Will Ferguson's Happiness is a smooth and savage satire, a humorous dystopia, a fin de siecle Brave New World filled with trenchant observations about self-help gurus, the world of publishing, Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, and the whole United States of America at the turn of the 21st Century. The core idea of the book is as simple as a Hollywood pitch: what if someone wrote a self-help book that actually worked? Ferguson's entirely plausible answer: the Apocalypse, as all of the industries of vice and their corresponding industries of anti-vice dry up and blow away.
Edwin Vincent de Valu is the editor at Panderic, a mid-level publishing house specializing in nonfiction. Through an unlikely but hilarious series of coincidences, he retrieves a mysterious typewritten manuscript from the slush pile and rushes it into print without a whisper of promotion, expecting it to vanish into the depths of the remainder bin.
But the book works, after all, and soon word of mouth about Tupak Soiree's What I Learned on the Mountain, a thousand-page mass of platitudes, pithy observations and techniques for living (and loving - a fail-safe sexual discipline called Li Bok features prominently) has Panderic selling millions, then tens of millions of copies, creating millions, then tens of millions of people who are at long last truly happy and satisfied.
Problem is, truly happy people don't buy things they don't need... and soon Edwin, as one of the few people left who's capable of being miserable, realizes that he has to do something about the impending end of history.
Happiness is also a word-lover's book, a book-lover's book, filled with fascinating, real "untranslatables" like the German word schadenfreude and the Japanese phrase mono no aware, full of arch cultural insights and vicious little digs at all participants in the publishing industry, featuring a cameo from a librarian who hates books, and having at the root of it all a great and sprawling love for what Ferguson says Robertson Davies calls the clerisy - the small but influential group of people who are truly and fully literate, for not only can they read, they do read, frequently and for pleasure.
If you're a member of the clerisy like me - if you take great pleasure in reading - I think you'll like this book.
* * *
Will Ferguson, Happiness. Canongate Books, 2002. ISBN 1-84195-275-3, US$24.00.
©2004 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated February 26, 2004.