Sunday, September 28, 2014

'Something Happened,' But What Was It?

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend of mine about Joseph Heller's book, "Something Happened," which was published 40 years ago this month.

(By the way, that is about as close as I can come to pinpointing when it was published. I've tried, and I've tried, but the best I can find is September of 1974.)

I wanted to write about it, I told my friend, but I didn't know what to say. "Don't worry," he replied. "Something will come to you."

Well, September is nearly over. I'm not sure if something ever happened, as my friend said it would, but if I am going to write about it during its 40th anniversary month, I am running out of time.

"Something Happened" was Heller's long–awaited and highly anticipated followup to his critically acclaimed "Catch–22." In my opinion, he never matched "Catch–22," which was published 13 years earlier, but "Something Happened" was pretty darn good.

It wasn't a sequel by any stretch of the imagination. None of the characters from "Catch–22" was in "Something Happened," but they were similar books. The former satirized war; the latter poked fun at domestic life.

I read them in reverse order. I read "Something Happened" in paperback when I was in junior high school. I read "Catch–22" in college.

Since they didn't tell the same story, though, it wasn't necessary for me to read them in sequence.

"Something Happened" was the story of a fellow named Bob Slocum — told by Bob Slocum. He spoke of how everyone in his office was afraid of someone. It wasn't the same person in each case — although there was one person of whom nearly everyone was afraid. She was a typist who was "going crazy slowly" and everyone hoped that, when she finally snapped, as seemed inevitable, she would do so on a weekend.

Bob's home life wasn't much better. His wife, he said, was unhappy — mostly bored and lonely. She had turned to alcohol, he said, and believed she was older, heavier and less attractive than she used to be. He agreed with her but silently. She said he didn't love her anymore, and he agreed with her on that, too, again silently — although Bob did claim there were times when he was proud to have her on his arm when they went places.

His daughter was unhappy, too. In fact, both of his children were unhappy, but he tried not to think of his son, who was "having difficulties" in school. He was, Slocum observed in a less than paternal way, "starting to let me down."

Bob told his story in a stream of consciousness style. In one of my favorite sequences from the book, Bob reflected on a time early in his marriage and the lives of his children when their dwelling had a problem with mice, and he had to set traps for the mice each night and then check them each morning. Each morning, his wife and children huddled behind him while he checked places like behind the refrigerator and inside the pantry.

Although this is not word for word, Bob said something to the effect of, "Even then, I wasn't sure if I liked my family well enough to share such a personal and intimate experience with them."

Later in the book — in which, I should point out, Bob's anecdotes are only loosely connected to each other — the reader discovers that Bob is concerned about his sanity, and the reader starts to realize that Bob may be an unreliable narrator, not necessarily able to distinguish between what is real and what is not.

What it means to be an unreliable narrator is that the narrator's credibility is in doubt for some reason. Many people believe that an unreliable narrator is, by definition, a liar. Some are liars, but that is not always so. Some may be delusional, as Slocum apparently was, or they may be too young to perceive some things, such as Huck Finn or Forrest Gump.

So an unreliable narrator is not always deliberately deceptive. I suspected, as I read the book, that the title was a hint about that. Bob Slocum knew that something had happened to change the trajectory of his life. He just didn't know what it was.

Does that make him that different from the rest of us?