#6 – How Happy to Be, by Katrina Onstad

I’m not entirely clear on why, but this book reminded me a lot of Fits Like A Rubber Dress, by Roxane Ward, which I read back in 2008. But here’s the thing: How Happy to Be only had a handful of superficial things in common with Rubber Dress. The experimentation with sex and drugs that finally kept Ward’s book from being a total waste of time is just the jumping off point for Katrina Onstad, and it doesn’t take more than a paragraph or two to see that she’s drinking from a deeper well. Onstad’s characters have tried hedonism themselves, and while it was the solution to some problems, it wasn’t without problems of its own, an idea Ward barely dipped her toe in. But I don’t mean to make this into a ninth grade compare and contrast.

Maxime isn’t shallow, stupid, or fame-obsessed, but like the smart kid in the rural school who doesn’t want to be abused by her classmates, she acts the part—though it’s not abuse she’s escaping. How Happy to Be shows us what happens when she gets sick of acting, and for a while it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Onstad’s send-up of self-important celebrities and the media apparatus that seems structured soley to support their egos is dead-on (Onstad’s Much Music analog is called BFD-TV, which I can only assume stands for “Big Fucking Deal”), and I laughed out loud more than once while Maxime was interviewing Ethan Hawke. It all seems like such a laugh, really, watching Maxime deliberately sabotaging her career, eviscerating her coworkers with her wit, navigating parties and talk shows and fucking Ad Sales out of boredom. And then for a moment it’s all ripped away and we can see the insecurity that underlies it all, Maxime’s, the celebrities’, the media’s.

I look at Nicole Kidman and I realize I know more about her life right now than I do about my father’s. But I only know the details, the breakups and the box-office figures: names, dates, and injuries. These are the boundaries of my job, and they’re closing in. My palms moisten. My shoulders shudder. I look at my right hand; it’s in the air. Somehow, I can’t help it; the hand doesn’t care about professional repercussions. It waves frantically.

I need to know something.

“Lady in black,” says the Czar. Most women in the room answer to that description, but he means me. I stand up, my heart racing a little under the collective sweep of eyes. The notebook paper clots in my palm.

“My question is for Nicole Kidman,” I say.

“Speak up please,” says the Czar.

“My question is for Nicole Kidman,” I shout. I clear my throat. “What’s it like?”

The Czar gives Ms. Kidman a quick, apologetic glance that she doesn’t catch, plucking at her water glass with her bony fingers. “Can you clarify your question, please?” asks the Czar.

“What’s it like?” I’m just going for it now, just letting it all out. “I mean, when everyone thinks your husband is gay, and then he leaves you, and you’re a billionaire and not untalented but in a business where talent doesn’t really matter and, and, you had a miscarriage that we all know about.” The strangeness of this strikes me suddenly and I say it again, “Somehow we all know about that. Every single person in this room knows and, you, and you have children, right? You have two children?”

Nicole Kidman looks up, straight at me, unsmiling, her white skin reflecting the lights of the cameras that line the sides of the theatre.

“My question is, What’s it like to be you?” It’s a bad question. I recognize it as such even without the Sludge Monster’s little choking sounds. But it occurs to me that that’s my problem; I don’t know what it’s like to be anyone else. I can’t imagine any other life but this one. I’m being stabbed to death by my point of view. Does anyone else ever feel like that? So desperate to break your own borders, so frantic you want to smash through someone else’s stomach and crawl in? Maybe Nicole Kidman knows something about this; a person who walks in other people’s bodies for a living must, surely?

Did I just say that out loud?

I sit down.

The room is very, very quiet. The Czar whispers something in Nicole Kidman’s ear and she shakes her head. The Italian woman moves ever so slightly away from me. Nicole Kidman leans forward, mouth over the microphone. In a girlish Australian voice, she says softly, “It’s probably not that different from being you.”

I doubt that, but I write it down anyway.

“Next question!”

Perhaps that was a bit long to quote (I’m sorry, I tend to linger where Nicole Kidman is concerned). In that scene Maxime, just for a moment, sees through the cracks in her own life and directly into someone else’s. Later on Nicole Kidman will make a complaint about the question through her “people”, but in that instant she’s a human being speaking to another human being, unmediated, and it’s almost too much for everyone. As Leonard Cohen would say, it’s “a breaking of the ancient Western code.”

Real life being too much seems to be one of the dominant themes in the book, really. Maxime’s father migrates to a remote island with a handful of hippie flakes to escape the reality of his wife’s death, Maxime gives herself over to movies and pop culture&mdash to escape the island commune—then alcohol, drugs, and meaningless sex to escape a failed relationship and an empty, unsatisfying job—while her friend Sunera turns to pills.

Only Theo McArdle seems comfortable in the real world, and as a result he seems almost beatific by comparison. He’s also the only one whose work deals with “the real world” in a sense (in fact, Maxime and Surena call him a “real person,” as opposed to whatever it is they think they are). Maxime’s father is a dropped-out wanderer, and she and all her friends create a fantasy world for a living, build up a patina of glamour to protect the myth of what today (the novel takes place in 2001 which, improbably-sounding to this reader, was almost ten years ago) we would call the Creative Class. Theo is a physicist, his entire job to understand the nature of reality. He’s not perfect, but Maxime is so bent on self-destruction and Onstad keeps the pace moving so steadily that it can be easy to miss his distraction, his occasional social stupidity. It’s good for the book that he’s more than just piece to move around the board, even if he’s mostly just that, and I liked him despite myself.

I mostly didn’t notice Onstad’s prose, which is good, because I don’t think it was trying to be noticed. When she did do something clever it was also smooth and occasionally lovely. But there were times, especially near the end, when I wanted more. Onstad gets the media/digital age stuff right, which most writers don’t (especially journalists—sorry folks, most of you come off like tourists, weirdly, guys like Hal Niedzviecki in particular), but for once I’d like to see a writer who is smart about those things slow down a bit and also give us a rich, Munro-like prose experience. Books like How Happy to Be are fun—really fun—but I’m sick of rush rush rush. Even when the book has some depth to it, the prose often doesn’t have enough, and that’s what I was missing here. But I suppose it’s unfair to criticize Onstad for not writing the book I wanted.

How Happy to Be was my second selection for Canada Reads: Independently as well as my seventh selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge, and while it’s not about to unseat Century, I’d definitely recommend it. Next up is Nikolski, by Nicolas Dickner.


Writer. Editor. Critic.


  1. I couldn’t find a way to fit this organically into the review, but I just wanted to say that the character of Franny Baumgarten reminded me tremendously of Ed from Cowboy Bebop (Ed is a girl, yes).

  2. Yay! I’m glad this book is getting some credit. I have some pretty strong feelings towards it. (Am reading it right now). Thanks for the review.

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