Joseph Heller's SOMETHING HAPPENED
As you can see by my housekeeping post, I've decided to rejigger things slightly here. Future posts should be a bit closer to the mark regarding when I've actually read the damn thing. So forgive me for this being the last of the old way stuff.
This is the book that was closest to Heller's heart. If you want to read only one Heller novel, by all means read Catch-22 -- that's the great classic he had in him. But if you want to understand Heller as a writer, this is the book to read, because it's purer and clearer than Catch-22, obviously closer to his themes and what he wanted to do.
It's a book about office politics, and the close minded repressive systems they engender. It's also a book about the costs to individuals in them -- how, to succeed in such an environment, one must basically destroy oneself, become an automaton.
It does have humor but it is not the laff riot Catch-22 was. The humor here is very black, very sardonic, and mainly directed at the protagonist himself, uncomfortable jabs which also point up the dying spark of humanity he still has within him. Unlike Catch, too, nothing really happens, which is something of the point: it's a book about dreariness, boredom, the soul-grinding monotony of life in this world. The narrator is unappealing, deliberately so, though not exactly unsympathetic -- a Heller achievement, I think. It is by design a book of stasis -- something indeed does happen in this book, eventually, but the obvious thing is easily missable unless you're looking for it, and the unobvious, more pervasive thing is everywhere but again, easily missable unless you're looking for it (or are sensitive to it.)
I recommend this book highly, it is a great, great novel. It is not an easy read, though -- it is something of a downer, and often a grind, and while that is the point, well. It is the pure unadulterated Heller vision, and I much prefer it to Catch -22, which feels much more compromised to me, but, well. It is a grind, at times, to get through. I don't think it's quite the book Catch-22 is: I think the pleasure principle is important to art and Something Happened is just not as much fun to read as Catch, and yeah, I think that matters.
I think I've just said in that above paragraph four times that the book can be slow and rough going; so be it. It's also extraordinarily insightful, particular about the mixed feelings of the ambitious, and the way that a cubicle society can impose it's own hierarchies. It is also one of the more complicated interior portraits I know of in post WW 2 American lit, and heads and tails above similar efforts by guys like Marquand, say. Heller was not a sentimentalist, and Something Happened is not a sentimental book, it's one of it's great strengths that it's not.
A movie like American Beauty likes to present us with ideas of what could be, or might have been, or alternative choices not taken. No such luck here -- Heller, more realistically in my estimation, shows that this is all there is. (A nightmare vision only hinted at in Marquand's Point of No Return. And one less adulterated than Catch-22.)