Wednesday, 28 May 2003

Will Ferguson: Happiness TM (2001)

Edition: Canongate, 2002
Review number: 1162

It is easy to ridicule the self help book; every Christmas parodies just as forgettable as their subjects appear to take advantage of the seasonal sales of humour before disappearing in their turn. Happiness TM (a great improvement on the original title) is not this kind of parody; instead, it is a novel about a self help book.

The central character, Edwin de Vallu, works as an editor in a soulless American publishing house. He is in charge of their self help line, and a disastrous editorial meeting leads him to praise a manuscript from the slush pile, written by one Tupak Soiree who claims to have based it on years of meditation on a Tibetan mountain top. To Edwin it reads as though it is a disorganised mixture of bits of other similar books, but when it is finally published, something amazing happens - everything in it works. The methods for losing weight, improving your sex life, giving up smoking, becoming rich and so on all succeed, and when Edwin discovers this he also realises that What I Learned on the Mountain is evil: it turns the whole of America into a nation of happy, brainwashed idiots.

The humour in Happiness TM has three fertile sources, in the main: the absurdities of office life and the publishing industry in particular; the fatuities of the self help book; and Edwin's unlikely quest to save the world. All of these provided moments which made me laugh out loud, and yet between them Ferguson has something to say about why people are so keen to read self help books. Edwin, though a ridiculous character, is one whom the reader comes to care about, which gives more depth to the novel than would otherwise be the case.

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