, is John Self, The Asylum, who offers more details of interest:

Everyone in the book is suffering – My wife is unhappy, goes one chapter heading; My daughter’s unhappy, another; My little boy is having difficulties – and we don’t know how miserable they really are, and how much of it is distorted through Slocum’s poisoned view…Of his wife he says, ‘I want to be free of her before her health fails. I see an ailing wife in my future.’ When his daughter tells him she isn’t happy, ‘I told her I wasn’t either and nobody had a right to expect to be.’ His weakness for honesty is fatal to his family. To his worrisome son (who asks ‘If you do want to get rid of me, how will you do it?’), he is unable to offer the categoric reassurance he needs. His workplace is not much better…

Before Slocum ever figures things out in his life, by the way, SOMETHING (Big) does HAPPEN.

No spoilers here. (Not that I even fully recall what exactly does happen.)

Petaccio concludes, “The great tragedy of the modern world may be the contrast between the seemingly proliferative causes of human unhappiness and our crushing inability to address those causes. Few novels articulate this reality as enjoyably or complexly as Something Happened.”

(Maybe you’d like to read it?) (If you haven’t already.)

(Or even if you have?)

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