Every ten years or thereabouts I re-read Catch 22. It is not something I plan ahead, it is just something towards which I gravitate naturally, almost by default.
Each time I do, the book changes for me. Just as it changes as you read it, it does with each cycle within readings.
As we travel through the book, the infatuation with the witty characters of Yossarian and Dunbar, the ingenious repartee and humorous, surreal situations, give way to the nightmare they frame, the un-heroic human nature of the characters, the horror of the war and its absurdity. Without altogether ceasing to laugh, the taste of laughter seems to grow bitter in your mouth and somehow the joke is not as funny as you thought it was.
While I was younger, and my concerns perhaps lighter, the overall experience was still fun, albeit high and heady fun. But the balance between funny and tragic evolves and mutates as your perception and understanding of life does…
This last lecture was decidedly more on the nightmare end of it the spectrum. I do not mean it was no fun, nor that I didn’t have as many laughs and appreciative smiles; only that the balance had shifted.
The tragedy was now in the foreground. The characters where more human than witty, my empathy embraced more widely their humanity, their fears, their disgust, their understandable betrayals, their all too human failure to raise to some occasion or other…
As I did once before, I went from Catch 22 to Something Happened.
Here is how my narrative went before this second reading of S.H.: “Catch 22 is one of the masterpieces of the literature of the mid 20th century; but everything else Heller wrote stinks.” Such thinking, in turn, merited the following reflection: “How is that even possible?”
What I really meant with this was: “How did Heller changed from one writer to the other? Had the sense of self importance brought by having written a seminal novel sabotaged his writing?”
I was wrong. Not on all counts, but wrong nevertheless. On a second lecture Something Happened while not a great book, it is a very good one. More relevantly, it doesn’t fail because of an allegedly bloated head in its author shoulders, but because as a natural continuation of Catch 22 it was doomed to fail. Because it somehow follows the mood deviation of its predecessor but starts at the place where the other ends.
There is a few pitfalls in the book that couldn’t be avoided, perhaps a simple consequence of its being a child of its own epoch, rooted perhaps too deeply in the trends of its times. Ironically, by trying to expose some of the prejudices of its time, it ended up entangled in them, revealing more about the times’ prejudices regarding prejudices than about the nature of the prejudices it intended to expose.
The book tries to be raw and honest – with the caveat that this honesty is supposed to shock and disgust us in its boundlessness. It wants us to feels repugnance, but also guilt – “Oh, my god, I have harboured some of these disgusting thoughts myself!” would Heller’s ideal reader say, and a lot would be revealed to him about his nature and about humanity in general. But it falls short, and it comes through gimmicky and in no small part naive.
On the other hand, under the guise of depicting a character that often uses its considerable wit as a defensive weapon, the book is densely populated with quotable moments. Each one of those worth indeed of laudation, but with the accumulated effect falling short of the desired result.
Regardless of these shortcomings, Something Happened has truly valuable moments and constitutes a worthy reading. Strangely, some of it comes about because of those very same defects. The wit is enjoyable, the failure to achieve organic honesty, didactic. What the book reveals as a witness of its times and its social breadth is certainly worthy of consideration. What it intends to convey in its thwarted way is a valid message.
More valuable than any of these is without doubt the purely literary component. Heller uses again a circular approach to building the story. As in Catch 22, he sets the main motifs and landmarks very early and gets back to them throughout the book, jumping from one to the next over and over, repeating himself generously before expanding on each theme. The effect of this accumulative process is powerful. It feels inspired by musical composition techniques or tidal forces.
Another significant aspect of his construction – and another point of concomitance with its predecessor – is the freedom of moving back and forth through the timeline without providing the reader fast and easy indications to follow his movements. On each instance, you learn your chronological situation by your understanding of the facts at hand and how they relate to the story.
There is, as with his earlier masterpiece, one exception: the end chapter is in both novels located at the only point in time that hasn’t been touched during the build-up; the only time span that never gets revisited or digested in the narrative, the only real “future” time in these books.
I am left with the impression that this book is a reading experience that complements my readings of Catch 22, and helps me approach and close the wound the first book never fails to open.
This doesn’t arise from plot manipulation techniques or moral constructs attach to the narrative, but by the realization that the stories themselves are, in some ways, one and the same, that the horrors and miseries of the war are explained by the close examination of the individuals produced by the warring societies.
It definitely stands miles aside from any feel-good kind of closure one may want to get, but it is a closure that heals because it satisfies the understanding, if not of the world at large, perhaps of Joseph Heller’s vision of the world and that of some of his contemporaries.