Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Something Happened - Joseph Heller - It's Still Happening

Generally when an author makes his debut with a great book, two things happen, the subsequent books of the author are not as good as the first one or even if writes a better book somehow it is always in the shadow of the first one. The second happened to Joseph Heller, with his second novel 'Something Happened',  which to me personally is as good as Catch-22 if slightly better than it.  But which somehow does not seem to have got the same importance of 'Catch-22' or captured people's imagination as the first novel. Told in first person narrative, it is about Slocum a manager level employee at a firm. The book could be split into 3 strands, one about his work life, the other about his family and third about his reminiscences of the past. The novels follows the similar narrative pattern of hysterical realism as in Catch-22, but in a more controlled manner. The novel could in some ways be seen as some of sort mix of the office novel genre and dysfunctional family novel genre and maybe just maybe a coming of age novel with the past of Slocum (though one is not sure if Slocum ever grew up)

As the novel starts Slocum is about to get a promotion, he has a fairly stable family, 2 kids, but he is insecure. Insecure about what? Well, everything in life and that about sum's up Slocum and the novel. Insecure about his professional performance, his marital life, worried about his kids going astray, Slocum seems to be a bundle of nerves and insecurity. How does he face it? Well, for one, he covers his insecurity in the way most other people, being overtly aggressive or overtly sarcastic or trying to be too funny which again ends up like he is insulting others. For instance his dealing with his kids. He fears for them so much, fears that his girl would end up with bad friends, his son may be left alone if he suddenly dies, but is not able to express it clearly and ends up being sarcastic to them, teasing them and generally coming across as a heartless father. The novel in some ways is so well written in the sense that it captures the mindset of a insecure soul pitch perfect. In fact it is so perfect that it could the major problem in the novel, one reason why it is not discussed more. What I am referring here is the prose of the novel, the repetitiveness in the prose with the same thoughts being discussed again and again, it could actually put off the reader as being too incoherent, but wouldn't a mind as troubled and in stress as Slocum be like this? Would he not obsessively keep thinking about the same things. Yes, this novel is not an easy read, but when you think of Slocum's mindset and try to relate it to the prose, then I feel that the reader may appreciate and understand it better. 

In the office, Slocum spends most of the time worrying about getting fired, though as he himself says, he works well, meets his targets, gets his bonuses regularly and is generally seen as a solid employee. But why this fear of getting fired, why this insecurity, what happened to him? You never get to know that. The office parts of the novel are the ones that are hilarious, professional jealousies, backbiting, people trying to climb the corporate ladder, while pulling the others down. Other the other hand we also see people at very high level positions who spend their time doing nothing worthwhile, while driving those below them like slaves, hoping that the work will be get done by their sub-ordinates. Official conferences, which is just an opportunity for the big shots to get wasted are described in laugh out loud manner. We get an understanding of how a huge monolithic organization manages to work, how some how things get done, though when you look at the actions of the employees it's almost as if they don't care about anything. The organization could be seen as a machine whose path has been chartered a long time ago and which humming alone nicely, irrespective to the individual merits/demerits of the employees.

In Slocum's past we see a young man (boy really), just out from the war, working in a small position at an office, trying to reconcile the madness of the war that he saw with the (so called) normal social life. His major concern is to have an affair with a co-worker, which does not come to fruit, in spite of his trying. You cannot read into it, as a youngsters normal impulse alone. There seems to be something deeper in the office and the workers that has remained with Slocum. Maybe that's why he keeps calling up the old office's number and makes crank inquiries about the old employees.

This is a tough novel in some parts, but well worth it. Along with Catch-22 (http://wordsbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2011/01/catch-22-subversive-look-at-war.html), this is the masterpiece of Heller. If Catch-22 was about a person trying to make sense of the madness of war, this novel is about a person trying to make sense of the madness of normal life. Slocum is not a likable, person by any means, but his  but that's what makes him so close to us. In that sense Slocum seems to be a more fresh and blood kind of man to whom most of us can relate to than Yossarian  of Catch 22. (Of course, that's not Heller's mistake, how many of us have any first hand experience of the horrors of war, but most of us would have had some of the experiences of Slocum). 

The novel has it's resonance even today, in the sense how many of us don't suffer from some sort of boredom, ennui even if it is in minor level in the work we do, in our day to day humdrum existence. Don't many of us yearn for some break from it, but are caged to our daily existence due to various factors like family, money, comfort or sheer plain  indolence in breaking from our chains. Do we not, at many times, suppress our professional fears and get on with the job as if nothing is wrong. Are we not scared about the permanence of our jobs at some point or other, particularly in these times of faster cycles of recession?  Looking at the novel and current life, nothing actually seems to have changed for the so called 'Modern Man' the last 30-40 years, since the novel was first published.  The question of what happened in Slocum's life that made him the man he is right now, could also be asked of anyone of us, but as in the novel, I am not sure if we could answer that clearly. 

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