Serotonin: From Prozac to Politics

Peter D. Kramer will always be known as the author of Listening to
Prozac,
his 1993 work that both described a new, psychopharmacologically
based "climate of opinion" in our culture and helped bring it about. But if he
doesn't become known, too, for Spectacular Happiness, that will not be the
fault of this daring first novel. Starting with the fact that it is fiction,
Spectacular Happiness defies our expectations of Kramer. It breathes life
into a certain kind of radical politics in a way that makes you wish Kramer had
tried fiction sooner. None of our more practiced leftish novelists--including
Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and E.L. Doctorow--has generated as tantalizing a
vision of contemporary radicalism minus dogma. This book establishes
imaginative continuity with the sixties--as Bill Ayers's recent memoir
Fugitive Days, for example, utterly failed to do--and with older radical
traditions.

The book also reverses the positions on drugs with which Kramer has famously
been identified. Spectacular Happiness is emphatically
anti-antidepressant. All of the things that have been whispered about Prozac and
other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)--that they enforce
conformity and rob you of your distinctiveness, your identity, your soul--are
seconded by this novel. Kramer considered these negatives at length in
Listening to Prozac, where, while trying to maintain a semblance of
evenhandedness, he nevertheless came down solidly in support of SSRIs' potential
to make you feel "better than well." Spectacular Happiness comes to the
opposite conclusion, judging wellness through drugs to be worse than unhappiness
without them.

What may deny Spectacular Happiness the consideration it deserves,
however, is neither its politics nor its position on drugs, but the events of
September 11. As it happens, Chip Samuels, the book's main character, is a
self-proclaimed terrorist. It doesn't matter that he never kills or injures
anyone--not the guilty, not the innocent, not even himself. It doesn't matter
that sometimes he doesn't even destroy property (to achieve results, he can
merely let it be known that he's thinking about doing so). Chip has little more
in common with the perpetrators of the September 11 massacres than the label
"terrorist." His grand ambition, in fact, is to give terrorism--or at least the
anarchism from which, to his mind, it springs--a good name. After September 11,
of course, that is a tough sell.

Chip is an ecoterrorist, to be precise, and as sane and gentle a man as you
would ever hope to have handling sticks of dynamite. There are no traces of
malice or fanaticism in his character. In fact, the most irritating thing about
him is his absolute incombustibility: his unshakable, slightly stuffy, maybe even
slightly stuck-up air of benevolence. (Mannie Abelman, his therapist, faults him
for lack of passion.) Chip more than compensates for this flaw by being a shrewd,
scrupulous writer, with real talent for knowing where exactly in a piece of text
to plant the fireworks. The novel, set primarily on Cape Cod but also in New York
City, takes the form of a journal that Chip addresses to his teenage son, Hank
(over whom Anais, Chip's ex-wife, has sole custody).

Chip becomes a sort of folk hero and television celebrity. After all, it's
hard to hold a grudge against someone who basically just makes it easier to go
to the beach--which is what Chip's group, FtB, or Free the Beaches, sets out to
do. The group consists entirely of Chip and Sukey Kuykendahl, who grew up next
door to him in the fictional town of Sesuit, on the Cape, and have been friends
and sometime lovers since. When they reconnect once more--after his failed
marriage, and in the wake of her alcoholism--they propose to open the Cape's long
stretches of private beaches to the public. When Chip decides that a particularly
ostentatious or illbegotten residence has hogged too much shoreline for too long,
he tunes in to its death wish. With Sukey's help, he puts assorted "seaside
abominations" out of their misery.

He could--if he cared to disown the identity of terrorist, which he does
not--style himself a residential thanatologist, an architectural euthanasiast,
the Dr. Kevorkian of regrettable real estate. Chip spares no effort to achieve
the "tailoring of disruption to site" that is always his political and
aesthetic goal. "Last winter and spring," he writes of one action, "I felt
compelled to sit in a neighbor's house and discover a fit means of destruction,
the performative equivalent of the mot just."

Books and writing are powerful presences in Spectacular Happiness. At a
time when many novels aspire to be films or Web pages rather than what they are,
Chip's--and Kramer's--unabashed love of literature is no small part of this
book's appeal. When Chip met Anais at Harvard University in the sixties,
literature, as ever, was his private underground (preparation, in a sense, for
the clandestine pursuits of FtB). But as the son of a carpenter, he also was good
with his hands; this, in Anais's eyes, made him a fair approximation of "that
romantic figure, the New Man ... who would parse a sonnet in the morning and
shingle a roof in the afternoon." For Anais, Chip was the "worker-student
alliance" in the flesh. He, in turn, loved her looks, her smell, her high-strung
idealism, her fraught, moody commitments--and, not least of all, her reading
list.

He'd already read Marx when he met her, though on the whole he preferred Zola
and Dickens, who "expressed the same ideas with more complexity, noticing the
gaps in the system, the interstices where kindness endured." Anais rerouted his
reading in the direction of the Situationists, French theorists of the day, who
made a permanent impression on him. The Situationists were, in effect,
meta-leftists: Whereas leftists might leaflet against the War in Vietnam, the
Situationists, in turn, might leaflet the leafleters. They warned the left
against its own certainties, telling it, as Chip puts it, that "ours is not the
society of the dollar but of the spectacle" and that activists were in constant
danger of being subsumed by the spectacle of their own protest. At bottom,
Situationism was a critique of the media's ability to simulate experience and
counterfeit human interactions.

Situationists maintained that the old forms of social struggle were useless
against the society of the spectacle; well-articulated programs and objectives
were sitting ducks for co-optation. Situationists aimed to be part Walter
Benjamin and part Che Guevara, guerrillas in flaneur's clothing, probing for
places where "situations"--moments, in Chip's words, "of freedom, of play, of
private desire"--might occur. Sukey sums up FtB's peculiar interpretation of
Situationism by alluding not to Marx, Mao, or Danny the Red but to Jerry Seinfeld
and his sitcom about nothing: "'Nothing,' she said. 'A campaign about
nothing... .We create nothing ... and the culture fills the void.'"

When Anais and Chip married and moved to his Sesuit cottage, she remained the
firebrand; he, if anything, her disciple. Anais took up pottery and became, not
without ambivalence, a mother. When she disappeared now and then--for therapy,
pottery, or possibly, one time, even adultery--it was always with Chip's support,
part of the understanding they'd had from the beginning. In the journal, Chip
proudly describes the Anais of those years as "Emma Goldman crossed with Greta
Garbo, a revolutionary with a need to disappear from view." One summer, after a
somewhat longer separation than usual, she returned to Sesuit on antidepressants
and declared her life to that point to be an exercise in futility.

Gone are the jokes at the expense of "Disney happiness, Nintendo happiness,
Gap happiness" that had been a staple of family banter. Gone is Anais's
long-standing rebellion against her mother, a conspicuously consuming suburbanite
with whom she now learns to shop. Gone, too, is the "fierce beauty" that framed
her ideals. She now brands her pottery AnnieWare and promotes it through high-end
Boston outlets. Hank all of a sudden becomes "honey," an endearment she had never
used before. She promises to do "better as a mother," but, as Chip confides to
Hank in the journal, it seems that she is "better able to be near you but less
liable to remember your name." When Chip reminds her of certain "formulations"
that they had but recently held in common, she pronounces him "covertly and
chronically depressed ... stranded self-righteously in the sixties."

Converted to the new pharmacopoeia, Anais believes that drugs are just the
thing for Hank, as well. Harriet, the boy's school principal, wants to put him on
Ritalin--to settle him down and jump-start him into literacy--before promoting
him to second grade. When Anais rushes to agree, this is the breaking point for
Chip. He had spent the summer of Anais's absence close to his son, calling it the
"summer of reading," though he might just as well have called it the summer of
surf. All Chip and Hank seemed to do was read and swim. Hank relishes both
activities, and Chip is glad to find that with patience and good reading
material--the Oz books do nicely--that Hank, too, is a book lover. At
summer's end, fit and relaxed, they turn up in Harriet's office for Hank's
reading test, which he passes easily--too easily for her. As Chip records
(addressing himself, as always, to Hank): "Instead of congratulating you, Harriet
looked at me in horror. What did you do to this child? she wanted to know, as if
torture were an effective method of teaching reading."

When his wife and son disappear into an upscale midwestern suburb following
divorce proceedings, Chip doesn't grow bitter or morose. He is sure that Anais's
simulated happiness is only temporary and that she and Hank will return.
Meanwhile, he draws on superhuman reserves of patience, tolerance, and
forbearance. And he blows things up. He calls these actions "installations," and
you'd think, by the way he chews them over, that they were avant-garde
presentations in light and sound.

Sukey, a Realtor, can guarantee access to targeted sites and make sure that no
one will be about. But Chip is determined not only to avoid injury but also to
avoid making too much sense. He doesn't want to give the impression that there is
some "grand program" or "defined ideology" behind what has come to be known as
the Sesuit bombings. "Boldness and purposelessness" are his watchwords. And
Situationism, for him, is a way station back to older, naturally literary
wellsprings of inspiration. "Ours is not the era of the straight path," he
reflects. "I was aiming for stories that would remain out of focus, set in a
picaresque and even whimsical progression, a hypermodern style that reaches far
back, to the 'Quixote' or Rabelais."

Though the evidence is largely circumstantial--Chip lives in Sesuit and has
taught the literature of anarchism at his community college--the FBI suspects
him. And the media seizes on him. Drafted into explaining the Sesuit bombings and
various copycat actions on prime time, Chip tiptoes along the edge between
actuality and celebrity. He is the television personality as hero/culprit and, in
this new light, shows up on Anais's screen. She does come back, literally setting
off fireworks on the way, a sign of returning to her old principles and self.
Best of all, after a long swim--the novel's honored mode of transportation--the
longed-for reunion with Hank takes place.

Meanwhile, across the country, Situationism à la Seinfeld
catches on. There are outbreaks of "conspicuous generosity" throughout the land.
By way of rehabilitating himself in the public eye, a crime boss steps forward totake responsibility for the Sesuit bombings. FtB supporters sport signs that
read, "Random!" And Chip defines himself on-air as "myself, a man who flounders."

But how much of Chip has become counterfeit? Did Anais come back to him or to
a celebrity? Chip gets slightly more doubt than even he would like at the finale,
but he'll take it; it beats the tragic end of most stories about anarchists with
bombs. Spectacular Happiness concludes on July 4, with all of them--Chip,
Anais, Hank, and Sukey--gathering to watch fireworks.

This elegantly crafted novel restores faith in politics. As Mannie says, you
can change the world, at least a little, by playing with it. Once a New York
celebrity in his own right for his best-selling book So This Is Love,
Mannie has retired to the Cape to complete the sequel, So This Is Nausea,
which, he tells Chip, is a history of throwing up from "late eighteenth century
romanticism to our epidemic of bulimia." Many things make Mannie himself
nauseated--certain houses (Chip and Sukey know which ones) and certain economic
systems--but mostly what drives him back to Sartre is the predictability of his
patients' stories. Faced with their lack of imagination, he decides that his role
as therapist must be to "give patients access to a greater range of denouements."

The old ways of doing this are worn out, he thinks. Freud may have been a
psychoterrorist in his day, when all you had to do was talk about sex to really
shake up a patient, but that doesn't work anymore. "If it's not new, it's not
therapy," he tells Chip. "To reach people at all, you have to surprise them." And
so, near the end of the book, Kramer, by way of Mannie, lets it be known that
psychology has all along been the puppet master. It appears that a nauseated
Mannie, and not some mob contact, as Chip had assumed, first directed Sukey to
the store of explosives used by FtB. Thus did Mannie contrive to introduce all
concerned to a greater range of denouements.

Chip does, at one point, consider shucking his label. "Terror," he reflects,
"may be the wrong word for what I have practiced--many people seem less
frightened than amused." But that would have been contrary to his therapist's
inclinations.

And it would have denied the slim area of similarity between FtB and the
attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Both do, as Chip says,
"redistribute anxiety." Both do make people think and think again. But FtB
doesn't kill, maim, or terrify; instead, with the bounty of luck and
circumspection possible only in fiction, it kindles a national situation of hope.
Based on his work so far, Peter Kramer deserves to be thought of as one of the
writers most deeply attuned to our culture's changing moods. He was right about
the turn toward drugs. And he is right again, in this novel, about a national
turn toward politics. He couldn't have had any idea, while working on the book,
how right he was.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement