Connive To Survive, Stay Alive Til Five

Something Happened by Joseph Heller Alfred A. Knopf, $10.00, 569 pp.

JOSEPH HELLER has been on an odyssey for the last 13 years. Since Catch-22 was published in 1961 he has been on a voyage through uncharted waters far from the Mediterranean island of Pianosa, the setting for his World War II novel. His voyage in Something Happened takes him through the psyche of one man, Robert Slocum. And like Ulysses, sleeping under a pile of leaves, like an ember buried beneath ashes, a small seed of light from his previous work has survived. The bright, animated fires of Catch-22 have died down, but now a new fire has sprung from its still-hot coals, burning a blue flame of discontent and throwing dissonant shadows.

Something Happened is the story of a multitude of happenings, somethings, someones, and someplaces, but mostly it is the story of Robert Slocum and his search through memory for an elusive something that happened sometime ago and made him the way he is. "Something did happen to me somewhere," says Slocum, "that robbed me of confidence and courage and left me with a fear of discovery and change and a positive dread of everything unknown that may occur." At the same time, the novel intermingles Slocum's memories with an ongoing chronicle of his family's disintegration, his success in his work, his pursuit of sexual satisfaction, and his fight against insanity, all leading up to a "Something Happened" so horrible as to be beyond recognition or comprehension. The novel, narrated in the first person by Slocum, is an examination of the American ethic and a compelling psychological portrait.

Robert Slocum is a company man, Republican suburbanite working in New York City, who moved to Connecticut "to get away from Negroes." His aspirations are predictable: to get a promotion, make more money, get laid, and raise children to want these same things. Slocum--whose name suggests male menopause--has no sense of identity; he doesn't know precisely what he wants. Yet Rorschach tests show that his ability to see the whole picture will certainly lead to success. He is a man living on the brink of the abyss; he displays not only schizophrenic symptoms, but quadrophonic possibilities:

...there must have been a second person who grew up alongside me (or inside me) and filled in for me on occasions to experience things of which I did not wish to become a part...a third person of whom I am aware only dimly...And I am aware of still one more person whom I am not even aware of...

On the inside, Slocum is a boiling cauldron of some moon-pulled witch's brew. He knows only dimly of that "something" which makes him fearful, disgusting, and self-loathing. Superficially, he maintains a calm indifference and manipulative diplomacy. He is so much like a chameleon that he acquires the characteristics of persons he's dealing with, including a stutter. For Heller, he is the conglomerate image of corporate man in America, at once the symbol of upward and downward mobility. "I ascend," he says, "like a Condor, while falling to pieces."


Slocum's family, too, suffers from the same kind of egocentric personalities--nothing they do is valuable or redeeming, except perhaps Slocum's nine-year-old son--who, like his sixteen-year-old sister and mother, goes unnamed. Heller portrays their constant bickering, their petty desires, and all the time he is weaving a less penetrable allegory for the American way of life.

The style and structure of Something Happened elucidate this underlying design, which is at first not apparent. Heller departs radically from the style of Catch-22 here. The prose is extremely simple as Slocum introduces himself, due partially to the anti-hero's inhibition. And slowly, through parenthetical remarks and more elaborate, cinematic passages, one becomes aware of an overwrought personality, who has regressed or just never overcome an arrested development in the prepubescent stage.

The prose is a lot like Kurt Vonnegut's, but it lacks the naivete that allows Vonnegut to laugh. Heller's somber style reflects the cautious narrator's inhibitions. Their eventual breakdown only after it has become too late remains in Slocum's eyes a sign of weakness. In the same way, the novel's structure evolves into a complex web out of an increasing sense of urgency. Slocum's failure to reach his children comes, he feels, not from his own virtual breakdown but from the breakdown in American values. Children, he feels, have a right to be pessimistic, and there can be no more morals, just time. So parents can't care what happens to their children, they can only hope it doesn't happen too soon. Time might even run out for Slocum at his job, where his motto is "connive to survive, keep alive til five." Sadder still, Slocum concludes that even if we have time that's all we have, we don't have anything to do with it.

THE MAN is dead. He lives in a giant maze of fear and estrangement which recognizes only one thing: personal success. So when his son slows down in a footrace, laughing and waiting for his opponent to catch up so they can finish together, he feels nauseated. He sees his role as a father as teaching his son to compete, to win for no other end than to win. Women serve only one purpose in Bob Slocum's world, so when his wife asks him if he loves her he tells her to roll over so she can find out. He's so pleased when she finally gives up asking if he loves her that he almost wants to say "I love you." Heller's descriptions of these scenes are rarely exciting, yet somehow one feels compelled to read on, in the same way one continues deeper and deeper into a dark cave out of curiosity for the occasional paintings on the wall or to see what's at the end.

There are hardly any light passages in the novel, but sometimes Heller recaptures some of that Catch-22 black humor:

I could not even dance with schoolgirl friends in those molten pubic days without launching haplessly into an instantaneous erection that had nothing at all to do with me or with them--I might just as well have shrugged my shoulders and claimed:

"It's not mine. There's nothing I can do about it."

And walked off the dance floor and left it floating there--in mid air, disowned--...

In one way, the development of Something Happened parallels the development of the novel. Beginning with a straightforward realistic style, Heller progresses into an elliptical series of dreams, flashbacks, news bulletins, and small pieces of philosophical graffiti; more contemporary modes. At several junctures the process of fiction becomes self-conscious, as when Slocum says he's afraid of becoming repetitive because everybody will ignore him. The novel itself becomes repetitive when memories come back again and again to Slocum, but always to underline what's most important to him: his missed opportunities in sexual conquest, his fear of the new, and of death, and his plans for promotion which will require firing his friend.

Something Happened is an extremely despairing novel, worth reading because it presents an astute observation on the effects of the corporate state upon individuals. It presents an island of the mind overcome by the enemy within oneself, just as Yossarian was threatened by both Americans and Germans in Catch-22. Heller deserves his homecoming after his long journey from Pianosa and he's entitled to recognition.

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