The linings of the brain. (The linings of my brain, they give me such pain.) The linings of my brain are three in number and are called collectively the meninges. They surround it on the outside. The innermost is called the pia mater. It is a delicate, fibrous, and highly vascular membrane (gorged with veins and capillaries, I suppose). I feel pressure against it from inside. Things bubble and shove against it as though they might explode. It reminds me at times of a cheese fondue. The pia mater, reinforced by the two supporting layers, the arachnoid and the dura mater, holds fast against the outward expanding pressure of my brain, pushes back. At times, there is pain. The name pia mater derives from an imperfect translation into Latin of Arabic words that meant (ha, ha) tender mother.
– Joseph Heller, Something Happened (Knopf, 1974, p. 541-42)
The book designers weren’t told to make an object resembling a hearse or coffin, but they did anyways, a beautiful black and gold object. I bought my Knopf “Book Club edition” of this dark classic for seven Canadian bucks at Encore Books in Montreal two years ago.
And it is a hell of a book. Its voice belongs to Bob Slocum, a father-of-three, mid-level executive living in Connecticut. His one son is mentally retarded, a fact he can’t fully countenance. Slocum is terrified of inarticulacy, of speechlessness. He is depressed, but he is not. (Unless depression means something like a permanent negative outlook or worldview, an all-encompassing and unremitting pessimism. Fear of everything, of closed doors, of other people, of mortality, strokes, illness, senility, debility, speechlessness, of accidents.
What a fucking book. Its darkness on a level with William Gass’s The Tunnel, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. Or Thomas Bernhard.
I’ll shut up. And let Heller’s Bob Slocum speak for himself.
All our summers have been bad. And most of our Sundays. And still are. How I dread those three- and four-day weekends. I wish my wife and I played tennis or enjoyed going on boats for sailing or fishing. But I don’t; I don’t even enjoy people who do. I don’t even enjoy anything anymore. (323)
I have a bitter urge now to reproach her, to shout at her, to reach out and hit her, to kick her very sharply under the table in the bones of her leg. I have an impulse often to strike back at the members of my family, even the children, when I feel they are insulting me or taking advantage. Sometimes when I see one of them in the process of doing something improper, or making a mistake for which I know I will be justified in blaming them, I do not intercede to help or correct but hold back in joy to watch and wait, as though observing from a distance a wicked scene unfold in some weird dream, actually relishing the opportunity I spy approaching that will enable me to criticize and reprimand them and demand explanations and apologies. It horrifies me; it is something like watching them back fatallay toward an open window or the edge of a cliff and offering no warning to save them from injury or death. It is perverse and I try to overcome it. There is this crawling animal flourishing somewher inside me that I try to keep hidden and that strives to get get out, and I don’t know what it is or whom it wishes to destroy. I know it is covered with warts. It might be me; it might also be me that it wishes to destroy) and, succeeding in stifling my anger beneath a placid smile, say:
“Pass me the break, will you, dear?” (111)
I molested a child. I was molested as a child. Everyone is molested. (337-8)
I know what hostility is. (It gives me headaches and tortured sleep.) My id suppurates into my ego and makes me aggressive and disagreeable. Seepage is destroying my loved ones. If only one could vent one’s hatreds fully, exhaust them, discharge them the way a lobster deposits his sperm with the female and ambles away into opaque darkness alone and unburdened. I’ve tried. They come back. (390)
I do indeed know what morbid compulsion feels like. Fungus, erosion, disease. The taste of flannel in your mouth. The smell of asbestos in your brain. A rock. A sinking heart, silence, taut limbs, a festering invasion from within, seeping subversion, and a dull pressure on the brow, and in the back regions of the skull. It starts like a fleeting whim, an airy frivolous notion, but it doesn’t go; it stays; it sticks; it enlarges in space and force like a somber, inhuman form from whatever lightless pit inside you it abides in; it fills you up, spreading steadily throughout you like lava or a persistent miasmic cloud, an obscure, untouchable, implacable, domineering, vile presence disguising itself treacherously in your own identity, a double agent–it is debilitating and sickening. It foreshadows no joy–and takes charge, and you might just as well hang your head and drop your eyes and give right in. You might just as well surrender at the start and steal that money, strike that match, (masturbate), eat that whole quart of ice cream, grovel, dial that number, or search that forbidden drawer or closet once again to handle the things you’re not supposed to know are there. You might just as well go right off in whatever direction your madness lies and do that unwise, unpleasant, immoral thing you don’t want to that you know beforehand will leave you dejected and demoralized afterward. Go along glumly like an exhausted prisoner of war and get the melancholy deed overy with. I have spells in spare time when it turns physically impossible for me to remain standing erect one second longer or to sit without slumping. They pass. I used to steal coins from my sister and my mother–I couldn’t stop. I didn’t even want the money. I think I just wanted to take something from them. I was mesmerized. I was haunted. I wanted to scream for help. I had only to consider for an instant the possibility of taking a penny or a nickel again from a satin purse in a pocketbook belonging to my mother or sister and it was all over: I would have to do it. I was possessed by the need to do it. I would plod home through snow a mile if necessary in order to get it then. I had to have it then. I took dimes and quarters too. Ididn’t enjoy it, before or afterward. I felt lousy. I didn’t even enjoy the things I bought or did. I gambled much of it away on pinball machines at the corner candy store (and felt a bit easier in my mind after it was lost). I didn’t feel good about a single part of it, except getting it over with–it was an ordeal–and recovering. After a while the seizures ended and I stopped. (The same thing happened with masturbation, and I gave that up also after fifteen or twenty years.) (489-91)