Wow. The first little chapter in this book is great. What a hook. Well done, Brock Clarke. Well done.
The Happiest People in the World holds up a mirror to contemporary western society and to America in particular to expose its absurdity. A cartoonist’s life is turned upside down because of his portrayal of Muslims. Naïve teenagers carry out acts of terror. A man goes into a superstore to buy a knife, and a salesperson tries to convince him to buy a gun instead. Huge misunderstandings and miscommunications (or complete lack of communication) are rampant and have life-altering repercussions. The explanations people come up with to explain events are often completely removed from anything real, but they run with them anyway. There’s something self-centered about that. In one particularly amusing and disturbing (and that’s the book in a nutshell—amusing and disturbing) irony, one character’s job is to protect the cartoonist from people who want to kill him because of their misunderstanding of his cartoon, and in short order SHE ends up wanting to kill him because of her misunderstanding of him. How much does the following quote sound like something you encounter on a near-daily basis? “Kurt could sense how much everyone resented him for using this basic point of fact to destroy their fantastic hypothesis.” And then there’s “The thought solidified in Matty’s mind […] became a fact.” Actual facts carry less weight.
For the most part, The Happiest People in the World is an enjoyable read. It’s just too true to be funny, exactly. While the two don’t really compare, it’s “funny” in the way that Slaughterhouse Five is “funny.”
Clarke sometimes uses big run-on sentences to convey the rush of a person’s inner thoughts. This choice seems intended to suggest the irrationality of those thoughts—that the person is barreling ahead without pausing for analysis. Because he uses the technique a little too often, it doesn’t quite work.
If it were possible to connect more deeply with these characters—if they were a little more fleshed out and a little more real, The Happiest People in the World would be more than clever; it would be positively heartbreaking. As it is, it has a wonderful beginning, a pretty good conclusion, and its heart is in the right place.