- The Fiction of Joseph Heller: Against the Grain
David Seed's retrospective of the work of Joseph Heller seems at first to be a book in search of a thesis. Seed does a careful job of summarizing each of Heller's major works, stretching from the explosive reception to Catch 22 (1961) and the attendant plays, to Something Happened (1974), and later to Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984), No Laughing Mailer (1986 with Speed Vogel), Picture This (1988), works which have triggered little or very mixed critical notice.
Two assumptions undergird discussions of individual novels and, when they converge, form something like a thesis: 1) that a common denominator runs through all of Heller's work, namely the entrapment of a protagonist (often a flawed, decidedly antiheroic one) in legal and administrative entanglements that have lost "their assumed connection with justice and truth"; 2) that despite the fact that Heller's critical reputation "rests on a single book," his more interesting and innovative work comes much later than Catch 22. [End Page 246]
Seed's first assumption asks the reader to connect Heller's works through their treatments of the "related issues of authority and justice." Rather than placing Heller in the context of the satiric war novels of James Jones and Norman Mailer, or in the context of the absurdist tradition of Kafka and Beckett, or even in the moral context of Jewish-American writers like Bellow and Malamud, Seed argues that Heller has "regularly constructed adversarial fictions" deploying caricature, parody, and satire "against the public values of contemporary American life."
The later fiction particularly illustrates this satiric development. In Something Happened Heller's target is not the military but the corporate world; in Good as Gold the government is targeted. In each of these contemporary bureaucracies Heller tells the tale through an antiheroic protagonist struggling to separate his values from a far larger system engulfing him.
In God Knows Heller "revises" the Biblical text of the King David story by juxtaposing a modern, colloquial speech pattern used by David with the formal voice of the King James version used by God. David is portrayed as a victim of his own sexual appetites, and he adopts a comic response to counter the authority of two patriarchial disapprovals: Saul's and God's.
It is the adoption of this comic response that marks No Laughing Matter, the book Heller wrote in alternating chapters with Speed Vogel, his childhood friend and caretaker while he recovers from Guillain-Barré disease, a rare form of polyneuritis that rapidly paralyzes its victims.
And Picture This also interweaves the fates of two characters, Socrates and Rembrandt, each of whom falls victim to the crass motives propelling Athenian expansion and Dutch mercantilism. When one sees Heller's work as the consistent, if varied, attempt to satirize, disrupt, subvert national claims of obedience, regardless of whether those claims are based on military, commercial, or Biblical injunctions, then David Seed's argument becomes vertical rather than simply horizontal, insightful rather than simply descriptive.