Brian Fawcett’s Human Happiness is tricky and slightly disturbing, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is also, at times, deeply moving and at times marvellously well written: funny, wicked, snide and memorable.
Human Happiness has two great opening sentences. The first is the actual opening sentence: “Happiness is often defined as a state of mind similar to, but more encompassing than, contentment, satisfaction, pleasure or joy: what you are to yourself rather than what you feel at any given moment or are seen to be by others.” This sentence sets a scholarly tone, as if the book you’re about to read were a disquisition on happiness. It isn’t.
The second “opening sentence” comes four pages later: “The last time I talked to my mother, she announced that she hated my father.” This sentence would be fitting for a book about family, parents, love. And, in some ways, it’s the more appropriate opening sentence Human Happiness, which is largely concerned with Fawcett’s parents, their difficult marriage, their different personalities and expectations from life, and their deaths.
As befits a book with two such distinct openings, Human Happiness also has at least two endings. The first comes after some 240 pages in which Fawcett has accented the humanity in “human happiness”: the uncertain, the contextually defined, the un-emphatic and the adulterated. In this first “ending,” Fawcett expresses his hope that the reader will accept his thesis that the book’s subjects – his parents – had led “happy” lives.
As Fawcett points out, it’s possible to be happy even in unhappy circumstances. His best example: the pure pleasure his unhappily married mother had at the birth of her grandchildren – and I suppose one could give him that. Yes, perhaps his parents – with their modest expectations and aspirations, their desire to create a good home for their children, their sense of duty and honour – did have “happy” lives. But I wasn’t convinced Human Happiness did enough to prove his thesis.
For one thing, Fawcett doesn’t define “happiness” with sufficient clarity. Now, it is a major part of his point that definitive answers to questions like “was so-and-so’s life happy?” are, at very least, problematic. But Fawcett is unsystematic in his approach to the idea of “happiness.” He doesn’t, for instance, address the questions that come up with his definition of “happiness” as something internal (“what one is to oneself”). If I am unhappy while others around me are happy, what right have I to change my community’s situation or circumstances?
If Human Happiness were the formal book one might expect from its first opening sentence, I think you’d have to call it an interesting failure. But it is the book’s second aspect – its family story – that gets most of Fawcett’s attention and talent. And this story is moving: Hartley Fawcett (inventive, stubborn, cantankerous, intimidating, manipulative, more than willing to hit his young sons) and Rita Surry (romantic, caring, frustrated, exasperated by her husband, faithful to the idea of “family”). Fawcett imagines his parents as young lovers, as homemakers, as incommunicative middle-aged homeowners, as resentful older people, and as seniors more or less resigned to their failures and successes.
Fawcett’s love for his mother is evident and touching, the closeness they shared allowing her to show him the scar left by her mastectomy, and to confess her deepest secret. He is, though he tries to be fair, most often (and through most of the book) on his mother’s side in the disputes between his parents. In fact, one senses that Fawcett is, even as he approaches his 70s, still competing with his father. And here, too, Fawcett pushes at the psychosexual boundary by relating his father’s surprise at the discovery that Bryan has slept with more women than he has.
There is a third book buried beneath the two I’ve described. It makes its most explicit appearance toward the end, in the chapter Drowning, Fawcett insists that context is needed to judge whether people are happy or not: “Context is everything, and maybe particularly when it concerns human happiness.”
In providing his own family context, a major part of the context for his own life, Fawcett is posing an even deeper, tacit question: How do I know if I’ve led a happy life? In that same chapter, he describes a near-death experience he had in Mexico. And he writes of death as if it had something of the personality of his father, Hartley: bullying, to be resisted and fought. And so, for a very interesting moment in the narrative, it’s as if Fawcett were suggesting we inherit not only a particular life from our parents but a particular death, as well.
Human Happiness is a book that fans out or, if you prefer, has a number of interesting books entombed within it. It’s a real accomplishment.
Contributing reviewer André Alexis’s most recent novel is Asylum.