When I was considering setting myself up as a church in order to enjoy tax-exempt status -- writers frequently are nonprofit organizations without ever intending to be -- the only thing I could think of that I believed in was irony. Irony is like God or germs or voice mail: You can't see them but you can see their effects. And irony works. It works in tiny ways, like how the minute you give up the hunt for your keys they appear, in plain view, the only item on the kitchen counter. It works in grandiose ways, like how the week you give up on finding Mr. or Miss Right and hook up with Mr. or Miss You'll Do, you'll meet someone who suits you like popcorn suits movies.
Irony is the reason people understand phrases like, "You're trying too hard," or "You want it too much." It's nice guys who finish last, watched pots that never boil and how time flies when you're having fun. And you can't fake it out. You cannot say, "I don't care if I get the job," because irony knows you secretly care. Then when you give up and get another job, the one you really wanted will call you in for an interview. You know it's true.
I really believe all this, but The Church of Irony sounded too much like something a high- school kid in gifted English might draw a logo for on the back of a notebook. Plus, if it became a widely held belief, it would probably stop being true. That's how irony is.
But what I failed to turn into a faith-based tax shelter, author Will Ferguson has turned into a book -- and a brilliant one. In his first novel, "Happiness"™ (Canongate Publishers Ltd.), our world turns on an axis of irony. It's a world filled with providence based purely on circumstance, on the chase that is more compelling than the attainment and on a wealth of happiness that leads the world to the brink of collapse. And it all came from an idea the author heard in passing: What if someone wrote a self-help book that actually worked?
The idea begs the observation that if any of the self-help modes introduced to us on bookshelves and talk shows worked for any appreciable length of time, a new one wouldn't appear every 10 minutes. There is enough "Chicken Soup" (a line of books Ferguson lampoons, as he does many things, with twinkling acidity) out there to feed all the souls of the world, and yet plenty of people still seem to have a sniffling, runny-nosed child within that isn't taking the cure.
In "Happiness"™, a lusciously shallow, cynical book editor, Edwin de Valu, goes to life-threatening lengths to get a self-help book published, not out of belief in it, but to save his ass from unemployment. The book, "What I Learned on the Mountain" by Tupak Soiree, promises everything all the other books do, but in one fat volume: financial glory, weight loss, better sex and inner peace. The book arrives on Edwin's desk with a creepily insightful cover letter addressing whatever editor finds it as someone who is "lost in a cubicle, a small box among larger boxes, as anonymous and unfulfilled as your own hopes and failed dreams ... the ones you whisper to yourself late at night when no one can hear."
In spite of this irritatingly perceptive intro, or perhaps because of it, Edwin sends the contents to press and then out into the world to do its magic, which is to make everyone happy.
The problem is that it works. It is the ultimate self-help book. It does lead people to financial glory, thin thighs and serenity. And sort of like the people who swallowed the miracle cure in the Kids in the Hall movie "Brain Candy," it leads everyone into stupors of bliss -- everyone except Edwin, his detested baby-boomer boss and a few others who manage to escape the dragnet of tranquility. In his quest to finally meet and square off with the iconic author Tupak Soiree, Edwin discovers what happiness really is. And while that may sound like a sappily sweet ending, it isn't. That's the irony.
If you're looking for a summer read that will provide some crunch and stimulus to get you through the torpor of the rains we've been having (assuming this soggy assault is still going on by the time this column comes out) pick up "Happiness"™. There's no filler in this book, not one wasted word, just a continuous stream of wicked social observation and brilliant humor. The wit has the same dry bite as a good martini, plus there'sintriguing foreign-language lessons, mysterious trailers and an ethics expert who ends up being a crazed fugitive. It turns out that money can buy "Happiness"™. It retails for about $24 (hardback). And it's really worth it.