FEATURE

Of Human Bondage

Something Happened BY Joseph Heller. Simon & Schuster. Paperback, 576 pages. $16.

I AM A SHIT. But at least I am a successful one. Bob Slocum, Joseph Heller’s repugnant narrator-protagonist in Something Happened (1974), is a member of the corporate elite. He spends his time either at the office, which makes him unhappy, or with his family, whose demands provoke in him alternating moods of detachment and anguish. Both of these spheres become, for Slocum, debilitating sites of fraught power dynamics and regressive behavior. Slocum calls himself an “anaclitic,” someone unusually attuned to others, so much so that he picks up their mannerisms and habits, stammering when he spends time with a coworker who stammers, limping in unconscious mimicry of a coworker with a bum leg. He wishes he were a child and feels trapped by his infantile pleasures and desires. “When I grow up,” he confesses, wryly, “I want to be a little boy.”

Something Happened is a portrait of a man losing his stable sense of self, as everything he was supposed to believe in—the family and corporate life—breaks down. Slocum is supposed to be the upstanding father figure who derives authority, prestige, and a good deal of money from his position at work, but he also knows himself to be a disgusting creep. He sleeps with his secretary, and no longer loves his wife. His children are essentially aliens to him. He refuses to comfort his teenage daughter, “a lonely and disgruntled person” ridden with self-loathing. One of his sons is terrified of everything around him. Slocum’s other son is mentally disabled, in an unspecified way, and the father often confesses to wanting to be rid of him. He enjoys torturing his family with merciless Socratic dialogue, though more often than not he tortures himself with self-recrimination and contradiction.

Heller’s repellent masterpiece is a distended version of that classic American genre: the corporate novel. Stretching from forgotten best sellers like Executive Suite to best sellers that are best forgotten like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to standout works like Richard Yates’s exquisite Revolutionary Road, this genre treated the uneasy integration of the American male into corporate life as an allegory of the larger themes of the nation: the closing of the frontier, and the extinguishing of the individual by the organization. Prominent in these works, too, was the problem of the family: the way work interfered with family life—and either replicated its frustrations or temporarily provided solutions to them. Revolutionary Road anticipates Something Happened in its portrait of a grim work environment, what its protagonist, Frank Wheeler, initially calls “the dullest job you can possibly imagine,” but which becomes, through sheer will, a source of amusement and fascination. Confronted with a deteriorating situation at home, Frank devotes himself to his other tortured family—his job—throwing himself into a workplace affair, and then his company’s computing business, as his wife prepares to self-administer the fatal abortion that ends the novel.

When we meet Slocum, he is already firmly entrenched in the dramas of his nuclear family and the office that mirrors it. Rather than watch him lose his dreams, we see him already past disillusionment: Whatever rationale once held the corporate elite and its promise of happy family life together has now vanished. There is not even a hint of escape, only repetition, a circling around the drain. Slocum suffers from a fundamental insecurity that leads to slavish dependence on organizations—family-based or corporate. Written over thirteen years that correspond to the rise and fall of the ’60s and all that decade might have meant, the novel reads like a scan of white-male reaction during an era when neither family nor work held any promise—but were nonetheless desperately clung to as the only things that ever had any promise. There is a sense that everything is on the decline, but nothing is emerging to replace it: “Dirty movies have gotten better, I’m told. Smut and weaponry are two areas in which we’ve improved. Everything else has gotten worse.”

Heller’s novel would prove a touchstone for Christopher Lasch’s jeremiad The Culture of Narcissism (1979). For Lasch, the replacement of the old bourgeois family with the new world of professional experts and managerial elites had led to a dependence (particularly for men) on the corporation and a desire to please others. It was all there in Something Happened, “which describes with such a multitude of depressing details the psychodynamics of family life today,” Lasch writes. Lasch argued that the expectation that the family be a “haven in a heartless world,” a refuge from the terrors of modernity and its tendency to reduce everything to the cash nexus, was ultimately hollowing the family out from within, placing undue burdens on the solace it was supposed to promise. It’s a precise evocation of the bleakness of Something Happened, which shows the nuclear family and the corporation to be two more in a series of endgames the country was then reaching. Of course, the country survived, and “family values” and corporate resurgence became watchwords of the ensuing decade. To read Something Happened is to come across the sheer mass of all that we have repressed. There is a truism about the repressed: It has a habit of coming back.

Nikil Saval, an editor of n+1, is the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, 2014).