Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 171

How To Be Happy

by Eleanor Davis
Genre notes: short stories, utpoia
152 pages
ISBN: 1606997408 (Amazon)

Eleanor Davis spends almost the entirety of How to Be Happy offering a delicious exploration of the tie between utopia and dystopia, between paradise and infernal paradise. It’s a fine balancing act, funambulating between hope and despair, but she travels back and forth the distance with sure feet. On only two occasions amongst the collection of shorts does Davis overtly invoke the concepts of utopia and dystopia (once even going so far as to use the word dystopia itself), but for the most part she keeps the theme as mere atmospheric hum. One could be forgiven for not using the idea of earthly paradise as a governing filter for the work if it weren’t for the book’s title, How to Be Happy.

Utopia, the word, is derived from two pieces. The first, eu-, means “good” and sees itself in common English use in euthanasia and euphemism. The second, topos, means place and we see this term crop up in the cartographic practice of mapping topography. Utopia, then, is a good place, a kingdom of peace and security. Of happiness. A society coming to a place of peace via learning how to be happy is an essential piece of utopian presence. Without a general sense of happiness (no matter how broadly we define happiness) amongst the beneficiaries of a society, we have no utopia.

But while Davis occasionally speaks to the books’ ruling concept in terms of societal shifts (especially in the second short, “Nita Goes Home,” and on a smaller paleosocietal sense in the first story, “In Our Eden”), she mainly concerns herself with examining the attempts to escape dystopia in the detritus of much smaller-scale kingdoms. A boy seeks to perfect the world of his experience by maintaining ultimate control over a younger boy’s interactions with him by a mix of psychological and physical aggressions (“Thomas the Leader”). A musician exercises a pacific effect over the animals of the wilderness through the sound of his guitar and seeks to bring an animal woman into his domain through the same tools, even against her nature (“Sticks and Strings”). A woman submits herself to the tutoring (governance) of a personal growth guru in order to find peace and joy in the world through tears (“No tears, No Sorrow”). In another, a young man becomes friends and more with a young woman because of his ardent interest in the woman’s father, only to be discovered by the reader (in a perfect fourth-wall moment) capitulating to the woman’s sexual advances in opposition to What He Really Wants (“Summer Snakes”). There are other stories, but the final narrative note seems to underscore the thesis (and echo in a way Vonnegut’s own utopian solutions), suggesting that the human mind in its present state is the chief obstacle to utopia and we are better off freeing ourselves from its dystopic tyranny. She leaves the means to that end unstated and amorphous—whether by suicide or pharmaceutical intervention or altered mindstates or metaterrestial intervention—and this story collection is probably more palatable for the ambiguity, because while we’re happy to be given an inkling of her answer, the American way is to bristle at any lifestyle solution that is offered as anything close to an actual suggestion.

How to Be Happy appears as a dialogue or argument between a handful of ideologies unaware of each other’s presence. They don’t interact directly and orate as if theirs was the only voice in the room. Davis emphasizes this sense by illustrating many of these episodes using entirely different techniques and employing entirely different styles. One story appears as a colourful screenprint with absolutely no linework. The next could have been drawn with a Uni-Ball and features an oversaturation of watercolours. One has very detailed illustrations with strong negative space and sepia tones, another is washed and gentle with mysterious and lovely creatures, another is straight black-and-white with drawings that call to mind the childhood adventures of Nate Powell’s Any Empire. And there’s more. Davis is clearly talented and diverse. If one wasn’t aware, it would be easy to mistake Davis for the collection’s editor and the individual stories as the anthologic production of a number of artists

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