By Joseph Heller (Alfred A. Knopf, 1972)
Imagine a book densely packed with and surrounded by mathematics, and it’s unlikely you’ll have imagined a novel. But consider these early lines:
In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at least one person. Each of these one hundred and twenty people is afraid of the other one hundred and nineteen, and all of these one hundred and forty-five people are afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found and build the company and now own and direct it.
Few in the world of fiction have tackled the concentrated calculations that inherently saturate the life of the American working man as effectively, universally, humanely, and timelessly as Joseph Heller did in his second book, Something Happened. The creative teams of The Office (both U.K. and U.S.) have a claim on the most recent attempts at this, but even they must pay some debt to Heller’s tight formula of corporate American anguish.
Known almost solely for Catch-22, his debut book dealing with somewhat similar desperate mathematics, but in a severely different tone — more experimental at best and more youthfully overwrought at worst — Heller took thirteen years to finish his sophomore book. Someone once argued that the only way to avoid the stress of writing your second book is by skipping it and immediately writing your third. Whether Heller considered Something Happened his second or third book, I consider it his finest and I seem to be in good company: Kurt Vonnegut considered it Heller’s finest, too.
There is a statistic out there that the average and, to some, ideal American family produces between 2.2 and 2.7 children. I imagine this would include one boy and one girl. What about the fraction? With such chapter subheadings as “I get the willies,” “My wife is unhappy,” “My daughter’s unhappy,” “My little boy is having difficulties,” “There’s no getting away from it,” and “My boy has stopped talking to me,” I think Heller might have had this absurd calculation in mind when he gave his sad sack hero, George Slocum, a third child (of sorts) who lives largely unseen on the top floor of the family home, a terrible manifestation of the lump every quietly desperate man has created for himself — through equal parts stubborn will, careless error, and, ultimately, lack of choice — and is forced to carry forever, caught firmly in his throat.
And that’s just the beginning. When something finally does happen in Something Happened, you may find that life’s sense of humor is one of the few fiercer than Joseph Heller’s.
Jakob Holder is an award-winning playwright who splits his time between Staten Island in New York and Ristisaari Island in Finland. It is, admittedly, an uneven split.