Literary Inspiration: Furiously Happy

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With apologies to the friend who gave me this book, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson, I hated it.  Just loathed every page, every anecdote, every mea culpa and every non-sequitur about horribly misshapen, taxidermized rodents.  And there were quite a few of them, often expressed as quarter page-long footnotes.  Furiously Happy was tonally bizarre and as all over the place as Lawson professes her mental health to be.  Instead of making me happy, it just made me furious (as evidenced by the front cover amendment I made at the end of one particularly enraging chapter, an egregious act I’m only mildly pissed at myself for having carried out – you DO NOT abuse books in such a fashion.  Unless the book in question is beginning to mess with YOUR mental health.)

Known around the interwebs as The Bloggess, Lawson’s writing is often compared to the works of David Sedaris, and is bolstered by such high profile literary talent as Neil Gaiman, Augusten Burroughs and Christopher Moore (should have been a tip-off; I dislike all three of those authors.)  She’s an engaging writer with an easy, meandering style.  She’s also legitimately funny, with a scattered sense of cat-centric humour that edges on the dark and inappropriate, and I like that.  But I did not like this book.

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Two years ago I read Lawson’s first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, a somewhat fictionalized account of her life, which depending on how and when you looked at it, could either be deemed charmingly quirky or grounds for about five child endangerment lawsuits.  I suspect that after reading multiple tales of how her father – described as a gregarious Viking of a man with a penchant for taxidermy – traumatized Lawson and her sister with dead squirrels stuffed into popcorn boxes, or her own haphazard attempts to dispose of the family pug’s carrion-nipped corpse, the concern trolls came out in force, probably questioning how her unusual upbringing – and, by extension, the one she was giving to her own young daughter – could in any way be deemed “okay,” or even entertaining literary fodder.

So when it came to Furiously Happy, I can imagine that the overriding editor’s note was to explain that while humorous, and embellished in certain instances, these anecdotes are rooted in the larger issue of the author’s poor mental health.  That Lawson didn’t just bail out on her kid’s recital because she’s a flake that got distracted by a dead animal – you would not believe the number of times this happens – but because she’s MENTALLY ILL.

Which, alarming number of taxidermy stories aside, you’d never know, until Lawson begins shouting it in your face every second page.  The world’s a weird place, and I think most of us are just bumbling through as best we can, beset on all sides by varying degrees of anxiety and depression.  That’s the unfortunate downside to the gift of life – having to live through the thing.  But the situations that Lawson describes as being so very damaging to her existence – and they are, if she’s being in any way truthful – are the things nearly all of us confront every single day.  The social anxiety that keeps us trapped in our homes, the depression that keeps us confined to our beds, the heartbreak we think we couldn’t possibly live through.

If there is an overriding thesis to Furiously Happy, it’s that everyone deals with poor or flagging mental health in different ways, and what works for some people – what apparently works for Lawson is getting so angry at her rebellious mind, she comes right back around the other side to “furiously happy” – does not work for all people.  Getting right with your own head takes time and effort, and nobody’s process is the same.

But not all people have endlessly patient and understanding families, husbands on important business conference calls who allow you to barge into the guest bedroom so you can shriek about feral swans, or publishers willing to finance a trip to Australia where the very best thing you can think to do is behave like an infuriating American tourist in a plushy kangaroo costume (seriously.)  Not all people have children who understand why you bailed on their recital because there’s too many other people there.  Not all people have access to a rotating cadre of therapists, or the necessary funds to even seek out mental health care.  Not all people are bestselling authors who CANNOT shut up about how wacky their lives are because MENTALLY ILL.  I started out the book feeling deeply sympathetic toward Lawson’s condition – as my boys in TOP say in the song Migraine, “Sometimes to stay alive, you’ve gotta kill your mind” – and by the end…well, you can see what I did to the cover.  It was just one vignette after another, all amounting to “I did something wacky/bizarre/borderline certifiable that led to me hurting myself and/or the people around me, but I cannot help myself, I AM MENTALLY ILL.  Isn’t that funny?!”

THAT person is not sympathetic.  But the other side of Lawson’s condition is self-harm and suicidal ideation, and that person IS sympathetic.  No one wants to hear of a person so worn down by life and all its attendant maladies that they just want to check out.  It’s why there’s a justifiable stigma around suicide.  It’s the place most of us just don’t want to go.

And Lawson doesn’t want to go there either.  If anything is clear from Furiously Happy, it’s that she’s a fighter, and for the sake of her family, her friends and her community of readers, she’s going to continue fighting.  I respect that; there’s no other way but forward, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  But the real insights on mental health in this book are so buried beneath its stupid, infuriating veneer of forced wackiness, you can hardly find them.  It’s really asking too much of your readers to guffaw at the inconsequential fight over clothes you had with your husband in one chapter, and then react in sympathetic horror to your bloody self-harm in another.  The tonal and emotional shift is just too great.  I hope Lawson continues the good fight, but I don’t ever need to read another thing she’s written.

I read this book in service of my friends’ reading challenge for the theme of “Yellow/Gold is the color of novelty, so read a yellow novel.”  Consider it read, and now nail art-ed as well, a matte-and-glittery design – and quite yellow, indeed – inspired by the book jacket cover art.

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