“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]