book reviews

Happiness™ by Will Ferguson: A Review

I bought this book last weekend and started and finished it within less than a day, at least technically speaking. It’s not exactly short, packing 339 pages, so this tells you something right away.

This is the first novel I’ve read by Ferguson (I’m reading his newest non-fiction book Beyond Belfast too, and have been really enjoying it, which is what prompted me to buy Happiness™ in the first place). Happiness™ , once titled Generica, won not only the Leacock Medal for Humour but also the Canadian Fiction Authors Association Award for Fiction. It was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (Caribbean and Canada region) and has been translated into 26 languages around the world. And it’s published by Penguin Group as one of their (so far?) 15 Celebrations books. How could I resist?

That said, I had high expectations for this novel, and the good news is I wasn’t totally disappointed. I did get off to an uncertain start, however. I’m not sure if it was because perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood (if so, I was unaware), or whether or not I was too tired (quite possible), but I just couldn’t find flow in the novel at first and I couldn’t pinpoint whether it was me or the author.

I wondered if Ferguson, an experienced and no doubt talented writer, was having a hard time finding his pace or voice, or, rather, the voice of the narrator, this being his first piece of fiction. A few times I confused the narrative voice for Ferguson’s own; I couldn’t quite straighten out the point of view. I wondered if perhaps it was just that I wasn’t getting a clear sense of the protagonist, Edwin de Valu (significant last name??) (not a clear sense at first, anyway, but peeks at his inner thoughts, which were often contrary to his actions, helped develop him). I’m unsure.

A large part of it, I will say, was that I couldn’t read without copyediting (being a copyeditor myself), which I found wholly ironic, since de Valu is an editor. I wish I had written examples to give, but I thought the text definitely needed to be further fine-tuned, which could easily be done without messing with voice or style. I also found myself wondering why this particular book was chosen for one of the few Penguins Celebrations books.

Nevertheless, I didn’t once consider giving up. I just couldn’t stop turning the pages, especially after a certain manuscript turned up on de Valu’s desk and I knew it was going to be significant. The setting itself, a publishing house, and that de Valu was an editor were already reasons I bought the book. My curiosity grew, as did Ferguson’s momentum, and sooner than later I was more easily ignoring all else but the story.

True to its promise, the book did make me laugh aloud at parts. As a humorist, Ferguson is a keener for satire, for self-reflexive fun, and even blatantly pointing the finger at people and things, from the publishing world, to editors, to authors, to particular people, and especially to, of course, the self-help culture and its advocates (here he shows no mercy, and it’s quite funny!). Ferguson’s knack for recognizably hitting the nail on the head but doing it tongue in cheek was impressive and enjoyable.

There were quite a few times I felt that things got a little too ridiculous (sometimes I even felt Ferguson was a little…immature in an attention-grabbing way)—again, I wish I had written down examples to give—but given the premise, that the end of the world begins because a self-help book actually works and everyone becomes happy, the rest is forgivable. Truth is, though everything seemed far-fetched (some things more than others, not even so much the main idea), one can’t ignore the fact that the world is currently run by our unhappiness, our quest for rather than realization of happiness. In that case, how crazy is the idea that if we did all become happy, things would grind to a halt? (You’ll have to read the book to hear the argument! Edwin the editor is quite convincing!)

Not until de Valu makes the crucial decision to hunt down the author of the world-changing self-help book do things truly start to pick up. At this point, I was going for broke; regardless of the time and my increasing nausea (nothing to do with the book, I hasten to add; I get that way when I stay up too late!), I couldn’t put down the book. Dialogue was already strong throughout but when Edwin finally meets the author and confronts him, what follows is an extremely stimulating, thought-provoking, surprising, and clever exchange. By this time, Ferguson has clearly found his stride as a fictional author and is wholeheartedly and successfully showing us what he’s made of.

And while I never doubted his talent (Beyond Belfast is excellent), I’m still relieved to say I am—dare I say it?—happy to include this book on my shelves. I’m quite certain I’ll read it again at some point and give it even more thought. With it’s actually serious religious, economic, philosophic, ethical, and even anthropological insights, this is definitely a book that invites discussion. Accustomed as we are to watching and reading protagonists in films and books save the world from despair and restore happiness, Edwin de Valu, arguing that we need unhappiness to survive, seems the anti-hero. But not so much when during his (excellently written) encounter with Jack he convincingly states:

Who are we, Jack? Who are we? We’re not our bodies. We’re not our possessions or our money or our social status. We are our personalities. Our foibles, our quirks, our eccentricities, our frustrations, and our phobias; remove these and what do you have? Nothing. Just happy, mindless human shells. Blank eyes and bland expressions, Jack. That’s all I see now…Soon everyone will talk the same, smile the same, think the same. Individual personalities are becoming less and less distinct. People are vanishing…You’re a murderer. (original emphasis)

Without doubt, there’s as much exploration of serious themes as humour in Happiness™. Perhaps a great one for your next book club?

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  1. I’m glad you liked the review! It was an interesting read. I’m going to have to try Spanish Fly now. It chronicles the life of one of the characters (Jack), so it’s sort of a prequel.


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