Everyone knows Catch 22. Even people who have never read it, and it has sold over ten million copies. Catch 22 is the book for which Joseph Heller is best remembered. It is generally considered to be a classic of American literature, an icon of anti-war literature, one of the all time greats. But, in terms of Heller's literary achievements, it is the wrong book.
Heller's greatest literary achievement is Something Happened. Yet, paradoxically, most of his readers do not like it. I watched a not untypical response on YouTube. The reviewer praised Catch 22, only in order to all the more vehemently damn Something Happened, which he described as a depressing book, about a depressing character, who has a depressing job and a depressing family: it is, he said, depressing.
Superficially, there is truth in such an evaluation. Something Happened only has one character, Bob Slocum, who is unhappy with his life. For six hundred pages, the reader is treated to a ranting monologue on what is wrong with his life. Something must have happened. The book is Solcum's search for that something, and it is not a pleasant journey.
Bob Slocum is a man in his forties. Apparently, successful. He has a good job. One that he is good at. But it gives him no satisfaction, no pleasure, no sense of achievement. Being good at his job is just a way of keeping score. For, what he really does at work is fear others and they fear him. And his family life is no better. He is unhappy with his wife and she with him. His relationships with his children are of the kind for which the term dysfunctional might well have been coined. His youngest child, Derek, is the only one he even bothers to tell us the name of. And the reason for the name: 'I used to like him when I still thought he was normal. I was fond of him and had fun. I joked with him. I used to call him Dirk, and Kiddo, Steamshovel, Dinky Boy, and Dicky Dare. Till I found out what he was. Now it’s always formal: Derek.'
Bob's thinking about Derek is highly revealing. He thinks Derek 'suffers less than normal', by which he means that Derek's disability is such that Derek is less self aware, and is thus to be envied, as he does not suffer the anxieties that beset the rest of us. Equally revealing is Slocum's feelings on death. As he says, 'I have never felt only sadness at the death of a friend or relative… Always there has been simultaneously a marked undercurrent of relief, a release, a secret, unabashed sigh of "Well at least that’s over with now, isn’t it?"'
And this is what Something Happened is about. Whereas Catch 22 was about what it was like to be sane in the midst of the madness of war, Something Happened is about what it is like to be sane in a mad world, tout court. But Slocum does not know this. 'Something must have happened to me sometime.' Hence his search. And this is partly what makes this a masterpiece of literary art. Slocum is the unreliable narrator par excellence because he does not know the story and that is the story.
The other part of what makes Something Happened an outstanding work of literary art is its technical mastery. Even with such an unpromising character, who is obsessed with himself, a self that is none too likeable and all too flawed: even with such a dreadful theme, which is all too reminiscent of Ecclesiastes, but without the optimism: Heller's control of form and delivery never slips. Whereas Catch 22 was messy, unorganised and badly structured, Something Happened is technically flawless; a masterclass in control of narrative and voice, sustained for six hundred pages. It is easy to see why it took Heller eleven years to write Something Happened.