On the Writing of The Happiest People in the World
An Essay by Brock Clarke
In the spring of 2005, I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark. I’d heard of Denmark, of course, but I never thought about it as a place where I’d actually ever go, or where I ever especially wanted to go. If I’d thought of Denmark at all, I’d thought of it as the country with all the windmills and tulips. Which meant that when I was thinking of Denmark, I was really thinking of the Netherlands. That’s how little I’d thought about Denmark before Spring 2005.
But wow, I loved it once I got there. I loved it the way you can only love a place that never existed for you before you went there and to your great surprise started loving it. I loved it the way you can only a love a place that is the opposite of the other place you’ve loved. The other place I’d loved—upstate New York—is famously unhappy. But the people of Denmark are consistently declared by this poll and that study to be The Happiest People in the World. They were the exact opposite of everything I had ever loved. God, I loved them so much.
Anyway, after a while I went home. I had to. But I thought about Denmark, longed for it. I thought of Denmark as the place where you go if you want to be happy. The way people used to think about America, and the way maybe some people even still do.
I was still thinking about Denmark when a Danish newspaper asked a bunch of cartoonists to draw the Prophet Muhammad as they saw him. Some of the cartoonists saw and drew the Prophet Muhammad in ways that made a lot of other people very unhappy. What happened next is an awful story, awfully similar to other awful stories. It made me mad, mad that the whole thing had turned Denmark into what, of course, it had probably already always been: a place with its share of unhappiness, a place like so many other places. It made me want to send the cartoonists and the people who were trying to kill them to someplace truly unhappy, as punishment.
So in my new novel, The Happiest People in the World, I did that. I sent them—first a cartoonist, then the person trying to kill him—to upstate New York, to a place called Broomeville, a town that doesn’t exist on the map and would be too small to find even if it did. And then a funny thing happened: suddenly, the place I knew so well—a place of bad weather and bad jobs and bad families and bad bars—became not such a bad place at all, because there were these Danes in it who weren’t supposed to be there and didn’t know it was supposed to be so bad in the first place. And suddenly the Danes—who in my mind, and in the minds of lots of people, had been easily categorized by terms like “heroes,” “bigots,” “martyrs,” “terrorists,” and so on—had the chance to be something else, something supposedly uniquely American: people who just want to start over. And because people who want to start over need a job just like everyone else, I gave the cartoonist the most mysterious job I could think of: I made him a school guidance counselor (because who knows, exactly, what those people do?). And then I thought, who would give this guy a job as a guidance counselor? Well, the principal, of course. But why would a principal give an international fugitive a job as a guidance counselor? So, I gave him a reason, and as part of the reason I also gave the principal a family, because the family is the Denmark of social units: it is the thing you long for right before you ruin it, or right before you realize you’ve already ruined it. And then I surrounded all these people with spies, spies being the people who are supposed to protect you from realizing that you’ve already ruined the thing for which you’ve longed while they go about ruining it just a little bit more.
So what is this novel about? It’s about a bunch of things. It’s about free speech and religious intolerance. It’s about what it’s like to live in America right now, with its messed up economy and messed up families and its clashing cultures and its NSA scandals and its wiretapping and its Gitmos and its Snowdens and Plames. It’s about what it’s like to be a high school guidance counselor, not to mention a high school principal, not to mention a high school teacher, not to mention a high school student. It’s about what it’s like to be in a marriage, to be in a family, to love people but not as purely as they deserve. It’s about the way we believe that we can’t be happy unless someone else is unhappy. But mostly, it’s about a person who runs from his past and into a future made up of a new family, a new town, a new country. Meanwhile, all of the people in that new family, town, and country are trying to figure out if and how they can run from their pasts, and if so, in what kind of future they’ll find themselves. They wonder, “Will it be a future we want, or a future we deserve?” I wonder that, too.