I have been suffering from a malaise in my reading lately which is why I haven’t posted much on here recently. I first attributed that feeling to the warm summer months and a busy work schedule but then as I pulled out Will Ferguson’s Happiness™ from my ever growing pile of must-reads that looms on my night table, I realized that I am not alone in my cynicism of the saccharin that is plaguing culture this days. In short, I found a new hero in the protagonist Edwin de Valu.
Edwin is a thin, officious young man with a tall, scarecrow walk and dry straw hair that refuses to hold a part. Even when dressed in a designer overcoat and polished turtle-cut Dicanni shoes, Edwin de Valu has a singular lack of presence. A lack of substance. He is a lightweight, in every sense of the word, and the morning’s commute almost sweeps him under. In the urban Darwinism of rush hour, Edwin has to fight just to keep afloat, has to strain just to keep his head about the deluge. No one – least of all Edwin himself – could ever have suspected that the entire fate of the Western World would soon rest upon his narrow shoulders.
Edwin is a very bitter individual who works at a major publishing firm. He is over worked, underpaid, perpetually drinking and smoking and has deadlines set for him that are unreasonable. One day a self-help manuscript lands on his desk in which promises to help readers lose weight, stop smoking, have great sex and find inner peace. Edwin dismisses the book to be hogwash, but in order to make one of those unreasonable deadlines set against him, he allows it out to be published. But instead of What I learned on the Mountain becoming a sad, unknown little failure, it becomes hugely popular, sending Edwin in a tailspin of ugly and unwanted successes.
“Seriously, May. I’m not kidding. I have a bad feeling about this. We didn’t spend any money on promoting What I Learned on the Mountain. Not a penny. We didn’t send out a single review copy, and in turn we didn’t get a single book review. And yet, within weeks, it just took off. How do you explain that, May?”
“Edwin, you know as well as I do that the greatest sales tool we have is word of mouth. It sells more books than anything else. You can have the biggest, slickest marketing plan available, but poor word of mouth will still kill the best-laid plans of mice and publishers. That what happened here, only the other way around. It’s like The Celestine Prophecy. Remember that? the author couldn’t find a publisher for love nor money, so he ended up publishing it himself, hawking it out of the trunk of his car, going from bookstore to bookstore -”
“And that took years, May. Years of persistence. What happened with What I Learned on the Mountain took only a matter of weeks. And no one was driving around with copies of it in the trunk of his car. This was purely word of mouth. And you know what? Paul down in marketing did a reader survey when sales first started to soar, trying to figure out what was going on – you know how reactive marketing is; always trying to catch up to the latest trend and then take credit for it. Well anyway, Paul tested reader satisfaction with What I Learned on the Mountain, and do you what he came up with? One hundred percent satisfaction. That’s right, 100 percent, May.”
“So what, Edwin? so people are happy with the book. I don’t know why that bothers you so much. What is the worst that could possibly happen? People feel good about themselves. They feel happy. Where’s the harm?”
“That, I don’t know,” said Edwin. “But I tell you, it just isn’t right. It isn’t normal.”
While Edwin may be a deeply cynical and mixed up individual (and has a serious abusive streak to his wife’s cat Mr. Muggins), Ferguson has developed a character that teaches us that it is necessary to be cynical to what trends exist in our society. Edwin is a bitter fool, but he is right in his thoughts and ways to the world around him. And the world would be a very canned and boring place if it wasn’t for heroes like Edwin.
It turns out Edwin was a gambling man after all. He just wasn’t a very astute gambling man. Evidence of this lay in the way he pinned his every hop on what the people in marketing were saying. Indeed, he was betting his very life on the wisdom emanating from marketing, which only underlines just how desperate he had become. (In terms of reliability, marketing is only slightly above the study of chicken entrails. ) Edwin had one week to live, unless he could convince Mr. Mead to pull the book. Which he couldn’t. It was too late for that. Panderic had already licensed more than a dozen spinoff titles and copycat projects. (Mr. Soiree, oddly enough, showed a distinct and to Edwin’s mind suspicious, lack of interest in writing any more of the books himself. “Oh, goodness no. Let the radiant words of other journey-questers fill the great vision. Let other authors carry the crusade forward. I’ll still be getting 15 percent on sales, right? And that’s list price gross revenue, correct?”)
Will Ferguson may have made his protagonist in Happiness™ a cynical and bitter fool but there is are real-life lessons to be gained from Edwin de Valu. Questioning not only the daily trends and fashion of our day but our lives in general is a thing worthwhile at times. Therefore Happiness™ is not just a good novel but a great piece of literature.