Wednesday, April 11, 2018

What Happened?

     Does anyone here remember Joseph Heller’s second novel, Something Happened -- ? If you remember it, did you read it? If you read it, did you enjoy it?

     And now that we’ve winnowed the audience down to the Gideon’s Band of those who read and enjoyed that lugubrious mess, I shall ask The Question:

What is the book about?

     Limit your answers to a single sentence. Write it down. Make it perfectly clear, and grammatically correct if possible. I’ll wait here.

     Finished with that? Very good. Now shove the piece of paper bearing your answer at least an arm’s length away from you. Turn it over, so your answer cannot be read from where you’re sitting. Now return your full attention to the screen. We control the horizontal. We control the vertical...

     Sorry, that last bit just slipped out. But I’m serious about the rest. My point requires all of it. Proceed at your own risk.

     I recall reading Kurt Vonnegut’s review of Something Happened in the New York Times Book Review. It was a highly praiseful piece that elevated the book to the pantheon of Great American Novels...but it never answered the question I posed in the previous segment. Vonnegut rhapsodized for quite a number of column-inches about Heller’s tome without ever coming to grips with that question.

     Considering that the book’s title is Something Happened, you’d think the reviewer’s duties would include delineating that very thing, wouldn’t you? Especially if it’s a single “something,” a unitary event around which all the rest of the novel’s action and human drama revolve. But Vonnegut never gets around to it.

     Why not? Vonnegut had nothing but plaudits for the book. He was obviously entranced by least, he seemed to want the reader to think so. Surely he could tell us what the book is about. That’s one of the two irreducible requirements of a book review: what the book is about, and what the reviewer thinks of it.

     But he never did. The reason is fairly obvious to anyone who’s suffered through the whole book: nothing happens.

     Something Happened, hailed by critics from every corner of the literary world, is a five hundred page veh ist mir from first-person narrator Robert Slocum. Slocum, you see, is not happy. He wants us to know that. And he wants us to know that he blames everyone and everything in his life...except himself.

     Some story.

     We might call Something Happened the flagship of the Self-Indulgent Lament school of fiction. Everyone who was anyone in the world of literary criticism praised it to the skies. There have been many books like it since its publication in 1974. None of them are more readable.

     But why would critics lavish praise on something so vacuous and whiny? For Heller’s technique? For his evocation of Slocum’s unbounded ennui and angst? For “his sensibility and its hair-like filaments, his delicate, quivering sensibility” (Clive James) -- ?

     No. They praised it because:

  1. Heller was “one of them;”
  2. He’d written something without events, drama, or a moral;
  3. At long last, a “great” writer had written a book that only they could “appreciate.”

     If the critics could elevate Something Happened to the literary pantheon, while the rest of us were saying “Huh?” and “WTF?” and “I don’t get it,” they could put themselves on the same plane as a “great” writer whose previous book had enthralled millions.

     Robert A. Heinlein once wrote that:

     A "critic" is a person who creates nothing and thereby feels qualified to judge the work of creative people. There is logic in this; he is unbiased — he hates all creative people equally. [From Time Enough For Love]

     The corrosive envy the critic feels toward the genuinely creative man is expressed in many ways, but this is the most destructive of them: putting a piece of junk assembled from miscellaneous rusted auto parts next to Michelangelo’s Pieta and deeming them equally worthy of reverence and awe. Yet there is no other way in which the critic can elevate himself to a plane above us grubby groundlings. It’s his sole vehicle for rising above us who read in hope of a good story well told, that illuminates some essential element of the immutable realities of human life under the veil of time.

     Much the same can be said about publishers and publishers' editors.

     At this point my Gentle Readers are probably asking themselves “what lit Porretto’s boiler this morning?” In candor, ignition partook of several sources, only one of which deserves independent mention.

     In his tirade about “Why Contemporary Science Fiction and Fantasy is Godawful,” Jeffro makes a couple of good points and a couple that are less well aimed. But his conclusion seems to me to be inadequate:

     Normal people are exasperated when they are confronted by this sort of thing, no different from how fans of the recent superhero movies react when told that you can’t get an Iron Man comic book right now starring insanely popular Tony Stark. Oh, it comes out in fits and starts. There’s all kinds of rationalizations that people will leap to before they finally give them up. But it all comes down to this: something happened to cause the science fiction and fantasy canon to just plain evaporate. A whole bunch of somethings, maybe. And there’s just no good justification for it.

     “Something happened” -- ? Something that caused the F&SF “canon” to “just plain evaporate” -- ? All that preceding verbiage, much of it in a tone of exasperation even I, the Curmudgeon Emeritus to the World Wide Web, would be hard pressed to equal, concludes with this?

     I suppose one can compose a rant specifically for the purpose of raising a question. I suppose for that purpose the question “What happened to F&SF?” is as good as any. But given all the developments in those genres these past thirty years, including the incredible explosion of independently-published works made possible by print-on-demand and the eBook, answers should be available for discussion, at least. Indeed, answers have been proposed from several points of the compass.

     For those interested in the subject, my preferred answer is the conventional publishing world anathematized the Golden Age works filled with imagination, adventure, heroism, and drama, and embraced bloodless, pointless, anti-how real people really behave “message fiction.” Others are free to differ. My point, though, is not that my answer is unquestionably the correct one. Of course I think that; why else would I have written it? My point is that Jeffro’s question has already been answered many times. Our mission (should we choose to accept it) is to sort through the proposed answers, to compare them to the available evidence, and to propose still others not yet considered, not to emit further veh ist mir laments about how what we older aficionadi loved has vanished from the bookstore shelves.

     Leave the laments to the critics who can’t imagine why the great majority of us who thrilled to Catch-22 consider Something Happened a pile of snurgsh. Better yet, write something filled with imagination, adventure, heroism, and drama. That’ll learn ‘em.

     (What’s that? You don’t know what snurgsh is? Use your imagination. Or read Larry Niven, the grandmaster of “hard” science fiction and the acknowledged expert at turning typos into alien vocabularies.)

1 comment:

John said...

Much like David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. The Jest seems to be on the readers and critics who have praised it as a "very important" work, but which actually seems to be about nothing.