(Reviewed by Brian Farrey JAN 29, 2006)
If we are to believe Aristotle, our telos (or destination) as humans is to attain happiness, having lived a good life. If we are to believe Nietzsche, it is our lot in life to suffer. If we are to believe Will Ferguson’s novel, Happiness™, it is quite possible to do both.
In his native Canada, Ferguson is perhaps best known as a humorist. His non-fiction works, How to Be A Canadian and Why I Hate Canadians capture the zeitgeist of what it means to be fervently loyal to your homeland but still be pleasant enough to be thought a total pushover. As I am not Canadian, I can only imagine the mixture of feelings the Canucks must feel when they consign themselves to his insight, thinking, “Wow…he’s got us pegged. That’s funny and true and….disturbing.” Taking wit to whetstone, one gets the impression that if Ferguson were reading these works aloud to an American audience, he would stand behind one of his countrymen, poking him with a stick to let him know that he was gently being made fun of, while rolling his eyes at the audience as if to say, “Y’see what I mean? Pushovers.”
With Happiness™, his first foray into fiction, Ferguson takes this honed sarcasm and zeroes in on a target he, at one point in his life, deemed more worthy of his polite vitriol than his homeland: the world of publishing. It is here I must make a disclosure. I work in publishing. Before that, I worked as a bookseller. I’ve seen both sides of the issue. And now I know what it’s like to be Canadian. Because I can read this book and say, “That’s funny and true and….scary.”
Happiness™centers around Edwin de Valu (love the name), a junior editor at a huge American publishing house called Panderic (again, love the name). Edwin is not a happy man. Of the many things that plague him are: a once-requited, now cooled, love affair with a co-worker; a hyperactive wife who latches on with a June beetle’s grip to the latest self-improvement fads; living in a city he truly hates; and plodding through a job he hates above all else. And, in an odd way, it’s his hatred that makes Edwin happy. He revels in his own putrid existence. The irony, of course, is that one of Edwin’s duties is to find the next big self-improvement book to insure happiness for millions of people until the next book comes along.
And Edwin finds it in a slush pile manuscript called “What I Learned on the Mountain” by Tupak Soiree (he’s got a penchant for fun names, doesn’t he?). He finds THE perfect book that offers an end to all suffering: how to stop smoking, how to lose weight, how to have a phenomenal sex life, etc. The book gets rushed into production and becomes an instant bestseller. And suddenly, there’s a shift in the country. Everyone is…happy. People stop smoking. People lose weight. People have…permanent smiles on their faces. And this doesn’t please Edwin one bit. However, he’s not nearly half as unhappy as those industries who provided the very vices that the American population are now cheerfully eschewing. It’s not long before these purveyors of vice seek to do something about this happiness epidemic….
Ferguson’s strongest point—which should hardly be a surprise—is his humor. He has a talent for cutting sardonicism and forging delightfully absurd situations (Edwin goes to bed with his wife, who has just read an article on “Better Living Through Post-It Notes,” and as he starts to become amorous, “…he found, attached to her inner thigh, a Post-it Note that read: ‘Remember, small circles and not too much direct pressure!’”). Ferguson’s also got a strong postmodern sense of self-awareness, mixing his metaphors so to speak when Edwin’s daydreams and inner monologues often employ filmmaking terminology (“Cue: Ominous music”) rather than publishing jargon. And, of course, what makes the book truly delightful are its meta-fictional nods to self (When Edwin goes off on a diatribe to a co-worker about Edwin’s many contributions to the company, the co-worker responds, “You know, I really hate it when a writer tries to disguise exposition as dialogue.”).
But the book is also rife with comments on the publishing industry. Some are thinly veiled jabs at readily recognizable publishing powerhouses: Panderic puts out a line of books called “Chicken Broth for…” whose heartwarming nature contains enough treacle to choke a yak; Edwin writes a book called “Die, Baby Boomers, Die!” using the pseudonym Douglas C. Upland (prodding fellow Canadian, Douglas Coupland). What’s interesting to note is that while he obscures some references, others are laid right out there (he mentions Oprah and Publishers Weekly….why not obscure these with “look-alikes?”). My theory is that Ferguson respects the prominent names he mentions straight out and may have more than a healthy dose of cynicism for the ones to which he attaches a false identity. Or perhaps it’s all a matter liability; if you’re going to say something mean about someone, at least try to hide it.
If there is a weakness in Happiness™, it’s that the story falls apart a little about 2/3 of the way through. The premise has you hooked early on: a self-help book that is truly changing the nation and making everyone happy….but at the same time is causing mass chaos. After both his wife and his quasi-lover succumb to the cult of happiness that permeates the country, Edwin and some cronies set out to get the nation back on track to a life of vice and misery. It’s certainly an amusing notion but something doesn’t feel right. Edwin’s valiant efforts seem slightly forced and out of character and you can’t help but suspect that Ferguson set up this marvelous premise and realized he’d painted himself into a corner. The end is by no means bad but it’s not nearly as strong as the beginning of the book.
Ferguson certainly takes no prisoners in satirizing the industry. If you’re a writer or a reader or in any way amused at the glut of self-help material available on the market, you simply cannot pass up this book. Its strengths (wonderful humor, finely drawn characters) far outweigh the problems that come along towards the end. This was actually the first Ferguson book I read and I immediately went out to get his non-fiction humor when I was finished. I can only hope his second fiction novel isn’t far behind. Of course, given the drubbing the industry takes at his masterful hands, one might suspect he’d have trouble finding a publisher.
Then again, it’s funny and true and scary. And it’s that exploitation of irony in truth that will keep Will Ferguson on the good side of publishers for a long, long time.
- Amazon readers rating: from 37 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Happiness at Guardian Unlimited
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Why I Hate Canadians (1997)
- I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim (1998)
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to Japan (1998)
- Bastards & Boneheads (1999)
- How to Be a Canadian (2001) (co-author)
- Beauty Tips form Moose Jaw (2004; May 2005)
- Canadian History for Dummies® (2000; October 2005)
- Hitching Rides with Buddha (2005)
- Beyond Belfast (2010)
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- The official website for Will Ferguson
- January Magazine interview with Will Ferguson
- Quill and Quire review of Happiness (formerly called Generica)
- The Christian Science Monitor review of Happiness
- BookHaven review of Hokkaido Highway Blues
- Chapter excerpt from Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw
- Review of Books collection of reviews for Spanish Fly
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About the Author:
Will Ferguson was born in the former fur-trading post of Fort Vermilion (pop: 840), in northern Canada.
At nineteen, he joined the youth volunteer program, Katimavik and worked at a museum in Kelowna, BC, a nursing home in southern Ontario and a conservation parkin in St. Canut, Quebec. Shortly after tha he joined Canada World Youth, on overseas exchange program, which took him to Ecuador in the winter of 1985. He lived with a local family in the village of Malacatos near the border of Peru.
Returning from South America in 1986, Will enrolled in the York University Film Program in Toronto where he graduated with a BFA in Film Production and Screenwriting in 1990. After graduation, he went to Japan as part of the JET (Japan Exchange Teachers) program. He spent five years there and hitchhiked throughough Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and mainland China.
Will married Terumi in a Shinto ceremony in Kumamoto City in 1995 and they moved to Canada first living in New Brunswick and the Prince Edward Island. Once he sold his first book, he quit his job in PEI and they moved back to New Brunswick.
He has won the Leacock Award for Humor three times. Happiness™, his first novel, won the 2002 Leacock Medal for Humour and the 2002 Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction. He has also received the Pierre Berton Award by Canada's National History Society.
He lives in Calgary with his wife and their two sons.