“Arson! Now that, they all agreed, was the way to protest something.” Such is one consensus reached in Brock Clarke’s entertaining new novel The Happiest People in the World, which at every turn ironically undercuts the supposed contentment of its characters. Under discussion is the firebombing of a Danish newspaper that printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but fans of Clarke will hear an echo of his wonderful The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. That novel, which despite its wry humor was a rather melancholy affair, followed the surreal trials of a man who accidentally torched Emily Dickinson’s Amherst home as a teenager. With The Happiest People in the World, Clarke returns to arson, this time as farce — a wistful farce stuffed with lonely, unhappy people, but a farce nonetheless.
I should pause here to note the awful timeliness of The Happiest People in the World, featuring as it does a cartoonist in hiding from those who supposedly wish to kill him. But Clarke’s novel is also resolutely untimely, neither a fanged satire on Muslim fundamentalism and thoughtless Western provocation, nor an in-depth examination of cultural differences. (Indeed, it is hard to say whether the cartoonist or the terrorist is less invested in his respective task.) Rather, the novel is a comic fable about that most timeless of human attributes: cluelessness. And that cluelessness is understandable given that Clarke’s comic world — like most comic worlds — is plagued with a systemic confusion over everything from people’s identities to the definition of an inanimate object like a hunting rifle: “…It was one of those hunting rifles that you could swear was really an assault rifle, but if you swore that, then the hunter who carried the assault rifle would swear that is was really a hunting rifle because he hunted with it.”
The confusion begins with the novel’s ingenious opening, as haunting a scene as one narrated from the point-of-view of a stuffed moose head can be. The moose head in question is mounted in the Lumber Lodge, a watering hole in upstate New York, and its left eye is outfitted with a security camera looking down upon several writhing bodies. Are these people squirming in drunken hilarity or agony? Unable to judge, think or “worry,” the moose’s default observational mode is optimism — an unreliable narrator if there ever was one. And thus when a man crawls over to a woman and a boy lying on the floor:
The moose head watched the man hug them for a long time, watched his shoulders shaking harder even than the boy’s shoulders had, obviously laughing, just laughing and laughing as though he were the happiest person in the world, as though he knew that nothing bad would ever happen to him, or to any of them.
It won’t be giving too much away to state that the man is sobbing rather than laughing.
The cervine surveillance is a witty statement about the aforementioned human cluelessness. The moose’s glare, disinterested though it may be, is as prone to misinterpreting events as the people who shot it in the first place. But the opening also reveals the unsettling connection between comedy and tragedy: squint and it becomes very hard to tell the two masks apart. Maintaining, as the novel’s risibly Panglossian protagonist Jens does, that everything is going to be fine in this best of all possible worlds is the most efficient way of rushing headlong into disaster, especially for one whose “whole life…was a series of mistakes that anyone else in the world but him would have recognized in advance and therefore not have made them.”
Those series of mistakes constitute the plot of this farce, the summary of which tends to make the summarizer sound slightly farcical himself, first because the genre adheres more strictly to logic (albeit an absurd logic) than does realist fare, and second because it depends on increasingly intricate connections between those caught in its shenanigans.
Jens Baedrup is a bumbling cartoonist from Skagen, an idyllic Danish town between the Baltic and North Seas whose residents are said to be even happier than the Danes as a whole, “who are said to be the happiest people in the world.” Asked to draw up something about the 2005 controversy over the series of Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed — “Who better to draw a cartoon like this than someone who doesn’t have a strong opinion” his editor tells him — he reluctantly complies with a drawing showing how unhappy the whole affair makes the Danes. After Soren, a not-particularly-devout Danish Muslim, firebombs Jens’s house to scare him for having drawn a profane cartoon, the cartoonist goes into hiding as the high school guidance counselor in the remote town of Broomeville, NY. Broomeville also happens to be the center of CIA ring composed of a short order cook/coroner, a barmaid, and a mysterious leader named Capo who recruits future charges from the local school system. Jens’s jaded handler, Lorraine, or Locs, has brought him here because she hopes to be reunited with her former lover, a married principal — and proud Cornell alumnus — named Matty, who himself is as hapless as Jens and whose wife begins an affair with the disguised cartoonist. It is only a matter of time before Soren, who believed Jens to be dead, finds his way to the States as well.
So does a stakes-less, small-town version of “The Great Game” commence in which, according to the withering assessment of Lorraine, all the distinctly unhappy participants are “too stupid to live.” Which isn’t to say Clarke is hostile to his disaster-bound characters, or to America for that matter. He is particularly adept at pausing his manic narrative to burrow into the meaning of a single look or seemingly innocent comment, and these extended, well-observed riffs do just enough to humanize the crowded cast. And while Jens unwittingly inspires murderous rage in multiple people, it is hard not to be fond of the luckless hero, who orders his eggs sunny-side-up because it “seemed like the optimistic and least violent of the three choices.”
Clarke’s breezy pacing and comic resilience can only keep the violence at bay for so long. Guns multiply — this is America after all — as the novel’s space contracts and the characters find themselves with “absolutely nowhere else” to go. The first law of farce is that bodies in motion will eventually collide, and Clarke orchestrates the inevitable collision by beckoning each character from across the world and assembling them at the Lumber Lodge under the watchful eye of the moose.
In classical comedy, a final-act wedding puts an end to the misunderstandings and conflicts that propel the plot; here, Clarke dangles the possibility of a concluding ceremony even as it become increasingly clear that a more violent resolution is inevitable. And yet, as the poignant ending demonstrates, comedy’s inherent optimism, even if mercilessly ironized, survives just barely.