The Globe and Mail review of Happiness (aka. "Generica"):
Joseph Kertes is the director of the Humber
School of Writing and the Humber School of Comedy, and the
author most recently of the novel Boardwalk.
The decline and fall of practically everything
In a country that produced Mack Sennett, Wayne and Shuster,
Mike Myers, Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short--not to mention
Stephen Leacock, Paul Quarrington and Mordecai Richler--you
would think that clever, witty writers like Will Ferguson
grew on trees and loaded up bushel baskets with ripe, hilarious
books. But they rarely do.
Our literary and other artistic endeavours are often dire
and earnest. They suggest loneliness, despair and desolation.
But not always. Loneliness, despair and other dark forces
have a bright side, too, or at least a hilarious one in
the hands of this gifted novelist. Before this production,
Will Ferguson had published a few non-fiction books, also
very funny and poignant, including Why I Hate Canadians,
a book in which we discover why Ferguson secretly loves
Canadians as he mocks himself and us.
Generica, similarly, might easily have been called
Why I Hate Humanity, and Ferguson might subtly reward
us with the opposite: He might mourn our wantonness and
self-centredness--all the while gently divulging his hope
that wisdom and love will prevail in the end no matter what.
Generica is the story of Edwin de Valu, a junior
editor at Panderic Press who lives among his slush piles
and whose office is situated amid "Buildings without laughter.
Buildings without irony." Manuscripts arrive unbidden and,
with barely a nod, Edwin begins his standard response:
"On behalf of Panderic Inc, I would like to thank
you . . . Unfortunately, after careful consideration and
much editorial debate, we have regrettably concluded that
your book does not meet our current editorial needs."
Until one day Edwin receives What I Learned on the Mountain,
the self-help book to end all self-help books. It solves
all the problems of the universe; how to feel better about
yourself, how to quit smoking, how to lose weight, how to
make better love, how to get rich, how to expel inner demons
and vanquish outer ones and whatever else you need. The
book is an amalgam of hackneyed thoughts strung out over
1,000 pages. The book's author, Tupak Soiree, in his covering
letter offers Edwin his best advice; "Live! Love! Learn!"
To which Edwin wants to respond, "Go! Fuck! Yourself!".
But Panderic needs a new self-help author because "Mr.
Ethics," Panderic's successful self-help author, has been
imprisoned for tax evasion, so Edwin is instructed to sign
up Tupak Soiree. What I Learned on the Mountain is not only
published, but it also becomes the most successful book
ever, outstripping The Celestine Prophecy by 50 million
It is here that Ferguson's hilarious romp merges with bold
satire. The word "happiness" is trademarked by Tupak and
Panderic. Everyone becomes happy (except for tobacco and
alcohol company executives, who throw themselves off buildings);
People stop worrying about their weight, quit their vices,
make heavenly love, pick up Tupak's stock tips and get rich;
even Edwin (briefly). Tupak invades the networks. Edwin’s
wife Jenni and his girlfriend May are forever smiling; his
colleagues put up "Gone Fishin'" signs on their cubicles
and leave their jobs forever, returning only as volunteers.
But is this a world of real laughter, real pleasure, real
love? Are people happy or merely satisfied? Do these states
not require the opposite--sadness, for instance? Does a
society of smilers not need rebels? Do we not need to say
to ourselves, "If only" and "Maybe someday" in order to
keep the fires of real passion burning? Have people become
automatons? Have their eyes glazed over in this freak show
of contentment like the eyes in Village of the Damned?
Naturally, Edwin never converts to Tupak's cult. His wife
Jenni turns their bank account over to Tupak and joins his
harem. May enlists in a convent of perpetual smilers. Edwin
watches and realizes Tupak has become the "Stalin of the
New Age." He has "released a neutron bomb of love upon the
world." All systems are ultimately alike as they harden
into dogma: Capitalism, Communism and now Tupak's Generica.
It remains for Edwin to stop the menace.
In a surprisingly moving ending to this uncompromising
and brilliant satire, Ferguson serves up his true thematic
feast. We are all, in our own ways, fleeing our doom, fleeing
our decline, our inevitable mortality. But blindness and
blandness will get us nowhere.
The Globe & Mail
April 28, 2001