A Beautiful Book, Whether Or Not It Makes You 'Happy'Eleanor Davis' gorgeous new How to Be Happy doesn't actually tell you how to be happy; rather, it dramatizes the promise of happiness, and the funny and tragic effects that follow on from it.
Lies! Deceit and rank mendacity! Eleanor Davis promises what current pop music insists is perfectly possible — that you can be happy — and then she doesn't deliver. Instead she draws comics full of hilarious surrealism, gut-tugging tropes and eloquent despair. How dare she?
Actually, for anyone unfamiliar with Davis' award-winning comics — she's been drawing them for print and the Web since the mid-2000s — the cover of her book may inspire a moment's flicker of hope that it really does contain the secret of happiness. It's just gorgeous, overflowing with massive red flowers and glowing with rainbow light. Flip the book over, though, and you find clues to the other half of Davis' brain. Here people are falling from the sky for some reason, while in the foreground, an indigo woman sobs.
That's Davis' sensibility. In her roundabout way, she dramatizes not the prospect of happiness, but the promise of it. Her natural territory is found in all the funny and tragic effects of that promise.
Some of her characters seek answers in a primal society where everyone is called Adam or Eve. Others sign up for a workshop to teach them how to feel grief. A character undergoes a session in "The Emotion Room," extruding her emotions in the form of black snakes all over her body. (Afterward, she gets a shower and orange slices.) One inventive crew zips themselves up in a giant bag, safe from the outside world. "It was made specially in the Netherlands," a woman explains.
The bag people find a kind of happy ending: Davis finishes their story with a view of the 7-foot-tall bag sitting quietly, unmenaced. Others fare less well. The workshop people, having gotten in touch with their grief, now wander through life sobbing uncontrollably. The Adams and Eves have a variety of fates. One couple goes to live in Jacksonville. A primally bearded Adam insists on staying in the disintegrating colony even though, as another character tells him, "Your name is Darryl and you're the ex-manager of a bass pro shop in Tampa!"
Elsewhere, Davis just has fun with short-story conventions. Her favorite tactic is to create semi-mythic characters — a ferryman, a wandering musician, two boys exploring an old house, a pair of new neighbors — take them in bizarre directions, then challenge herself and the reader to find the emotional heart of each ambiguous outcome. In a painstakingly tinted two-color story, her musician takes a lover with tree-branch antlers and great, staring eyes. In another, her ferryman conveys a procession of monsters bearing mysterious sacks.
One of the book's immediate charms is its variation in style. Some stories are four-color, some two-color, some black and white. With a few exceptions, the reason for each choice is immediately evident, bolstered by differences in the formality of the lines and the proliferation of detail. That said, the book's a bit short on color — especially considering the brilliant hand Davis has with it. She can make a scene glow with possibility, as in the tale of the new neighbors, or make a simplified palette express the banality of an event like the grief workshop.
Sometimes, though, black and white is just right. One ad hoc sketch clearly shot straight from brain to drawing pad, and is probably included just to make the reader wonder: Why is the guy in the Mickey Mouse shirt cutting off the woman's fingers?
It's a shame there aren't more of these cryptic doodles. They would underscore Davis' unique take on the function of storytelling itself. This is expressed most clearly in the words of a simply (probably hastily) drawn woman whose arc takes up a single page. "Find the stories that help you comprehend the incomprehensible," she says. "Find the stories that make you stronger."
Well, OK. Unfortunately, though, they probably won't make you happy.
Etelka Lehoczkyhas written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.