The unhappiest book(s) ever written

Joseph Heller and William Gaddis.

I’ve become somewhat intrigued lately about not only my own genealogy but also that of some of the novels that I’ve been reading and re-reading for years. As my lovely wife points out in her own book, the spectral music of the middle-to-late twentieth century has its roots in the music of Liszt and Debussy; literary works, too, have precursors. Specifically, the 19th-century Russian novel and the poetry of T. S. Eliot that gave rise to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and the work of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Jaroslav Hašek without which we would not have Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 are indicative of the subterranean rivers that lie beneath these novels as influence and models, acknowledged as such by their authors. Lately I’ve been going back to Eliot, Dostoevsky, Céline, and Hašek; because I’ve been doing that, I republish below a short related essay that I first posted here on March 22, 2016.

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.

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.

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