Something Happened by Joseph Heller

The men in the Sales Department like me (or pretend to). They don’t like Green. He knows this. They complain about him to me and make uncomplimentary remarks, and he knows this too. He pretends he doesn’t. He feigns indifference, since he doesn’t really like the men in the Sales Department. I don’t really like them, either (but I pretend I do).

It’s de rigueur, almost a cliché, to express astonishment about the dearth of fiction set in offices. The bewilderment peaked when Joshua Ferris’s impressive Then We Came to the End was published. There is little need however to mine this sub-genre beyond Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. Heller brings to light the relentless absurdity, boredom and puerile machismo of office life with the meticulousness of an old-school lepidopterist with a killing-bottle and a setting-board.

I read Something Happened over twenty years ago, and my recollection was of dark comedy. This impression was undoubtedly distorted by Heller’s Rabelaisian novel Catch-22. Fear is the overriding theme of Something Happened, tragic rather than comic. Narrated entirely as the interior monologue of protagonist, Bob Slocum, 569 pages of fear and angst could be exacting, and it can be, but it is also magnificent. I share John Self’s opinion that Something Happened deserves to be remembered as “his principal claim to literary survival”, rather than the more widely read Catch-22.

Though Heller’s portrayal of office politics is bang on and darkly amusing, it is when he moves to domestic politics that Bob Slocum’s angst becomes more chilling. It is Slocum’s “weird mixture of injured rage and cruel loathing” that left me lacerated by the end of the book. It is overwhelming to spend almost six hundred pages in the mind of an often repellent character, but impossible not to sympathise and occasionally identity with that innate human fear that someone might see us as we truly are. Gombrowicz wrote, ‘Man is profoundly dependent on the reflection in the soul of another human being, even the soul of an idiot.’ And sometimes we are the idiot.

I wonder what kind of person would come out if I ever did erase all my inhibitions at once, what kind of being is bottled up inside me now. Would I like him? I think not. There’s more than one of me, probably. There’s more than just an id. I know that I could live with my id if I ever looked upon it whole, sort of snuggle up and get cozy with it. [..] Deep down inside, I might be really great. Deep down inside, I think not.

4 thoughts on “Something Happened by Joseph Heller

  1. I agreed with John on that too. It’s an underread novel, which suggests I should myself reread it. Bitter and dark. When I read it as a teenager the comedy struck me more than the self-loathing. I wonder if that would be true today.

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