BOOK BEAT: 'Happiness™'
July 6th, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

book coverFor its first 50 or so pages of his novel Happiness™, Canadian satirist Will Ferguson provides a quaint send-up of office politics and the book industry (historically, literature’s second most boring subject, after writers themselves).

But the humor picks up once the main story gets underway. This is really a book about a book, the ultimate self-help book, a meandering 1,000-page series of life lessons entitled What I Learned on the Mountain and credited to a pseudonymous guru calling himself “Rajee Tupak Soiree.” Our hero, downtrodden book editor Edwin de Valu, gets the typewritten manuscript in the slush pile at the middling publisher where he gruelingly toils. After some initial misadventures, Edwin has the text published with no changes.

Without the blanding-out process of the industry’s professional prose-polishers, What I Learned on the Mountain gets unleashed full-strength upon an unsuspecting world. Within days (the book biz’s notoriously slow operational pace is highly compressed in Ferguson’s fictional world), it’s the #1 best seller of all time.

And it really works!

Soiree’s turgid prose turns out to have a hypnotic effect, subconsiously leading most of its readers into a new way of thinking. (Ferguson doesn’t attempt to show us how this works; he only directly quotes from What I Learned on the Mountain in very brief snippets.)

The result: Pretty much the end of civilization as we know it.

Millions of North Americans suddenly convert to inner peace and contentment. The alcohol, tobacco, drug, fashion, and baldness-remedy industries collapse. So does the book industry, except for spinoffs and ripoffs of What I Learned on the Mountain. Vast swaths of the U.S. work force just up and quit their posts to embark on vision quests or to join Tupak Soiree’s Colorado ashram/harem. This heaven, like David Byrne’s is a place where nothing ever happens.

Edwin de Valu sees everything he’d known (including his wife and his ex-lover) disappear around him, and feels responsible for it. This milquetoast salaryman reinvents himself as an action hero (or antihero), determined to strike his revenge on Tupak Soiree and all he represents. In the process, he learns the real lesson of life—it’s meant to be a struggle. Happiness, real happiness, is a journey, not a destination.

And (spoiler alert) Edwin also finds out that Tupak Soiree is a total fraud. What I Learned on the Mountain, the book that conquered humanity’s cynicism and greed, was a cynical attempt to make money.

I found Ferguson’s ending to be a real cop-out. I wanted to read about the ultimate battle for humanity’s soul, between evil-disguised-as-good (Tupak and his blissed-out hordes) and good-disguised-as-evil (the now angry, gun-toting Edwin).

That story remains to be written.

So does the heart of Ferguson’s conceit, a sufficiently-long example of Tupak’s seductive prose stylings.

But these failings may simply mean Ferguson’s conceptual reach exceeds his stylistic grasp.

In other words, he’s also still striving.

(Sidebar 1: The novel’s original Canadian title in 2001 was Generica, referring to the uniform state of bliss people adopt upon exposure to Tupak Soiree’s teachings.)

(Sidebar 2: Could there actually be a style of writing that, like monks’ chants or recent attempts in “binaural-beat” electronic music, rewire the human mind? The story possibilities, oh the story possibilities…)

(Sidebar 3: What would US/Canadian society really look like after a mass conversion away from anxiety/depression/addiction and toward inner peace? We’d still have to feed and shelter ourselves, and we’d still have tribal/social/political differences. More story possibilities…)

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