Heller, Joseph: Something Happened
(researched by Timothy Schott)

Assignment 1: Bibliographical Description

1 First edition publication information (publisher, place, date, etc.)

Joseph Heller. Something Happened. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1974.

2 First edition published in cloth, paper, or both? If both, simultaneous or staggered?

The first edition is published in Black Hardcover Cloth with a dust Jacket. 

3 JPEG image of cover art from first edition, if available

4 Pagination

290 leaves. pp. [4] [1-3] 4-10 [11-13] 14-67 [68-71] 72-126 [127-129] 130-213 [214-217] 218-355 [356-359] 360-499 [500-503] 504-546 [547-549] 550-562 [563-565] 566-569 [1]

5 Edited or Introduced? If so, by whom?

The book is not edited or introduced.

6 Illustrated? If so, by whom?

The book does not contain illustrations. 

7 JPEG image of sample illustration, if available

8 General physical appearance of book (Is the physical presentation of the text attractive? Is the typography readable? Is the book well printed?)

The presentation of the reserve copy studied is bright and lively. A yellow dust jacket features the author’s name in red, capital letters and the work’s title in black on its front cover. There are some smudges on the dust jacket but nothing too jarring. The spine of the dust jacket features a shrunk version of the dust jacket’s cover as well as the publisher’s name and logo in black at the bottom. The reverse of the jacket features a black and white photograph of the author that takes up the entire back cover. Lighting and shadows are at play in the photograph, as the right side of Heller’s features are much lighter than his left. "Nancy Crampton," presumably the photographer of the portrait, has her name stamped in tiny capital letters on the back edge of the jacket. 

The book, cover included, stands at 43 centimeters tall. So, there is a definite heft to the book—it certainly feels like a work that contains over 250 leaves.

A leaf will measure 210 centimeters in height by approximately 140 centimeters in length. The 30 centimeter horizontal margins are generous, but not overlarge. The typeface is clean, though a bit lightly printed. However, even in a circulated first edition copy of the work, the text is easy to read, so the typeface is no doubt resilient.

Page numbers are 30 centimeters from the side of a page and 15 centimeters from the top of a page.

Chapters are not numbered, only named. A chapter is introduced on its own page, with its title appearing above a horizontal rule line. The verso of a chapter title page contains nothing. The following page contains the start of the chapter about 80 centimeters, or 2/5’s of the way down the page. This page is unnumbered. The text of this page is uniform in size and capitalization. 

A “normal” left page contains the page number, a bullet point, and the works title in Capitalized Italics at the top. The tracking in the title's font is pretty big; the letters are noticeably far apart. A "normal" right page contains the title of the chapter with normal tracking. This is found at the top of the page. The first letter of the first word of the chapter is capitalized. The rest of the title is in lower case. This is followed by a bullet point and the page number. 

The final leaf of the book is unnumbered and follows the closing of the story. It is a description of the book’s font. 


[rule line]

"The text of this book was set on the Linotype in a face called Primer, designed by Rudolph Ruzicka, who was earlier responsible for the design of Fairfield and Fairfield Medium, Linotype faces whose virtues have for some time now been accorded wide recognition."

"The complete range of sizes of Primer was first made available in 1954, although the pilot size of 12-point was read as early as 1951. The design of the face makes general reference to Linotype Century—long a serviceable type, totally lacking in manner or frills of any kind—but brilliantly corrects its characterless quality."

9 JPEG image of sample chapter page, if available

10 Paper (Assess the original quality of the paper used for the book. Is the paper in the copy or copies you examined holding up physically over time?)

The paper is wove and white. It is quite smooth. It sports a handsome deckled edge. The tops of the pages are dyed in a light red color not dissimilar to Communion Wine. The bottom of the pages show slight signs of wear, with tiny frayings of paper begging to form. The paper is stain free and obviously well preserved. 

11 Description of binding(s)

The dust jacket fits snugly over the work. Its interior is a cream white with black lettering.

The spine of the work is sewn with an attractive yellow and red pattern. The reserve edition studied for this investigation had a robust, well-kept spine. The spine contains the work’s title and author in large, gold capital letters, with the publisher beneath them in a much smaller typeface in the same gold color. The front cover of the jacket is embossed with “JH,” the author’s initials. The logo of the publisher is subtly printed on the bottom right corner of the back of the cover. It is difficult to notice upon a cursory examination.

The final leaf that contains a description of the font also provides information about the book's binding:

"This book was composed, printed and bound by The Book Press, Brattleboro, Vermont."

"Typography and binding design by Cynthia Krupat."

12 Transcription of title page

Something / Happened

[rule line]

Joseph / Heller

13 JPEG image of title page, if available

14 Manuscript Holdings

No manuscript holdings for the work were found at this time.

15 Other (typograpical information from title page, etc.)

Dust Jacket, inside front flap: 

"This is Joseph Heller’s first novel since Catch-22, which was published in 1961 and has become the most celebrated novel of its decade—speaking for and to an entire American Generation. Something Happened is different from Catch-22 both in substance and tone, but it is certain to have a comparable effect."

    [star]   [star]    [star]

"As it opens, “he gets the willies.” At the end, he has “taken command.”"

"What happens in Something Happened happens to Bob Slocum—in his forties, contending with his office (where just about everybody is scared of somebody), trying to come to grips with his wife (“You did it,” she says. “You made me this way….”), with his daughter (she’s “unhappy”), with his son (he’s “having difficulties”), and with his other son, and with his own past and his own present."

"Like his own children, like all children, Slocum once was new, valuable, eagerly waiting to grow into the good life sure to come. Now he is what he is, and his life is what it is."

"What happened? (What happens?)"


The top right of this flap notes that the original price was $10.00.

Dust Jacket, inside back flap: "Joseph Heller was born in 1923 in Brooklyn, New York. He is married and has two children, lives in Manhattan, and teaches at City College. He is the author of Catch-22 and the play We Bombed In New Haven."

"Jacket design by Paul Bacon"

"Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York"



The inside of the cover of the edition from Special Collections is a part of UVa's Taylor Collection. So, it bears a few special markings. First, its inside cover contains a lithograph of Mr and Mrs Taylor sitting across from one another. The first leaf contains, in pencil, a mark in the top right corner that says “1st Edition” followed by what looks to the number 55. The inside of the back cover contains a sticker from the “University of Virginia Library Rare Book Room” and the call number Taylor 1974 .H45 565, and, above that, in pencil: “G-8” / “[illegible]35” / “10549"

The edition that is in normal circulation has been entirely rebound. The call number is PS3558 E476 S6 1974. It contains a “rebinding slip” immediately upon opening the work. As such it does not have a dust jacket or pretty pages. it instead bears a stock “Something Happened” / “Heller” on the binding follow by its UVa call number, and a sticker on the front with a bar code used by library personnel to check the book out. It contains a circulation sticker that shows it was checked out 8 times between 1985 and 1992. The copy is in fair condition, with numerous smudges and stains spotting the leaves. 

Images were taken with an iPhone 8's rear camera. The UVa Special Collections library allows visitors to take photographs, however, the following message (printed onto a clear bookmark) typically affixes all photographs taken on site:

"The original in this digital image is housed in:"

"Special Collections"

"University of Virginia Library"

"Charlottesville Virginia, 22904-4110"

"No further copies can be made."


Assignment 2: Publication and Performance History

1 Did the original publisher issue the book in more than one edition? If so, briefly describe distinguishing features of each (illustrations, cover art, typography, etc.); if not, enter N/A


2 JPEG image of cover art from one subsequent edition, if available

3 JPEG image of sample illustration from one subsequent edition, if available

4 How many printings or impressions of the first edition?

Per Publisher’s Weekly, August 19, 1974: 100,000.

5 Editions from other publishers? If so, list their dates and publishers; if not, enter N/A

Corgi Books, 1974

Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1974

Simon and Schuster, 1974

Ballantine Books, 1974

Vintage, 1995

Gyan Pvt. Ltd., 2016

6 Last date in print?

It is still in print as of February 2018.

7 Total copies sold? (source and date of information?)

Per Publisher’s Weekly, February 3, 1975, Something Happened sold 143,276 copies as of 1974. This was good enough to place it at 5th in their best selling fiction list. The 1975 Bowker Annual corroborates this number, as it reprints the Publisher’s Weekly information.

8 Sales figures by year? (source and date of information?)

Per Publisher’s Weekly, February 3, 1975, Something Happened sold 143,276 copies in 1974. It sold for $10 a copy in its first iteration. 

9 Advertising copy (transcribe significant excerpts, briefly identify where ads were placed)

Publisher’s Weekly, August 1974: “Fall Announcements”

“This extraordinary novel, the most controversial and talked-about book of the autumn, is a work to which one either becomes instantly and totally committed or something one will simply not be able to either stand or understand. For this reviewer it is a work of genuine brilliance, a novel as different in mood from “Catch-22” as possible, but just as devastating in its perception of the American scene today in terms of business, marital, familial responsibilities as Heller’s first novel was in its merciless concentration on what World War II really did to people. Bob Slocum, when we first meet him, seems almost a nice guy, scared of his job, his bosses, uncertain and baffled in his marriage, confused about his children, but in terms we can understand and to which we can relate. If he always takes the easy way out, whether it is in helping to knife an old friend in the back, put down his wife, who drinks too much, whore around a bit, snarl at his son and his daughter, push off to another plane the acknowledgement that his “other son” is a retarded vegetable, he is only doing, after all, what so many, many others of us do every day of our lives in order to survive and to persuade ourselves that this kind of survival is really living. When the “something” does happen in the briefest sparest section of the novel, it is true horror. In almost 600 pages, deliberately and quite consciously circling back on himself again and again, with an increasing psychological power at each circling of the loop, Heller has written a true novel of our times, and every minute of the television news with its revelations of what America has become confirms his insight. He is also a magnificent stylist.”

Publisher’s Weekly, September 1974: “Indexes and Forecasts”

Heller, Joseph. Something Happened. Knopf. $10; signed boxed edition $20. 10/16.

10 JPEG image of sample advertisement, if available

11 Other promotion

A signed boxed copy of the novel appeared, limited to 350 copies. They included the following transcription:


12 Performances in other media? If so, list media, date, title, production information; if not, enter N/A


13 Translations? If translated, give standard bibliographic information for each translation. If none, enter N/A

Der er Sket Noget (Danish, 1974) translator Mogens Boisen

Een incident “Something happened” (Dutch, 1974) translator Guido Golüke

Jotakin on tapahtunut (Finnish, 1975) translator Erkki Vainikkala

E’ successo qualcosa (Italian, 1975) translator Attilio Veraldi)

Det Har Hendt Noe (Norwegian, 1975)

Was geschah mit Slocum? (German, 1977)

Valami Torent (Hungarian, 1978)

Что-то случилось роман (Russian, 1978) translator R. Oblonskoj

Nekaj se je Zgodilo (Slovenian, 1978) translator Gitica Jakopin

Panique (French, 1979) translator Josane and Marianne Duranteau

Niečo sa stalo (Slovak, 1983)

Pânico (Portuguese, 1988) translator J. Teixeira de Aguilar

出事了 / (Chinese, 1991) [translator not found]

Něco se stalo (Czech, 2000) translator Antonín Přidal

Coś się stało (Polish, 2003) [translator not found]

Nånting har hänt (Swedish, 2005) translator Caj Lundgren

Algo ha Pasado (Spanish, 2013) translator Lucrecia Moreno de Saenz


14 Serialization? If serialized, give standard bibliographic information for serial publication. If none, enter N/A

Excerpts first appeared in Esquire in September of 1966. These excerpts spanned about 6 pages and gave an introductory snapshot of the work. It also included illustrations by Gervasio Gellardo. The contrast between Esquire's decadent advertising and a fraction of Heller’s sobering snapshot of the modern, incorporated world makes for an interesting presentation to the reader. It would be tantamount to putting a Kafka story in the middle of an LL Bean catalogue. 

15 Sequels/Prequels? Give standard bibliographic information for each. If none, enter N/A


Assignment 3: Biographical Sketch of the Author

1 Paste your biographical sketch here (maximum 500 words)

Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923 in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York. Heller was the son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Isaac and Lena Heller. His father died when Heller was five years old. Following high school graduation in 1941, Heller flirted with a career in the insurance industry before enlisting in the United States Army Air Corps in October 1942. Heller carried out over 60 bombing missions. He emerged from the war with a head filled with ideas about the futility and—famously, humor—inherent in war. He used the GI bill to fund his undergraduate education at New York University. Heller then obtained a Master’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1949. His literary promise was clear; in 1949 Heller was named a Fulbright Scholar and spent a year studying English literature at Oxford. He taught at Pennsylvania State University and wrote advertising copy for Look and Time before the idea for his breakthrough debut novel, Catch-22, struck him.

According to The New York Times, the work’s opening lines popped into his head on a fateful morning in 1953: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.” From there he began squirreling away the draft pages and—much like one of his idols, Nabokov, index cards—that would serve as the backbone of the story. Interestingly, the work was originally titled “Catch-18.” However, according to Sanford Pinsker, the title was changed before publishing to avoid confusion with a contemporary bestseller, Mila-18. Heller, 38 at the time, put forth a massively successful and riotous exhibit of the horrors of war. The New York Times points out the significance of his agent, Candida Donadio, and editor, Robert Gottlieb, in the timeline of Heller’s success. Grievously for Heller, like any great “breakout” star, he was dogged by the popularity of Catch-22 for his entire career.

 His follow up novel, Something Happened, was properly published in 1974. This work transfers the lucid humor of Catch-22 to a hectic, domestic environ in a wry fashion. However, you would be hard pressed to find an account of Heller’s life that hails him as “the author of Something Happened(or anything else for that matter); posterity will always remember him as the man who wrote Catch-22. Heller spent the 1960s and 1970s teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and the City College of New York. His subsequent literary output included the novels Good as Gold and Picture This. These works are understood to lack the incisive grip of his earlier works.

Heller recovered from an unfortunate diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome in 1981. He documented his experience in an autobiography, No Laughing Matter. The 1990s saw Heller’s work turn retrospective before he ultimately passed away on December 12, 1999 in East Hampton, New York.

Heller’s archival material, including manuscript holdings, scrapbooks and correspondence, are housed in the library repositories at Pennsylvania State University and the University of South Carolina

Assignment 4: Reception History

1 Paste contemporary reception history in here (maximum 500 words)

The most obvious challenge presented to contemporary reviewers of this work is leveling it with the legacy of Heller’s universally acclaimed debut, Catch-22. The New York Times brought in Kurt Vonnegut to discuss Something Happened. His praise for the work is about as effusive as Vonnegut will ever get—“Is this book any good? Yes. It is splendidly put together and hypnotic to read. It is as clear and hard-edged as a cut diamond.” Vonnegut is careful to note the work’s connection to the fiction of Franz Kafka. This is an astute parallel for Something Happened because both Heller and Kafka address the pitfalls of a labyrinthine, corporatized world. John Aldridge echoes Vonnegut’s rosiness in “The Saturday Review”. Wikiepdia notes that this was “one of the first favorable notices for Something Happened.” Aldridge praises Heller’s tale as a “an act of singular Courage.” He points out the sheer heft of the work—its 569 pages makes for a long read—and praises Heller’s refusal to merely rehash successful tropes from Catch-22. Indeed, Heller elects to explore complex areas of consciousness and the human experience which makes for a more stirring experience than the gag-heavy sequences of Catch-22. Aldridge’s high-flying claim that Something Happened is “the most important novel to appear in this country in at least a decade” is not reflected in every contemporary review of the work. Indeed, for many reviewers, discrepancies and discontent formed upon close inspection of the work. For instance, John Thompson writing for the New York Review of Books criticized Heller for withholding basic factual information such as his wife’s name because it hampers the reader’s engagement. Plus, the shadow of Catch-22 felt is insurmountable when he notes, “large corporations are pretty funny but nothing can be as funny as an army. Nor does business life provide quite such shocks as can the military.” Moreover, the inner turmoil of protagonist Bob Slocumb never breaches the consciousness replication of a Leopold Bloom or Lily Briscoe. So this reviewer’s disengagement with what he sees as “long-windedness” from Slocumb is an understandable response.  One common strain that the reviewers pick up on is Slocum’s disturbing detachment for those around him. The conflict between Slocumb and his mentally challenged son engendered poor reactions across the board. A pointed observation by Alvin Beam  of “Plain Dealer” pokes fun at Heller’s reliance on parentheses. It’s difficult to go more than a page without Slocumb breaking into a parenthetical. Beam points out how it annoyingly breaks the reader’s flow over the course of 569 pages. Overall, the contemporary critical consensus is decidedly less rosy than his previous work. However, the opinions speak to a positive effort on Heller’s part to break new ground in narrative and formalistic style, even if the final product may not be as outright appealing as his first effort.

2 Paste subsequent reception history in here (maximum 500 words)

This book aged well. This makes sense, considering that the political and social setup of the United States has, over the past 40 years, developed into even more of an unforgiving corporatist landscape. Indeed, many of the issues tackled, such as the estrangement between individuals and the breakdown of the traditional family, have worsened. For instance, Carmen Petaccio in the Los Angeles Times effusively praised the book as “The most criminally overlooked great novel of the past half century.” Petaccio notes that the work’s “punishingly bleak” and “dense” qualities did not make it as amenable to immediate critical and popular reception. So, time seems to have helped the works legacy, since, again, Heller was prescient in his understanding of the pitfalls of the United State’s business-dominant environment. It’s contemporary appeal pops up in unexpected and somewhat strange locations. For instance, an “Oprah.com” listicle featuring the favorite books of popular American author Jonathan Franzen sees Franzen pinning Something Happened as one of his favorite books, explicitly preferring it over its predecessor. Popular Irish writer Donald Ryan notes in “Irish Voice” that Something Happened contains one of his favorite opening lines -- -- “I like it because the book continues, relentlessly, in that vein.” He praises the work as “a series of confessions.” This speaks to its resonance with modern audiences. It is conspicuously absent in his New York Times obituary; the paragraph devoted to it is simply a rehashing of John Aldridge’s remarks in the “The Saturday Review.” This is interesting considering the chorus of critical views, both positive and negative, surrounding its release. Moreover, many see Something Happened as Heller’s last good book, so glossing it over feels like a disservice. Heller himself seems to have picked up on the positive strain of buzz surrounding Something Happened. In a joint 1992 interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Heller jokes that, after a bit of distance between Vonnegut’s laudatory review, he now believes Something Happened is his best work. Indeed, he is quoted in The Guardian as saying that the novel centers on, “boredom, ennui, monotony, hopelessness, and to write a book about that and create the feeling, not merely state it, and yet to have the book be interesting was not an easy thing to do.” This quote demonstrates Heller’s understanding of the book’s appeal to an audience irrespective of the time that they interface with the work. Its insidious pessimism and invectives against modern life appeal to a large swath of readers. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Heller is one of the funniest writers of the 20th century. The newer reviews make clear that, although the work may have been a challenge to read in its initial state, time imbued it a sense of lasting importance that makes the reading experience extremely rewarding.

Assignment 5: Critical Analysis

1 Paste your critical analysis in here (maximum 2500 words)

            Joseph Heller faced an enormous task with his second novel, Something Happened. Catch-22 cast a massive shadow on his productive aspirations. However, Heller conquered the “sophomore slump” and proved himself to be one of the twentieth century’s most versatile writers, worthy of attaining bestseller status with Something Happened. The thirteen-year gap between the two novels saw Heller, in addition to picking up teaching gigs, organizing vignettes and mastering the art of kvetching, all of which he funneled into Something Happened. The work involves Bob Slocum’s broken relationship with himself and his family to flesh out a loss of personal control through mechanisms such as struggles with temporality and Oedipal rage. Between the novel’s powerful prose and the cloud of excitement surrounding its release, it is simple to see why this book took off as an immediate hit. If nothing else, Slocum and Heller alongside him ought to be remembered as two of the best complainers this country has ever produced.

            Slocum has a wife, a daughter and two sons, only one of whom, his mentally challenged son Derek, is a named character. So from the start Something Happened does not operate like a traditional novel. There are no separate viewpoints, for instance. The mind’s eye of Slocum is the source of content for the reader; lengthy internal monologues span the bulk of the book’s pages. His mind acts as a filter that parses through the work’s sparse action. His relationship to himself stands out, then, as an obvious point of distinction in this novel. We witness firsthand Slocum’s self-estrangement.

The instability of his identity pops up in various fashions. For instance, he notes that he sources material for conversations and even his handwriting from people around him. This traps him, “inside their smaller vocabularies like a hamster in a cage.” (Heller 74). The unraveling of his agency thus impacts decisions as tiny as how he should craft his uppercase “R.” This habit and others leads to deep fissures of self. These splits of self emerge, for example, when Slocumb (frequently) questions his individuality. “That was somebody else, not me” is his reply while reflecting on the person who indulged in sordid diversions (“satisfactory erotic dreams…the sports pages of the New York Daily News…canned salmon sandwiches…”) during the Vietnam War. (Heller 135). This sequence is a self-referential on Heller’s part, since he saw combat in World War II and of course penned the greatest novel that addresses that conflict. However, this passage shows the important differences between that work, Catch-22, and Something Happened. Slocumb (unlike Yossarian, whose main goal is escape the bureaucratic hegemony of Colonel Cathcart) does not have the luxury of laughing off the pitfalls of modern life.

Clearly, Slocumb’s problems corrode his consciousness and disrupt his sense of temporality. Indeed, negative happenings continuously reverberate through his mind irrespective of how long ago they occurred—or if they even occurred at all. He moves through past, present and future at a rapid pace with no clear indications of why particular events come into his mind. “I can transfer myself into my mother’s, brother’s, sister’s past to see my present and my future. I shift my glance into the future of my children and can see my past. I am what I have been. I incorporate already what I am going to become.” (Heller 402). These should not be the words of a married father of three who leaves his cushy insurance job every day for a tidy house in a Connecticut suburb. But, time, here, unsticks for Slocum, and its unraveling generates the conflict of the novel.

Slocum, then, typifies the “schizophrenia” coined by Frederic Jameson in his pioneering essay on postmodern aesthetics, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capital.” Jameson claims schizophrenia occurs when a subject experiences a breakdown in “the signifying chain” (the successive semiotic signifiers that constitute a phrase or event’s meaning) which leads to a disintegration of temporality (Jameson 71-2). Jameson applies this to language and then extends it to events themselves. History is sorted in our mind as a series of textual images, and we lean on our temporal sensibilities while interpreting them. In the schizophrenic man, a breakdown in effective meaning frees the present from its natural duties and effects and instead “engulfs the subject with indescribably vividness, a materiality of perception properly overwhelming.” (Jameson 73). Slocum refers to these episodes as “the willies” (Heller 3).

Grievously, manic thoughts and hallucinations consume him by the works end; his “willies” do not get any better. Slocum moans, “I walk around with jitters, headaches, and sadness ballooning and squiggling about inside me that seem to belong to somebody else. Is this schizophrenia, or merely a normal, natural, typical, wholesome, logical, universal schizoid formation?” (Heller 506). There is a temptation to consider Slocum as improving since he is occasionally aware of his issues and depersonalization. But he basks in the mania instead of shedding it. Just a few pages later, he delineates the pros and cons of killing his wife. His belief that his emotions “belong to somebody else” runs parallel to Jameson’s schizophrenia. It distorts the meaning of the emotions because the proper chain of signification is not in place.

Sigmund Freud provides another helpful point of entry into the events (and non-events) of the work. His name and ideas are explicitly mentioned numerous times during Slocum’s soliloquies, especially his views on dreams and bonds between family members. These will shed light into Slocum’s mind. Now, Freud posits that dreams let us indulge the deepest recesses of our brain. (Freud 578). Our mind wanders at night because it is free from a censor of sorts that, when we are awake, prevents us from conjuring up the often fantastical images we find in a dream work. Perhaps Freud’s most important contribution—and biggest connection to Slocum—is the impetus behind dreams. He claims that “a dream is a “disguised” fulfillment of a (repressed or suppressed) wish. (Freud 194). This is significant because Slocum’s narrative roots itself in a constant battle (an intense, aching wish, that is) for control. He repeatedly pines for the death of those who ought to be closest to him: “There are times I wish everyone I know would die and release me from these tender tensions I experience in my generous solicitude for them.” (Heller 343). The “tender tensions” disillusion him to the point of delirium. This robs him of a conventional, productive existence.

To continue our interaction with Freud, this novel’s protagonist offers us numerous examples of his dreams and opinions thereof. While considering the peculiar nature of dreams, he ponders, “What is happening to me when I am not conscious of myself?” (Heller 171). For most people, these slips into unconsciousness occur only during dreams. This is in line with Freud’s ideas. However, Slocum’s mind is off kilter. The factors responsible for this—chiefly his fractured relationship to his family and to time—deny him the ability to parse out the differences between waking and dreaming life. His wish to break off all ties with the outside world generates a chaotic example of a dream that loosens his grip on reality.

Slocum dreams that his family’s maid called him at his office to let him know that his son (it is not clear which one) is lying breathless and motionless on the floor of his living room. (Heller 345). Although the phone call viscerally affects him in the dream itself, upon waking up, Slocum is nonplussed. “More than anything, I think I would feel inconvenienced,” he intones (Heller 345). He considers how much of a hassle it would be to time his arrival back home properly as to avoid the emergency personnel who cart off his son. His instinct for violence and broken relationship with his family repeatedly manifest themselves in dreams such as these. Most people would consider them nightmares. But Slocum classes dreams like this as mere “inconveniences” whose content is not all that objectionable. This demonstrates how Slocum pushes the theories of Freud to their limit by indulging in wishes that ought to be so beyond the pale they never manifest themselves, not even in our vulnerable dream state.

This dream, much like the bulk of the Slocum’s grievances, involves the protagonist’s family. It is worth touching on their dynamic, then, especially because Freud informs this facet of the novel, too. The “Oedipus Complex,” Freud’s most iconic theory, states that a boy is blissfully happy with his mother but sees his father as a rival; “it is the fate of all of us to direct…our first hatred and first murderous wish against our wish” (Freud 296). Slocum’s Oedipal dynamic is not this clear cut, though, because his father died when he was a young boy. This is partly another biographic move on Heller’s part, since his biological father died when he was only five years old. Heller dredges up the death of Slocum’s father from time to time to reinforce its impact. Slocum states his father’s death causes him to feel “guilty and ashamed.” (Heller 3). But it offers a narrative to justify despair: “If I was unhappy, I could always tell myself it was because my father was dead.” (Heller 206). This resonant despondency allows Heller to deconstruct our popular notion of the Oedipus Complex. The rage reverses and flows forth from the father down to the son—“That’s the part they all leave out of the Oedipus story…His father wanted to kill him” (Heller 337). This is significant because it traces out the origins behind Slocum’s discontent for both of his sons.

Plenty of Slocum’s rage is directed at Derek, his disabled son. He lays bear his contempt for Derek’s condition to start one of the novel’s chapters: “It is not true that retarted… children are the necessary favorites of their parents…we do not love [Derek] at all.” (Heller 359). However, Slocum does not foster a substantial relationship with his other son, either. A turning point occurs after his son gets into an altercation at a summer camp during a camp activity. His son disrupts a relay race and the situation collapses very quickly. The children of the camp swarm Slocum’s son with all of the ire that pent up summertime energy can possibly foster. “It was a mob scene,” as Slocum puts it (Heller 314). After this occurs, the notion that the two could one day reconcile is dispelled. His son becomes a repeated victim of his father’s discontent and, ultimately, rage. This malevolence morphs into violence when Heller pushes Slocum to the brink at the close of the work. An unnamed youth cries out, “Something happened!” outside of a shopping center. Heller pans his prose to capture a shot of Slocum’s son writhing in pain. (Heller 562). He ultimately dies of asphyxiation. And this is probably Slocum’s fault—“I can’t bear to see him suffering such agony and fright ... I hug him tightly with both my arms. I squeeze.” (Heller 562). In one final act of paternal turpitude, Slocum makes good on his word to eliminate his bothersome son. This impactful moment demonstrates a total evacuation of morality.

In a redoubtable move from Heller, the work’s final five pages, which tidy up the loose ends of the plot that follow the death of Slocum’s son, take a positive tact. Slocum basks in a newfound agency over his life. He gets a promotion, settles old qualms with his wife, and starts to climb the social ladder. The book closes with an eerie pronouncement: “Everyone seems pleased with the way I’ve taken command.” (Heller 569). At last, he attains dominion over his life. Sort of. In the end it is a pyrrhic victory. The loss of his son of course robs the “achievement” of any laudability. Moreover, His newfound social status forces him to endure even more hollow social pleasantries. These are the very same rituals of modern life that made him rebel in the first place. Also, his transformation lacks staying power; in between showers of praise, the same broken man who commits infanticide muses, “People seem dazzled by the swift competence with which I appear to be taking things under control.” (Heller 566). This statement evinces Slocum’s lack of attrition. He spends the entire book indulging in evil in every way possible. How, then, does a work steeped in cynicism and madness find itself on the bestsellers list?

A couple points of importance can show us why Something Happened sold 143,276 units the year of its release alone (Schott). To start, Heller’s masterful command of language lulls the reader into relishing the ebb and flow of Slocum’s thoughts. Heller’s humor, for instance, darkens. The deadpan humor contrasts with the meticulous, circular wordplay found in Catch-22. Slocum, in his internal monologues, makes plenty of jokes to himself. For example, he tells us, “I hate funerals…and I do my best to avoid going to any (especially my own, ha, ha).” (Heller 8). Laugh out loud moments such as this do not appear as often as in his debut, but their appearances invigorate the reading experience. Indeed, plenty of characters joke in the work. Forms of the word “laugh” appear 140 times (Something Happened). So, Heller’s trademark levity remains intact.

Moreover, in spite of Slocum’s tenuous grip on reality, Heller’s prose possesses lucidity. A scholar like Jameson would be tempted to class this work as “postmodern.” However, this work does not possess the opaque feeling as a canonically foundational work of postmodernism such as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. There are certainly tricky sequences in the work. At no point, though, does the work careen off a linguistic cliff. Slocum’s thoughts dance across the page, ensnaring the reader into his web of madness. Parentheses appear on almost every page. Their usage gives Heller flexibility to weave in and out of Slocum’s mind at will. It provides the work a distinct feel and allows us to pear into his mind in a much more accessible fashion than the high flying “stream of consciousness” of an author such as Joyce.  

Lastly, the immense popularity of Heller’s debut novel must be taken into consideration. Catch-22 has sold over 10 million copies since its release according to Wikipedia (Wikipedia). Plus, it was turned into a quite striking movie (starring Paul Newman). So, Heller was on the radar of every mid 1970’s reader.

All of these factors, in combination with the books brilliant dialogue concerning the estrangement of the modern man, culminate in what many critics and casual readers alike consider Heller’s best novel. Jameson’s discourse on schizophrenia helps us piece together Slocum’s broken mind. Meanwhile, Freud’s appearances cloak the work in a dreamlike mist. Moving across societal mores, Heller weaves together a tale that is solipsistic without being soporific. Something Happened does not boast the sweeping romantic energy or engrossing action of most bestselling novels. Slocum shows us, though, that “the willies” work just as well.

Works Cited

Bernier, Michael. Fox, John. Jr, 20th-Century American Bestsellers. http://bestsellers.lib.virginia.edu/submissions/153. Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.

“Catch-22.” Wikipedia, 14 Apr. 2018. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Catch-22&oldid=836408858.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by James Strachey, Basic Books, 1998.

Heller, Joseph. Something Happened. 1st ed., Alfred A. Knopf ; Distributed by Random House, 1974. University of Virginia Library.

---. Something Happened [E-Book]. Dell Publshing Company Incorporated, https://www.amazon.com/SOMETHING-HAPPENED-Joseph-Heller-ebook/dp/B005IQZ894/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1523973004&sr=8-1. Accessed 14 Apr. 2018.

Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Capital.” The New Left Review, no. 146, Aug. 1984, pp. 53–93. UVa Collab.

Schott, Timothy. Something Happened, 20th-Century American Bestsellers. https://bestsellers.lib.virginia.edu/submissions/374. Accessed 15 Apr. 2018.


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