Sunday, December 27, 2015

Something Happened (1974)

Something Happened was a tremendously important novel for me when it was new, and I was 19. It seemed to prefigure all of life ahead of me, not just the bland and obvious events to come (career, marriage, family, etc.) but how it would feel to live them out. As much as anything it might be a reason I ended up not really living them out at all (though in many ways I was already headed in that direction). It's easier to see now why it got the lukewarm reviews it did. The climaxing event, which made me cry then, now seems unlikely and overdone. Still, the fundamentals are in place—the voice (marked by ever-lengthening and equivocating parentheticals), the family life described, the office life, the whole existential tone, remain deadly accurate and deeply disturbing. The title is best taken as an open-ended unknown and not the event of the conclusion. It's the sense we all have to one degree or another that we thought things were supposed to go a certain way, they didn't, and now we wonder why. Bob Slocum, the main character and narrator, is a midlevel executive manager at an unspecified faceless corporation (I remember many reviewers presumed it was Time, Inc.). He has an unusual background, his father dead or gone early in his life, and also an older brother. There's a good deal of specificity to his background. But it's all within the parameters of American "normal," as intended. Slocum makes many nervous little jokes, punctuated by "ha, ha." He's not that likable, but not that off-putting either, and quite a few things here are now painfully dated as well, mostly a matter of the supremacy of white men at the time it was written and published. But the end of that supremacy was also in sight then, which accounts at least in part for the gnawing and convincing sense of dread. Bob Slocum and his voice are midcentury classic American, recognizable still, as are notably the scenes of dialogue with his family and, perhaps a little less so, with his professional colleagues. The prodigious philandering is hard to believe and may be the most dated element. But who's to say? It's a mixed bag. As the follow-up to Catch-22, some 13 years later, it was inevitably going to be a disappointment, but I think it's still well worth looking into, and holds up. There are Heller partisans who claim it as his best novel, and I'm not inclined to argue against that.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Who's to say ab really-existing "prodigious philandering"? Certainly not me but I like to keep open the possibility as wistful daydream fodder.