On William Gaddis and Joseph Heller

George Hunka reflects on his reading of Something Happened and Carpenter’s Gothic


At breakfast this morning I mentioned Joseph Heller’s 1975 novel Something Happened to my wife. I read it upon its publication and found it as near to a masterpiece as Heller’s first and far more highly regarded novel Catch-22, though after submitting my wife to William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic a few months ago I didn’t feel the need to recommend yet another unremittingly dour and unrelentingly pessimistic fiction. In his New York Times review, Kurt Vonnegut called it “one of the unhappiest books ever written,” and Carmen Petaccio called it “a punishingly bleak novel” in an appreciation of the book written for the Los Angeles Review of Books two years ago, the 40th anniversary of its publication:

“It’s dense and overlong, sometimes sadistically so, and it offers a minimum in the way of resolution or plot. If the novel’s worldview were a color, the human eye would likely fail to perceive its darkness. What is surprising, though, is how by virtue of that same bleakness, Something Happened becomes one of the most pleasurable, engrossing, and in retrospect moving American novels ever written. If you’ve read Something Happened, and you get why others haven’t, then you make it your little mission to convince people that they should.”

My own missionary days were over long ago, so I’m not ready to convince anyone that they should read anything. Upon further consideration, though, I wondered why I, already constitutionally pessimistic, or anyone else should read or re-read anything of the kind (though Petaccio’s essay has encouraged me to seek Something Happened out again) — and, especially, what pleasure I or anybody else could be expected to get out of these novels.

Because, indeed, it is pleasure. Both Gaddis and Heller — and their obvious progenitor Mark Twain, especially the Twain of The Mysterious Stranger — are satirists, so some laughter can always be expected, but it’s laughter of a most jaundiced variety. All three writers, though, as they progressed through their careers, became more pessimistic rather than less, and even the rather mild forms of joie de vivre found in their earlier works dissipated almost completely in their later.

Gaddis and Heller were almost exactly contemporary, and their careers arched over the fifty years following the end of World War II. Their books were continuing records of America’s and the world’s decline. Like most satirists, they could picture a better world, if only by implication; like most pessimists, they doubted it would ever improve. Their anger and disappointment lay in this dual consciousness, their laughter (and ours) in a recognition of this irony.

And yet these are far from period pieces. They may even be described as prophetic. And just as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels hasn’t aged as much as we might like to think, neither have these novels; decline has continued; five minutes reading the front page of the New York Times every day is confirmation enough of that. [Read More]

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