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February 22, 2010

Can-Reads-Indies #4: How Happy to Be by Katrina Onstad

If Max were a man, there would be no debate about whether or not How Happy to Be is a serious novel. But Katrina Onstad’s Max is a woman, and so we have to discuss whether or not this is chick-lit, and if there is such thing as women’s fiction, and my answer to that one would be that sometimes there is, but not now. That if Max were a man, this novel wouldn’t be so different, except for the scene where she gets her period. I think a man reading this novel would appreciate it as much as I have.

If Max were a man, we’d c0mpare this book to Lucky Jim, but because Max is a woman, someone will mention Bridget Jones. She’s more Jim though, because her behaviour is loathsome rather than lovable, but loathsome is made palatable by being funny. (And I got this whole Lucky Jim thing from writer Kate Christensen re. her first novel In The Drink, interviewed here: “…an august tradition of hard-drinking, self-destructive, hilarious anti-heroes beginning with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and continuing through Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, and David Gates’s Jernigan, three of the books which have inspired me most. Other exemplars of Loser Lit (and there are many) include The Ginger Man, A Confederacy of Dunces, Bright Lights, Big City, Wonder Boys, Miss Lonelyhearts, A Fine Madness, and, most recently, Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-up. I was consciously co-opting a predominantly male genre, another reason I worried that no one would “get” In the Drink.”)

I feel bad now about the fact that I have to undermine this book’s femininity (assuming books have genders, but I’ve got a feeling that they do) in order to demonstrate its value. And you’re probably thinking that I’m protesting too much, but I also know that you’d think I was ludicrous to put this book at the top of my rankings. Why? Because it’s a popular novel, because it’s about a wayward youngish woman who finds love at the end, because it engages with pop culture and media culture, because it’s a comedy, because of the scene in which Max gets her period on a first date, the date has to go out and buy her tampons, he comes back with pads so thick that when she puts one on she waddles.

But in many ways, I truly think How Happy to Be is the best of the Canada Reads Independently books I’ve read yet. First: no gimmicks. Like some critics, I will concede that the Hair Hat Man himself was a gimmick. Century had them too (“Does it matter that there was no Jane Seymour? I don’t think so, but I hope you found her convincing.”) In fact, speaking of Century (and these outlandish comparisons are part of what makes a reading challenge like this so interesting), How Happy to Be also takes on “this murderous century”. It’s similarly woven of stories, of true ones and embellished ones, stories about how we tell stories and why, the stories we tell ourselves, those we can’t bear to, those we tell the world, and those that complete strangers tell us while we’re sitting beside them on the streetcar.

More though, about why this book is so wonderful: Katrina Onstad is a stunning writer. She is. “I watched from windows and trees for seventy-two days until Spring came. Her hair was finally longish, down around her ears now, and she looked beautiful again, her high cheeks neither sunken nor overblown. She could catch me. Day 73, she climbed the same tree from a different angle and grabbed my foot. Terrified, I howled like a stubbed toe and she laughed and laughed and my father brought us lunch to the rotted picnic table with only one bench. We sat in a row, my father, my mother, me, eating sandwiches off paper plates, shoulders touching in the summer, our limbs sighing with relief where they met.”

If How Happy to Be had a gimmick, it would be Onstad’s engagement with reality. The novel is a roman à clef of sorts– no doubt the newspaper where Max writes her film column is The National Post (where Onstad was once film critic); The Other Daily‘s vapid girl columnist seems familiar; Onstad counts Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Aniston, and Nicole Kidman among her characters; her fictional headlines mirror actual ones; she skewers a coke-snorting, bitch-slapping media scene culture that is apparently true to life (not that I’d know, of course, as such culture often takes place after 7pm and I haven’t left my house at such an hour since 2004 and that was just to return an overdue library book).

But the punch of her prose and the push of her plot keeps the trick from wearing thin. Max has spent her life looking on and telling stories from the sidelines, but she’s on the edge of something now– not yet recovered from the end of a long-term relationship which broke with “make or break”; desperately unhappy in her job writing about shitty movies whose advertisements pay for her paper; drinking too much; having stupid sex; she doesn’t have furniture or anything fresh in her fridge. “You have run out of repartee. You think of all the time you wasted watching while you should have been remembering what you once knew: how to start a fire with hands and twigs; how to sleep in a snow cave. You should have surrounded yourself with old people and listened to their tales of survival, really listened instead of jotting them down for later. You have entered your thirties without knowledge and you want it in a pile of sticks, a river, your bones.”

She wants her mother, the mother she lost to cancer years ago. And though she’s too angry with him to know it, she wants her father too, who was so paralyzed by his wife’s death that Max could never reach him. She wants roots, something real, and perhaps she might find it in Theo McArdle, who in his absolute goodness is the opposite of the rest of her whole life.

Rona Maynard was right in her pitch: How Happy to Be is a coming-of-age novel. A bad headline for this would be Catcher in the Wry. And now for the reasons that the novel will not be topping my rankings: first, a fairly conventional plot from about midway in is not extraordinary enough to compare with Hair Hat or Century. And also that the whole point of this novel is Max’s singular vision (“I’m being stabbed to death by my point of view”), which is dealt with most effectively, but (redundant though it is to say) is terribly limited, and doesn’t begin to compare with the other books’ polyhedronal approach.

But I love this book. I think it’s an important book, that it sets a standard that all novels about young women should live up to, that it deals with contemporary urban life in opposition to the Can-Lit standard, that it sets a standard of funny that all novels about anyone should live up to, and that it might surprise any male reader who thinks he’s not so interested in stories about women’s lives.

Canada Reads Independently Rankings:
1) Hair Hat by Carrie Snyder

2) Century by Ray Smith

3) How Happy to Be by Katrina Onstad

4) Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso

2 thoughts on “Can-Reads-Indies #4: How Happy to Be by Katrina Onstad”

  1. patricia says:

    This book has been on my radar for quite a while now, and you have convinced me that I must read it this year. (Forgive me for not following along with everyone else in this great event – I’m terrible at that kind of stuff).

    And I must say that this book challenge is so exciting! I’m on the edge of my seat!

  2. Kristin says:

    Lucky Jim is one of my favorite books ever, so this one is definitely going on my list.

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