“One of the unhappiest books ever written”

Originally published on March 22, 2016.

"If the novel’s worldview were a color, the human eye would likely fail to perceive its darkness."
“If the novel’s worldview were a color, the human eye would likely fail to perceive its darkness.”

I do ask something of the reader, and many reviewers say I ask too much … and as I say, it’s not reader-friendly. Though I think it is, and I think the reader gets satisfaction out of participating in, collaborating, if you will, with the writer, so that it ends up being between the reader and the page. … Why did we invent the printing press? Why do we, why are we literate? Because of the pleasure of being all alone, with a book, is one of the greatest pleasures.

William Gaddis

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.

Of course, none of the characters in any of these novels possesses this consciousness. Bob Slocum could no more write Something Happened than John Yossarian could write Catch-22; Wyatt Gwyon, Stanley, or Otto Pivner could write The Recognitions; or Edward Bast J R. They are far too caught up in their despairing worlds to fully recognize their situation. That recognition is left to their creators and to those who read these books.

Perhaps most of us, too, are too caught up in our own despairing worlds. Ultimately, the value of these books might be to provide some confirmation that we’re not alone in our despair, that it’s shared with these writers, and that these writers through their ability to transcend this despair in the act of creation — especially of comedy — permit us some compassion for others and consolation for ourselves. This compassion and consolation must emerge in shocking fashion (given their origins in a fundamentally satiric vision) in most of these books. As Petaccio notes:

Even Slocum’s most damning characteristic, the wish that his younger, mentally handicapped son would die, is rendered so histrionically it constantly reminds the reader of its fictiveness as it enters the zone of high comedy, all while dragging [the] reader to the limits of empathy.

These limits are reached when What Actually Happens happens. Slocum plays witness to his older son being hit by a car, and, in what he perceives to be an act of mercy, he smothers the boy to death. Later, in the hospital, he learns that the boy’s wounds were entirely superficial. The only response he can muster is, “Don’t tell my wife.” It takes a patently warped psychology to read this passage as dark comedy, not crushing tragedy. Something Happened spends every sentence up to that decisive moment ensuring its reader’s mind is sufficiently warped to arrive there. The reader laughs where he or she would have cried, understanding that the line drawn between comedy and tragedy isn’t fixed. Ultimately, Slocum’s smothering his son is as paradoxically noble as Heller’s writing of this book: it is meant to alleviate suffering.

The emphasis is my own. As Bob Slocum puts an end to his own line and the suffering it has endured (even as he’s done so perversely, even criminally, by the light of conventional morality), the end of The Recognitions similarly argues for the value of art and creation which alleviate a suffering that, it may be, will have no end. John Lingan’s rather excellent essay “William Gaddis, the Last Protestant” for the Quarterly Conversation goes into this in considerably more detail.

Perhaps “pleasure” is the wrong word for what I and other enthusiasts for Heller, Gaddis and similar writers derive from these novels. I suspect that these novels provide what all great art provides: clarity, an exploration of the texture of our own despair, and perhaps most importantly a comfort that we are part of a community of souls who share this perspective. These writers transcend their despair through its expression in comedy, and their readers transcend it through recognition and laughter. It’s the kind of pleasure that Gaddis was talking about and that provides some measure of redemption — that we’re all in this together, and none of us gets out of here alive.


Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia by George W. Boudreau. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2012.

There are few recent guides to Colonial Philadelphia, but George Boudreau‘s Independence is the very best of this rather small lot. It’s a well-illustrated history of the period with both familiar and rare pictorial material, a worthy companion for walking tours also appropriate for the bedside or coffee table. Fortunately, Boudreau is careful to note just what still stands and what doesn’t, but the text is the real charmer here. An assistant professor of history at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, Boudreau is a breezy and deeply-informed tour leader; interspersed in the main text are short, intriguing biographies of some rather lesser-known figures of the period. The notes to the book exemplify the extensive research that underlies the volume, but it’s directed at the general and not the academic reader. Highly recommended, and available at Amazon.

The egg

Summer of ’76: John Adams (William Daniels), Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), and Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva).

For my birthday last week I treated myself to watching 1776, the 1972 film adaptation of the Sherman Edwards/Peter Stone musical about the creation of the Declaration of Independence. It’s about as accurate as a musical comedy about the Declaration can be, what with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others singing and prancing around Independence Mall, built on a Hollywood back-lot; Wikipedia has a substantive list of the considerable liberties taken by the musical to history, and critic Roger Ebert was decidedly negative about the film. Nevertheless it still retains a great deal of silly charm, and as even The Columbia Companion to American History on Film concedes, “few [of the inaccuracies] are very troubling.” 1776 was the ur-Hamilton in a way, an attempt to render early American history palatable to those who may feel it rather dry and boring; as Hamilton anachronistically uses hip-hop to get its musical points across, 1776‘s score is more reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan, fifes and drums added to the arrangements, than Mozart, a genuine contemporary of the Founding Fathers (though there are still enough gavottes and waltzes to go around). And I still find most of the performances delightful. To me, John Adams will always be William Daniels, never Paul Giamatti.

I first saw 1776 upon its original release in 1972, when I was ten years old. It was released then with a G rating; these days, what with its occasional swearing, sexual innuendo, and bathroom humor, it would likely earn a PG (perhaps we live in more, not less, innocent times today). But I was already familiar with Old City Philadelphia and its environs to a certain degree. I was born in center city — at Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce Streets, which itself was founded in 1751 — and visited there very often. My family lived in the city’s outskirts, but because my father’s parents still lived on Fairmount Avenue in the Northern Liberties section of the city, we made it into town just about every weekend, and my brother and I were dragged along to Independence Mall, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, Elfreth’s Alley, and other historical points of interest before we were ten. So I have rather deep roots in the city.

As the years went by I investigated Philadelphia more and more on my own. I live in New York now, and New York has its own history, but it isn’t living history to the extent that Philadelphia’s is. Just getting from one place to another in downtown Philadelphia — from home to work, say, or a night out on South Street — you regularly passed Carpenter’s Hall and the State House, these buildings still carefully maintained in an 18th century style, especially around 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, when Philadelphia expected an onrush of tourists that never really materialized. A part of the bicentennial celebration was a tab version of 1776 performed in an outdoor theatre on the Mall through the summer of ’76.

I watched 1776 last week with the Declaration of Independence fresh in my mind. Turning from that film to the New York Times political headlines the next day, I was reminded of this observation from Henry Adams, John Adams’ great-grandson, who wrote about President Ulysses S. Grant in his 1918 autobiography The Education of Henry Adams. Adams refers to himself in his memoirs in the third person:

What worried Adams was not the commonplace; it was, as usual, his own education. Grant fretted and irritated him, like the Terebratula, as a defiance of first principles. He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. The idea that, as society grew older, it grew one-sided, upset evolution, and made of education a fraud. That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar, a man like Grant should be called — and should actually and truly be — the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.

And that was Grant, 100 years before Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, and Trump. Henry Adams can thank his God that he died in 1918, before this recent rush of evidence disproving evolution.

To fill in the film’s gaps and as a corrective to its inaccuracies, I’ve also been reading Richard Beeman’s Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, a popular history of the events leading up to the Declaration. It’s quite the page-turner and I recommend it highly. As I read it, two things are occurring to me.

First, as Henry Adams suggests, Adams, Jefferson, Hancock, and the others were undoubtedly great men: Philadelphia from 1760 to 1800 was one of those unique locations in history to be blessed with people who participated in an intelligent, radical rethinking of the human spirit. The Declaration was not law, to be sure — it was propaganda directed at the world. But what effective propaganda it was. Of course, it reflects the flaws of its creators as well, its attitudes to slavery and women chief among them — though even here the founders allowed within the Constitution itself a way to amend it through the years; it was a living document. The Declaration, and the Constitution that would follow a decade later, made America unique among the modern nations in that its founding was based upon principles and ideals. That those principles and ideals were laid out in two documents that it may take you about two hours to read carefully is something of a miracle. It’s the only modern nation to come with an owner’s manual, and unlike the owner’s manual that came with your microwave, it reaches occasional poetic heights that it would behoove us to re-examine today.

Second, these ideals and principles are still clearly in the air. They are a part of our basic belief system as a nation and a people — religious tolerance, open discussion, a free press, the need for representative deliberation, but most especially, I think, for the right to agitate and become radicals against tyrannical powers of government. Eventually a “wait-and-see” attitude towards George III became impossible and unconscionable, a crime against the rights of man. They are as much in the air as history palpably surrounds you on the streets of Old City Philadelphia.

I often wonder whether such documents could have been created anywhere but Philadelphia in the late 18th century. Philadelphia is itself unique in world history, a city founded upon Quaker principles of religious tolerance, self-reliance, simplicity, humility, and the certainty of an Inner Light in each and every individual regardless of race, gender, or talent. (New York, on the other hand, was founded as a trading post, upon the suspect principles of money and greed. Penn paid the Lenni Lenape Indians for their land, and Pennsylvania enjoyed peace with the Native Americans, unlike most of the other mid-Atlantic and New England colonies; New Yorkers just stole it.) Those principles fell by the wayside rather quickly — William Penn last saw Philadelphia in 1701, and even then the tide of immigration was revising those religious principles in the name of expansion, democracy, and commerce. But even now, walking Philadelphia’s streets, there is something of that sentiment still available to anyone willing to recognize it. But of course you do have to acknowledge it. And that, too, takes humility. My daughters were both born at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village — they are native New Yorkers and always will be. But, in my own way, I’m a native Philadelphian, and always will be. That said, I can’t wait until I have the opportunity to drag them around Independence Hall as well. And hell, 1776 is a musical — maybe they’ll even enjoy that one day.

Below, a sample of one of the more charming songs of the show; Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams await the results of the first reading of Jefferson’s Declaration to the Continental Congress.

How long has it been?

The Assembly Room at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

These days, everybody on Facebook and Twitter seems to be a constitutional scholar. I admit my own constitutional law chops are a little rusty — it’s been years since I first read the Constitution and Declaraction of Independence; not since junior-high-school history, really, and I’m pretty sure I skipped over the thornier sections of the Constitution.

If you’re like me and need a quick recap, I recommend this handy edition of those documents from Penguin Books’ “Civic Classics” series. Edited by Richard Beeman of the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the executive committee of the National Constitution Center (and a real constitutional scholar), the texts are well-annotated, and the volume itself is very attractive.

If you’re going to participate in this democracy, it’s probably a good idea to have the owner’s manual around. Good for gift-giving, too. I recommend you send one to him; he doesn’t seem to have read it, either.