“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.
Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I’ve hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year’s syllabus. We currently read Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram”) to Chuck Klosterman (“The Real World”). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more “critical” eye.So. I’m trying to replace Fortress for this year’s class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year’s students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven’t read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I’m currently considering Bock’s Beautiful Children, Ferris’ Then We Came To The End, Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I’ve tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven’t. Of the four you’re considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It’s told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they’re written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It’s equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys – where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage’s debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus – not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages – oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) – not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into – particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book (“Fame – fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.”).Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition – almost zeugma perhaps? – in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political – the sublime and the ridiculous – are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith’s desire to sleep with the vice president’s daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order” and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it’s an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction – Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place; Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno – may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn’t care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two “21st Century” books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders’ Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty’s The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It’s interesting that the students didn’t like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones’s two collections – Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Jones’s stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones’s The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying “reveal” at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven’t already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.