August 2004

Matt Richmond

fiction

Happy Days by Laurent Graff

When Antoine entered adulthood at the age of eighteen, he felt there wasn’t much left for him. Having “experienced everything that constitutes, roughly speaking, the average full life,” he decided to give himself over to the inevitable, but not in any active way. Death became his hobby, life merely a period of nuisance time. At eighteen he withdrew all his savings to buy a cemetery plot and tombstone. And now, at age thirty-five, a recently divorced father of two and the recipient of a sizable inheritance, Antoine decides to retire with his new money. Checked in at the Happy Days retirement home as a permanent resident, Antoine waits for death the way other people stand on platforms and wait for trains.

Happy Days, a short novel by French author Laurent Graff, is absurd. Like Bohumil Hrabal’s beautiful and silly Too Loud a Solitude, it’s short -- a mere 99 pages -- but the storytelling makes it feel much thicker, and not because it’s a tedious read. It’s thick with allegory; each sentence can be read twice, once for its outward meaning to the story and once for its inner meaning, its lesson.

Happy Days isn’t as rich and impressive as Solitude, but Happy Days protagonist Antoine shares a tone and outlook with Hrabal’s Hanta. Antoine is depressed: “I’m where I ought to be, here, among those who no longer expect or wait for anything, abandoning themselves to a caricature of a life. Real life has become too cruelly human.” Antoine is convinced he knows too much, thinks too much, sees too much to enjoy life. Just as all the Happy Days residents, due to advanced age and frailty, witness the world through hazy memories, soap operas and the occasional field-trip bus window, Antoine sees his through the murky glass of glum contemplation, through which all he can make out for certain is death.

This novel is more meditation than narrative journey; don’t expect any big revelations, broad story arcs or character development. The closest Antoine comes to changing is when he decides he had been wrong earlier in the book -- the proximity of death does not bring oldsters nearer to truth; life is pretense right up to the end. Antoine decides this with an indifferent shrug, and the book moves on.

Antoine’s apathy and occasional cynicism cast everything around him in a comically pathetic light. When the retirement home is taken on a field trip to a wild animal preserve, he sees “off in the distance, some kind of disheveled ostrich with moth-eaten plumage.” Later, “a depressed deer sidles morosely up to us as we stick our pieces of bread through the chain-link fence. The animal on one side and us on the other: each in his cage, his prison.”

Graff has as much fun with his choices as a writer as he does with the story itself. For example, character dialogue often appears as parenthetical to the larger paragraph, as in the following:

Through the open window (“You could crack the window a bit please, Antoine, to let the smoke out. Thank you.”) we can hear the waves, like a distant murmur (“Could you put out your cigarette, Antoine? It’s chilly. Thanks so much.”) that would have sent us into a gentle reverie, Mireille and me, and we could have dozed off, delightfully soothed by the rustling of the water, and gotten a bit of rest, for example.

The parenthesis-quotation mark double punctuation sets all the characters’ speech well outside the realm of Antoine’s thought, even when it’s his own speech quoted, insulating the narrator from any action, enhancing the sense of distance in everything that Antoine experiences.

Readers can relish the little things they find in this retirement home of a novel. As long as Happy Days is approached in the same way Antoine approaches life -- not expecting too much, just happy to relax and think about some things -- it’s a pleasant read. Happy Days makes the argument that the whole world is a retirement home, and we’re all just biding our time before the trauma of death. Which should be depressing, but somehow Antoine’s apathetic take on all of it makes it seem like not such a big deal.

Happy Days by Laurent Graff
Carroll & Graf
ISBN: 0786712821
180 Pages