The Best Book You’ve Never Heard Of
How Happy To Be is the sort of book that ends up getting called a “women’s novel.” It also happens to be the best thing I've read in a long, long time.
In it, Toronto writer Katrina Onstead chronicles the comings and goings of an unmarried, often hungover female entertainment reporter. Our heroine keeps the company of characters who would not be out of place in a Season 3 Sex and the City episode. (Gay pal in rave pants, here’s looking at you!) Celebrities are interviewed. Galas are attended. Crantinis are consumed. If this thumbnail description makes you recall the chick lit that proliferated a decade ago, well done.
I had been curious about the novel ever since its publication in 2006, but it never made its way into American bookstores, and I failed to set foot in a Canadian one.
My interest came from a personal place. I used to work with Onstad, at a newspaper in Toronto not unlike The Daily, the right-wing publication that employs How Happy To Be’s 34-year-old protagonist Maxine. It is is set in a slick building located in “the gray industrial wasteland that is suburban northeast Toronto” and occasionally visited by Baby Baron, the English aristocrat who funds it. Our real-life workplace, bankrolled by Conrad Black, was in an office building that called to mind the anonymous shiny structures on HBO's series “Enlightened,” minus the sunshine and with the addition of a Tim Horton’s across the parking lot. (Unrelated: next time you find yourself in Canada, do yourself a favor and order a double-double.)
I started out as an intern, then joined the arts desk, same as Onstad (she was handed the A-list assignments; I interviewed Lionel Richie and sent in the occasional “Letter from New York” about the latest all-fat-free grocery store in Manhattan's Murray Hill neighborhood). Her stories kicked ass -- as did she, wearing her Levis, Converse sneakers and wry grin. I used to glance her way with a mixture of professional respect and girlish idolatry.
I knew her book would serve as a fun mnenomic device for a former Toronto media habituee such as myself. About a half hour into reading the novel, though, I understood that saying How Happy to Be is about newspaper culture is about as reasonable as claiming "This is Spinal Tap" to be about rock music in the early '80s. Onstad has written a genius novel, with energy that could propel a steam engine and sentences worthy of their own velvet-lined museum displays.
For Onstad, the world of entertainment journalism is not just a cute setting for a protagonist to scamper about in her kitten heels and get her love life sorted out; it is a cavernous sphere populated by Hobbit-like critics clad in Big Mama’s House 3 sweatshirts and actors who occasionally deign to give those friends of Bilbo Baggins seven minutes of their time. The circus is overseen by American publicists who, she writes, “have an enviable don’t-give-a-shit quality when they visit Canada. They must have done something really, really bad to get this gig, throwing bones to twenty-five Canadian journalists, ‘I’m sorry did you just say Ragina?’” In her satirical scenes, Onstad points up the insecurity complex that I recall pervading the air in Canada's most Americanized city. (She puts it better: “The Toronto feeling is like living in a photocopy of a real city, or a photocopy of a photocopy, since Chicago is a version of New York and we’re a blurred version of Chicago.”)
But Onstad is not overly interested in her nation's social status. She's too busy being profound or hysterical. The only writer who captures the behind-the-scenes side of entertainment journalism with equal wit is Jennifer Egan (I'm thinking about "40-Minute Lunch," a short story centering on a celebrity profile interview, which appeared in Harpers in August 1999). Here is Onstad crackling away on the two types of questions presented at press conferences:
The first is the starfucker question, which includes queries like: Why did you do this movie?. . . The second type of question happens only at film festivals. It’s the Sludgey, mise en scène, I studied with Andrew Sarris Question. It involves words like auteur and inappropriate references to Battleship Potemkin, as in: My question is for Ron Howard. Were you purposely responding to the dystopic midnight fantasy of Agnes Varda when you made Backdraft II?
Onstad’s flair for comedy wizens and takes a turn for the melancholic when it comes to inward looks at Maxine, a lonely alcoholic who can’t get fired despite her best, and most sincere, attempts. A meeting with her ex-boyfriend: “I look at his eyes, the dark lids, the handsome pull of his mouth. What he is not any more: young, open, mine. We said everything to each other once. He knows more about me that anyone I have ever spoken to and in that way he’s like an extension of me that I lost the password for, a database functioning somewhere else out there, all knowing and totally separate.”
The flashback scenes to her childhood, which was mostly spent on a hippie commune in British Columbia, should come with their own Kleenex. Maxine watched her mother die at the age of 35, and her father subsequently suffer a nervous breakdown. Here is a passage describing her last days with her mother: “I knew things I shouldn’t have known because when the sickness moved in, I became invisible. I could walk through walls, curl up in closets, and listen.”
Yet, even when Onstad veers toward the elegiac, she never comes close to mawkishness. I am not above reading — or championing — books with pink covers. (I defy you to read Bridget Jones’s Diary and tell me it isn't terrific.) But Onstad's book resides on a literary plane of its own. It is scorching, self-hating and dark — like Sam Lipsyte's work, or Martin Amis's old school greats — and powerful in its ability to drum up emotion (in this regard she leaves the above-mentioned writers in the dust). If Onstad had the luck to be born with a penis, her artful renderings of self-destruction would earn her a place at the table where Saul Bellow and John Lanchester dine.
The book has sold a little over 5,000 copies, which counts as pretty brisk business in Canada. As of now, there are no plans to publish it in the States. (Onstad’s second novel, Everybody Has Everything, was picked up by Little Brown for U.S. publication this summer.) How happy am I to have a copy? As sorry as I am for the rest of you who don’t.