Happiness Comes From Nowhere by Shauna Gilligan is one of the very best debut novels I have read in many years. The prose is masterful and it takes us deeply into the characters, who we feel we know and care about in all their too human frailty. It is rooted in place, in contemporary Ireland with some side trips to Rome and elsewhere, but its themes are universal. It deals with the core issues of human existence
The novel opens with us sitting in on the attempted suicide of Dirk, the main male character in Happiness Comes From Nowhere. The attempted suicide is very well depicted and felt very real, almost uncomfortably so. Of course I wanted to know what forces could have driven a young man in the prime of life to think that suicide was his best option. Gilligan is too sensitive an artist and too close a student of the human condition to try to directly answer this question for us in a linear fashion by simply narrating sad events in his life (we all have sad events). The rhetoric of fiction in this novel involves multiple view points, shifts in time and alteration of the prose style in order that the form of the work itself echo the narrative action.
I will try to explain a bit what I mean by this. I think that Gilligan is forcing us to work to put together a linear narrative so we can feel the discordant forces impacting on the mind of Dirk.
As I was reading Happiness Comes From Nowhere I somehow had a flashback to a class on early modern art that I took many years ago. One of the themes of Happiness Comes From Nowhere is the nature of knowledge, memory, and the construction of history. In a way, Gilligan is almost doing in a novel what the Cubists tried to do in their movement (time frame 1907 to 1921.)
I see the among the ancestors of Happiness Comes from Nowhere, Ford Madox Ford's great masterwork, Parade's End and my favorite Virginia Woolf novel, The Waves.
Stepping back a bit, the relationship of Dirk and his mother is brilliantly developed. Shortly after the segment on the suicide attempt of Dirk we see how much his mother loved and cherished him in his very early ages when his mother goes through the agony of placing him in a school for the first time. The novel is also about the search for human happiness. We see characters try to find it or to void out their despair at their inability to do so through drugs, alcohol and casual sexual relations. There are a lot of quirky minors characters that sort of serve as mini commentaries on the search for happiness from an Aunt dedicated or emerging her self in the role of good auntie to a woman spying on others at a hotel. Sometimes if one cannot find happiness one can try to find solace in making ourselves appear morally superior to those who do. This is a serious novel but it is also fun to read as we witness Dirk's various relationships with women. We also get a good look at the marriage of Dirk's parents, Sepp and Mary.
I liked Happiness Comes From Nowhere so much and felt such depth of meaning in the pages of the book that I read it back to back twice in a row, something I have not done since I read Gravity's Rainbow nearly four decades ago. It is also funny, very well plotted and the prose style is hauntingly beautiful.