I thought I liked depressing novels. And I do. But I’ve reached my limit. I will not be able to read a book more depressing than Something Happened, Joseph Heller’s second novel. If I read another book and find the emotional suffering to be more abject than in this one, I will probably stop reading it. Thankfully I doubt such a book exists.
Something Happened is unremitting despair from beginning to end, 600 pages of it, told in the single, obsessively parenthetical, shrill first-person monotone of one Bob Slocum, father and office worker. Bob is a racist, sexist, and homophobe. Bob is unhappy. He is unhappy at work (he hates his coworkers); he is unhappy at home (his wife and son and daughter are unhappy, as well.) They live the standard normal suburban life with grave doubts and hatreds simmering underneath. We’ve seen this before, but never at this pitch of intensity. The book is like a Man in the Gray Flannel Suit from Hell. It’s the literary equivalent of waterboarding. I felt my chest constrict, reading this book. But I could not stop reading. Bob’s monologue (and it really is the entire book) is a catalog of his hates, his problems, girls he wants to sleep with and can (and did) and girls he wanted to sleep with and couldn’t. The latter is the source of much of the novel’s misery. He has another son, who is mentally retarded.
In a book chock-full of scenes of complete emotional terror none is perhaps more horrible than Bob’s discussion of when he worked as a mail clerk in a telegraph office at the age of seventeen and protected one of his coworkers (who he was head-over-heels in love with) from being raped at the hands of some stockboys, who have actually asked him to join in:
“You prick,” they said (and I was relieved when I saw they were not going to beat me up. I was being set free). “We could have had her.”
“We’ll get her without him.”
That thought struck pathos into my soul. I was not allowed to feel like her hero for long. By the time I returned upstairs, she was at her desk chatting with both of them over what had happened, flirting brashly with them again, especially with the tough, coarse, sinewy one she hadn’t liked (mending her torn silk stocking with colorless nail polish, lifting her breasts for him as she had always done for me, tilting her head and tempting him with her ruby, saucy smile. He was a tough, swarthy Italian, like Forgione, and I felt he had just shoved me out of the way again, as he had downstairs. I hated her. My feelings were hurt. I felt she would have fucked him from that time or sooner than she ever would me, if he was smart enough to pose and wait–“I’m on my back, he’s in my crack,” was part of another bawdy song she liked to sing to me–even though she still liked me better), and I felt pangs of jealousy. (What good did it amount to, being liked, if she only wanted to fuck people she didn’t like?)
This is doubly tragic because 1.) Bob is disappointed, again, and 2.) but more importantly, he doesn’t actually care about his friend–he saved her because he hoped she would sleep with him as some kind of reward. Not minding that she has just almost been raped and might in fact be attempting to ingratiate herself with the boys out of fear (this is the early 50s, you understand, and she has to continue to work with these boys around her every day), no the important thing is that Bob’s “feelings were hurt”! Bob is of course too young to recognize the depravity of this, being a mindlessly horny teenager like we all are or were, and takes the entirely wrong lesson from his experience (which is expressed in the final parenthetical statement). What is the point, basically, of doing good things if you aren’t rewarded in exactly the way you want to be?
The tone is sustained despair. Everything builds up to some horrible event, and it does happen, and it is more horrible than you can imagine. This is a great novel. Please don’t read it.