How to Be Happy, by Eleanor Davis. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics Books. 152 pages. $24.99, hardcover.
The best stories in Eleanor Davis’ debut Fantagraphics collection How to Be Happy are grounded in narratives that we are familiar with on a primal level. A group of men and women return to nature. A daughter, now a successful artist in the city, returns home to visit her dying father. A man does his job though he has doubts about the function he provides the world. A woman finds herself unable to cry as her mother’s funeral looms, requiring her to do so. Though it seems like each story might pay off as little instructionals or beautifully rendered paeans to a culture that has come to increasingly celebrate Chicken Soup for the Soul style devotionals to faith in A Plan, Davis continually subverts the expectations set by her title. Even when one of her characters—a man over-encumbered with muscles, who finds himself responding again and again to cries for help—is blissfully happy, it is not the state of happiness he responds to, but the challenge the circumstances of his existence present.
“Make Yourself Strong,” the muscleman’s story, begs How to Be Happy’s central question: Can this be lifted? It also provides an answer: If you can make yourself strong, then yes. To demonstrate this, Davis’s stories take the primal narratives mentioned above and look at them through lenses verging on the extreme. The men and women returning to nature are part of a cult, ex-working-class types seeking the bliss promised by Eden. Every member of the collective is named Adam or Eve. One Adam quits when the leader, the burly, calm ex-manager of a Bass Pro Shop, discovers his stash of candy. The successful artist lives in a world where the air is poisoned and her family back home must constantly wear biosuits so that they might live. The man works as a ferryman, and today his passengers are monsters. Each one of them is carrying a sack; full of rabbits, one of them says. The sacks are squirming, alive. The woman who can’t cry goes to a guru who uses a PowerPoint presentation to provoke tears from his jaded clientele. One of the attendees at this conference learns empathy.
Davis is telling a series of fairy tales for adults throughout How to Be Happy (even a bus ride from Georgia to Los Angeles is a kind of hero’s journey, as any long trip on a Greyhound would be), and the stories here that are in color have the sensibility of warped Little Golden books, each panel striking in their design and capacity for warmth. “In Our Eden,” the first such story here, is set against autumnal golds and oranges, suggesting not only the fall season, but also the comforting glow of nostalgia. Anger, death, the brand names on the candy wrappers; these are set in violent reds; these are what the Adams and Eves of the world, eventually just the Adam and Eve, are trying to shed. In the last panel, Adam’s bulk (many of Davis’ men are massive and imposing, their size a symptom of the role they play in the world they inhabit) is gone and his ribs are visible. But embracing Eve in the Eden they’ve found, he is just as golden as the paradise they’ve longed for.
The black and white pieces between each color story are strange and grotesque. In one two-page illustration, a man cuts a woman’s fingers off with a pair of scissors. Immediately following that is “The Emotion Room,” a 12-panel strip where a woman’s emotions ooze out from gigantic pores in her skin, a black mass that is washed away and “neutralized with an industrial strength bleach solution.” These strips are short, but shocking. They pack an emotional wallop that hints at why the longer stories in How to Be Happy work so well, which is Davis’ tight control of narrative economy. While a graphic novel geared toward adults would be welcome, the brevity of each story here invites the reader to tear through the collection, dipping ones toes into any number of lakes. Davis is particularly skilled when it comes to suggesting a world beyond what appears in the panels here. Her work revels in the possibilities of the inexplicable, the unseen.
The last of the longer stories here is “No Tears, No Sorrow,” which, one assumes, is the world that belongs to those who’ve got the whole happiness thing figured out. But the self-help guru, speaking to a room full of people who haven’t cried in ten years, argues differently: “By coming here,” he says, “you’ve taken the first step towards letting tears, sorrow, and, yes, joy back into your lives!” Here is how he invites his disciples to once again experience joy: A picture of a person at a funeral captioned “I never told him how much I loved him;” a starving person saying “I am dying of starvation in a world of plenty;” a child clutching a happy, healthy looking dog. He stares out into the audience. The picture reads “Dad says Rex has to be put down.” The guru stops to shed movie star tears.
While Davis doesn’t name where this story happens, the Spam t-shirt on an attendee’s back and the Publix grocery store place them in America, where, as a four-panel strip posits, you can be unhappy until you go on Prozac, until you take up meditation, until you have children, until you try yoga; in another, until you go gluten-free; in “No Tears, No Sorrow,” until you allow yourself to be unhappy. Jennifer, the protagonist of “No Tears,” is the last of her class to cry, but what causes her to finally break: That she’s the only person in the room not crying, or the slide that reads “Deep down I think humans are incapable of love,” the blank face of one person in the photo as he or she embraces another? Does she believe the slide? Is crying, for her, just a performative act?
Though he’s there to teach empathy, Dr. Paul Castorzano’s emotional bootcamp is as hollow a shell as the human beings who pay to be part of it, as empty as the doctor’s plea to his students, now filled with the horrors and sorrows of a world without polar bears, a world where children watch their mothers die and their friends drown, that “You need to take care of you!” The self-help seminar circuit may be a cynical one, and the attendees each leave in a state of profound agony. It’s worth wondering if Castorzano’s promised joy will ever come to relieve their tears. How to Be Happy is an argument for empathy, but not of the call-and-response kind. The stories here know the world is often heavy and intolerable. And also worthwhile; sometimes touched by light, sometimes full of music. Empathy is knowing both sides of the world, shouldering them and carrying on, searching for the still unblemished parts of the soul.
Paul Arrand Rodgers currently resides in Athens, Georgia. His work has appeared in Hobart, JMWW, Monkeybicycle, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere.