Wednesday, 13 August 2003

Joseph Heller: Something Happened (1971)

Edition: Black Swan, 1990 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1180

It took a decade for Heller to produce his second novel, and it is one on which critical reception has been divided. It is the story of Bob Slocum, a successful executive (and even after 550 pages we still don't quite know exactly what he does or what the company he works for produces) in late sixties Connecticut. He isn't particularly happy at work despite his success, and he doesn't have a particularly happy home life (he has three children, a teenage daughter and two younger sons, one of whom is seriously brain damaged). As narrator, Bob spends much of the novel looking back on his past, in a way to me reminiscent of the Talking Heads' song Once in a Lifetime. His problem is that he ought to be happy - he has succeeded in everything that is part of the American Dream - but he isn't.

The American Dream gone sour is, in fact, what the novel is about. The emptiness of the idea plays the same role here as the evils of war do in Catch 22. This is obviously a less exciting subject, and despite the extra work Heller puts in it still leaves his second novel less successful than his first - less funny, less biting, less tragic, less gripping. Where it succeeds best is in atmosphere; in this, it inhabits the same claustrophobic, dysfunctional worlds as the much later films with similar backgrounds and purpose, The Ice Storm and American Beauty. (I actually watched the latter while reading the novel, and they are so close in tone, partly because the situation of the narrator is basically the same, that the one seems almost an adaptation of the other.)

There is irony in the novel's title because it is almost entirely reflection on how Bob got to his current situation; virtually nothing happens. Something Happened is a long novel, and it is quite repetitive, making it seem even longer. This can be a bit of a problem, and some parts are hard going (the section about how his able bodied son hates gym at school, in particular). But there are plenty of interesting and funny observations about human nature to encourage the reader to keep going to the end. This is a novel driven by character and by Heller's insights into middle class America, and it is mostly successful; it's problem is that it is not a classic on the scale of Catch 22.

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