In the stories of A Happy Man and Other Stories, author Axel Thormahlen manages to make all that is familiar alien to the reader. So often, he does so by erasing context, or subverting it. “Though you’ve left it a bit late if you want to find a handsome tree,” the owner of a Christmas tree farm says to open the book’s first story, “December 23”.
That Thormahlen not only starts the story—and collection—with dialogue, but also drops us right in the middle of a character’s thought, shows his ability to strip away markers. It’s a calculated risk, an obvious breaking of a basic rule of writing. Set up the story for the reader, so the rule goes. And Thormahlen sets it up by not setting it up at all. Our main character in “December 23” drifts into the woods, and the further he goes, the more ghostly things become. A shabbily dressed man points him in the direction of the right tree, certain our character will find it, and he does. But when he turns to leave the woods, he is suddenly surrounded by people looking for things—children, pets, a bottle of liquor—that they don’t have. It becomes clear that these people never had these things, and their insistence in asking becomes unnerving in the stillness of the woods.
All through the book, the stories are infused with that same static silence, a feeling that the world has stopped around these characters. All the while, they struggle to find the one perfect thing—the Christmas tree, the girl in class—that will ensure their happiness, or they fight to understand the people around them, that seem fragmented or full of holes. We only hear the old man’s side of a conversation in “Visiting Hour”, and since we’re denied the other person’s words, and the man’s reactions are erratic at best, we begin to feel his frustration. “Sometimes I get so restless it scares you,” he says to his audience, who may or may not be there. “You are not to be scared. You are to come back.”
The clear-eyed fearlessness these characters have in confronting their problems, a self-assuredness that slips into dementia when their problems seem insurmountable, is tied closely to Thormahlen’s crystalline prose. Line-by-line, scene-by-scene, his stories are clear and straightforward, the language so spare it borders on terse. What makes this clarity work, in the collection’s successful stories, is the pure strangeness of his work. Like Kafka and Murakami before him, he creates strange worlds and relates them as commonplace. Little details disturb the normality of these stories. Chairs have three legs. A homeless man becomes guardian over an entire forest. Christ is envied, in one story, not for being the son of God, but for being a “magnificent person”—a source of jealousy for a narrative so mired in being average.
And such are the strange motivations of these characters. He is driven to church not out of faith in Jesus, but out of envy for him. In “December 23”, the man believes finding the perfect tree will hide his imperfect family life. One narrator is sure that, no matter where he goes, the same construction worker is banging and sledge-hammering away, ruining his concentration. These are bizarre, short bursts of prose, meant to tilt and distort our perceptions, make us consider the everyday bits of life, all the road work and water towers, as things far more ethereal than they seem.
But they also read as far too cerebral. We are too deep in these heads, as entertainingly twisted as they may be, and because of that the stories lack any sort of action. Thormahlen takes and runs with the idea of character as story in A Happy Man, and when he is successful—in “The Construction Worker” and the title story, for example—his stories are quietly disturbing and beautiful. But too often the stories read like philosophical treaties by invented authors. And with no action, and little interaction with other characters, to test their melancholy theories, the stories get weighed down. Rather than representing ideas with story, the author bogs his fiction down with ideology, burying compelling characters under ham-handed philosophies.
The simple beauty of the language goes a little way to overcome the collection’s cerebral and distanced nature. But, in the end, it doesn’t go far enough. The stories can work with a lack of context, but fall apart because of a lack of heart.