Choosing to like “Happy”

Best known for her international hit plays “Art” and “God of Carnage,” Yasmina Reza is a writer who isn’t afraid of truths, no matter how uncomfortable.

happy are the happy“Art” examines the tenuous nature of male friendship and “Carnage” peels back the thin veneer of civility to reveal the preening, selfish, petty assholes we all would be if society didn’t demand something different. Both plays are very funny while making cogent, hard-to-swallow points.

Reza’s new novel, “Happy are the Happy” is an interesting work. (It always feels damning to call something “interesting” because it’s the kind of word my mom would use when trying to wrap her head around a movie or a book or a play I suggested. She’s too nice to say “I didn’t like it,” and too demure to say “WTF?” So “interesting” became code word for “What was I supposed to like about that?” and for “meh.”)

“Happy” is a series of vaguely intertwined, densely written monologues that deal in some way with love and happiness. A couple comes to fisticuffs in the cheese line at the local grocery store while everyone watches. An elderly woman assumes a greater place in the lives of those around her than she really has. A respected doctor dreams of filthy back-alley sex with young men. A woman copes with the mental illness of her son who believes he’s Celine Dion.

That Reza finds humor — albeit a dark humor — in most of these stories is commendable. Otherwise the book would have been a bleak chore. These characters may all be connected by love, marriage, family or friendship, but they all face the world alone. That’s their most important connection, but one they won’t dare talk about. Their choices — sometimes bizarre, sometimes humorous, sometimes sad — are made to connect with someone or something that can soften that loneliness. Some choose to be happy in the circumstances, others cope in different ways.

Each chapter is a monologue that stretches into, at most, 8 pages, and all are written in one paragraph with minimal punctuation, which sometimes leads to confusion: Did the character say that or is he quoting something someone said to him? And for full effect, the book (160 pages) should probably be read in one sitting if you want to keep all the characters and their connections straight.

While each individual chapter is usually compelling, the connections between the characters are too tentative in many instances to have any real meaning. Taken as a novel, it’s not cohesive and ends on a note that leaves you saying “huh?” or, worse, “interesting.”

Like the characters in the book, I made a choice: I decided to believe the book was a series of short stories. In doing so I was pleased with the end result. If I decided to call it a novel, I would have been disappointed.

It’s all about how we look at things, and if you’re happy you will be happy.

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