The Happiest People in the World: A Novel by Brock Clarke (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2014. 344 pp)
Brock Clarke is the author of three previous novels, including the bestselling An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, and two story collections. He is currently in the English department at Bowdoin College, and he lives in Portland, Maine.
The Hedonist Paradox
Have you ever tried to be happy? Not in an ethereal suggestive sort of way. Because we all would rather be happy. But we also don’t usually make our decisions with happiness as the sole portion of a decision matrix. I mean happiness in a decisive, get-up-in-the-morning-and-decide-your-route-throughout-the-day-based-on-the-level-of-happiness-it-might-bring kind of way.
There’s an intriguing principle in ethics called the Hedonist Paradox. This principle contends that people searching for happiness above all else never find it. There’s a sense in which the pursuit of happiness always ends in defeat, that whenever you accomplish the goal you believe will make you happy, it rings hollow.
The Hedonist Paradox offers an explanation for why millionaires aren’t happy. The excessive wealth can’t buy happiness. They might be more comfortable on a daily basis, but they’ve got distant cousins looking for handouts, children that could become trust-fund kids without any drive, and the next door neighbor is still making more money.
The idea, then, is that happiness only comes when you aren’t looking for it. Live your life; pursue your passions; spend time with people you like. You are much more likely to wake up one day and realize you’re happy. Given these facts, what are the Danish doing to become the happiest people in the world as almost every survey suggests? Are they avoiding the Hedonist Paradox? Are they really that happy?
Brock Clarke tells quite the riveting tale in The Happiest People in the World. Mainly set in rural upstate New York, Jens Baedrup has become a guidance counselor named Henrik.
Why is Jens going by Henrik? Well, he is a Danish cartoonist. One who created a sacrilegious cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad in a negative context. Given the outrage and death threats involved, Jens enrolled in the Witness Protection Program. The powers that be have a plan.
“The plan was for the agents to announce that Jens had been killed in the fire. The agents had recommended this. They’d told Jens that whoever had set the fire wouldn’t stop trying to kill him until he was dead. So they were, with his permission, going to declare him dead” (15-16).
But his secret agent in control of his redeployment, Locs, chose to position him close to her old home, where her sordid past might catch up to her.
In fact, she’s a star-crossed lover, not necessarily thinking straight. She convinces her former flame, Matty a high school principle, to hire Jens—or Henrik, or Henry—as a guidance counselor. And interestingly enough, Henry is pretty good at it.
As the story progresses, the reader encounters the many characters of this small town, some plainly who they seem to be and others keeping the darkest secrets. With Locs inserting Henry into the mix, everything soon turns sour.
Looking for Happiness in All the Wrong Places
The Happiest People in the World explores some pretty dark ideas underneath the guise of humor. It suggests that those pursuing happiness never seem to find it.
The clear differentiator with this book is that it carries an absurdist humor throughout. For example,
“’Why did you order your eggs sunny-side up and not scrambled or poached?’ Kurt asked.
The stranger didn’t hesitate. ‘Because it seemed the most optimistic and least violent of the three choices,’ he said” (77).
But truly, The Happiest People in the World juggles the hedonist’s paradox delightfully and it ends surprisingly. A good read.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5