Katherine Shonk Attempts to Tackle the Insoluble Problem in 'Happy Now?'
An original, funny, and tender character study that gives no pat answers or neatly tied ends as Claire wanders and stumbles her way toward a recovery.
The death of a loved one leaves an unfillable hole with its own peculiar kind of bitter presence. It’s a thing with which we have no choice but to learn to live alongside. With suicide this learning is complicated by the self-inflicted death sentence which, in addition to sadness and grief, brings many other conflicting feelings like anger, confusion, and even guilt. You want to be able to grab your loved one, shake them, and scream, “Stay! We love you! Isn’t that enough?”
As Claire Kessler, in Katherine Shonk’s novel Happy Now?, finds out when it comes to her husband Jay, the answer is “no”. Released last year in hardcover, and now available in softcover, Happy Now? is an original, funny, and tender character study that gives no pat answers or neatly tied ends as Claire wanders and stumbles her way toward a recovery.
Claire’s husband kills himself on Valentine’s Day during a party by leaping off the balcony of a Chicago high-rise building. It so happens that it was the three year anniversary of the couple’s first date. Jay, who suffered from depression, didn’t leave behind a suicide note. Instead, he left behind a binder, organized by subject such as finances, Fang the cat, and his car.
By the time we meet Claire, she is coming out of a medicated fog a few weeks after Jay’s funeral. The police, Jay’s family, and her family have already read through the binder. Claire can’t yet bring herself to read it. Her mother tells her that there is “nothing of consequence” in the binder. This, of course, is not true. It’s her mother characteristically attempting to allay whatever fears Claire has.
Claire mopes around the coach house behind her sister and brother-in-law’s house, fearing that people blame her for Jay’s suicide or that Jay blames her for his decision. She is without appetite yet, craves, “the presence of food”. Her family tiptoes around her, watching her, unsure what to do or say but ever-willing to help. Claire is grateful for them but at times is annoyed at their seemingly constant attention and then at herself for feeling annoyed at people who are only trying to help.
When Claire does gather the courage to open the binder and read its contents, she finds that the section labeled for her is half the length of the section on the cat. Jay’s words, while absolving her of blame for his final decision, provide her with little comfort.
“I love you very much, but it feels like my love has no connection to my spirit. I feel like there is a wall of glass between us. I made the mistake of thinking the marriage could cure me, that you could cure me. Maybe you made that mistake too. We tried, but I think we are not compatible in certain ways, and it has been frustrating to both of us. I have not been a good husband to you and I would not be a good father to our children.”
The phrase “we are not compatible in certain ways” is what jabs at Claire. Emotionally, Claire isn’t cold so much as muted, sequestering her emotions away as much as possible from the rest of her life. This is in marked contrast to Jay, with his bouts of depression that would cover him and Claire, blocking out everything else. Thinking back on on it now, Claire wonders if her marriage to Jay was a mistake.
One of the most powerful scenes takes place when Claire makes an attempt to join a support group. Except the meeting isn’t for those who are trying to cope with the suicide of a loved one. It’s for people who have suffered depression and have thought about or attempted suicide. After the initial confusion and embarrassment, Claire is about to leave when the facilitator tells her she should stay because they could learn from one another. She unloads on the group,
“I don’t think there’s anything you people could teach me. I could probably teach you a thing or two, though... I could tell you about the pain you’ve caused... You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Jay isn’t around to hear her say those words. If he was, she wouldn’t need to say them. Which is the insoluble problem.