Preview: Books 

Happiness

Will Ferguson Happiness Monday, July 8 Powell's City of Books

William Ferguson is a Canadian author whose first novel, Happiness, satirizes the American self-help phenomenon. His first work of fiction is pricelessly humorous, and delivers a critique of the U.S. that is both cutting and affectionate.

The premise of Happiness is that a mysterious guru, Tupok Soiree, manages to write an all-encompassing self-help book, titled What I Learned On The Mountain. Unlike most self-help books, it actually works. It is an enormous, rambling tome that instantly solves common complaints, from the inability to quit smoking to a lack of self-acceptance. What ensues is a hilarious vision of the American apocalypse, in which economy and society as we know it are decimated and rapidly transformed. The tobacco, alcohol, Columbian drug cartel, and rehab industries suddenly find themselves united in bankruptcy, as the population sheds its vices. People lose concern over appearances, nullifying cosmetic and fashion industries. They move into communal societies, abandon their jobs, have incredible sex, and become millionaires overnight.

Ferguson elaborates this downfall with vivid familiarity, and his accurate jabs inspire amusing--if embarrassing--realizations of how the U.S. is perceived from the outside: "The diet centres and bodybuilding gyms were the next to go, followed closely by the home-exercise market and miracle baldness cures. . . Bald men, having taken Tupak Soiree's advice to heart ('It is not enough to accept one's baldness, one must embrace one's baldness'), stopped rubbing placebo potions into their scalps, stopped combing long mutant strands of hair over their bald pates, stopped fluffing and moussing and fretting and trying to deny their male pattern baldness... It was a firestorm, an earthquake, a typhoon that leveled entire industries overnight. And very few were spared."

The protagonist of this story is Edwin de Valu, the bungling publishing editor who unwittingly unleashes the catalyst for a complete disintegration of the neo-American attitude of self-pity. The book is framed partially as a retelling of The Wizard Of Oz. It also references films like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in that the populace is zombified by idiotic bliss. "There's always the one guy in the middle, who knows what's going on and tries to warn everyone, and that's Edwin," explains Ferguson.

The fact that Ferguson would choose a theme so centralized in the U.S. may initially seem odd, but his outsider's perspective makes it a more effective satire. "In Canada, we are inundated with American culture, but we are not a part of it," he explained from his Canadian home. "You're familiar with it, but it's not your culture. I think if it was my culture, if an American wrote this book, that it would be a lot more sympathetic to the self-help culture."

Originally fascinated by self-help in general, there was no question as to where the story would be set. The city in which its characters live is "a combination of New York, Chicago, and Toronto." (Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential, was "shocked" to discover that Ferguson had never visited New York prior to writing Happiness). The fictional city is a generalized America, the only place capable of unleashing hot sellers like Chicken Soup For The Teenage Soul, The Artist's Way, and The Wrinkle Cure all in one massive, national breath.

But the story is far from a simple teasing of the self-help industry; Ferguson also pays homage to what he sees as the underlying spirit of the U.S. "America in its glory is kind of brawling," says Ferguson. "Certainly, it's a tribute to what American can be, or was. It's a tribute to America as hilarious, energetic, annoying. It's like a 17-ring circus under one tent. I used to have such a disdain for self-help; that quest, that 'give yourself a big old hug.' But I think America is founded on that idea that you can improve, that you can really make yourself."

This love/hate fascination with America is not surprising, considering Ferguson's past work; although Happiness is his first foray into novel writing, his earlier book, Why I Hate Canadians, was similarly aimed to both chide and champion Canadian culture. He also wrote the travel memoir Hokkaido Highway Blues, The Hitchhiker's Guide To Japan, even a Complete Idiot's Guide on Canadian history. ("I had to pay the rent," he jokes.) Raised in the small town of Fort Vermilion, where TV didn't arrive until the 1970s, he left for Toronto at the age of 17 to study screenwriting. He then taught English in Japan for five years before returning to Canada and to writing.

In a way, Ferguson's novel could read as a self-help book itself, inspiring a resistance to the genre as another addiction, a self-help book designed to eradicate self-help. In doing so, it re-ignites the awareness of a cultural identity that once defined and united our culture, that of rebelliousness, bawdy obnoxiousness, and the relentless pursuit of happiness over passive bliss. As Edwin puts it, "Joy is a verb; it's not a noun." MARJORIE SKINNER

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