Listening to anarchy

Don't ask this man to redecorate your vacation home

In 1993, psychiatrist Peter Kramer wrote a book that drove some critics crazy. "Listening to Prozac" appeared six years after the anti-depressant drug, the most quickly accepted psychotherapeutic medicine in history. Kramer's book and the little white pill rode their respective bestseller lists to the top.

What disturbed some readers was Kramer's willingness to raise serious concerns about the function of Prozac while trumpeting the drug's wonders. Yes, he seemed to say, we're tampering with the most profound elements of what it means to be human, but, heck, it makes people happy.

Now he's moved on to fiction, where his capacity for conflicted honesty and discordant wit can enjoy even broader range.

You could say that "Spectacular Happiness" makes for explosive beach reading. It's about an eco-terrorist who blows up shorefront mansions on Cape Cod. The effect is something like reading "Jaws" from the shark's point of view.

Chip Samuels is a lonely English professor at a junior college. He spends the summers doing small carpentry repairs in vacationers' kitchens, or laying explosives in their basements. But don't worry: He only picks on the really ugly homes.

It all started as a way to help a friend get through a rough struggle with alcohol and abusive men. He's known Sukey Kuykendahl since they were both children, when Chip and his father lived an almost feudal life in a cottage on the Kuykendahl estate. Sukey introduced him to sex in her attic, and, despite their separate paths, she's long exercised influence over him.

It's her idea to start bringing down the offensive trophy mansions that soil the beach. As a leading real estate agent to the rich and powerful, she has convenient access to the victims. Her motives are murky, but when she appeals to Chip's aesthetic taste and Marxist principles, he signs on. "Anarchism redistributes anxiety," he thinks. "How different capitalism looks when owners of second homes share a level of exposure felt more usually by the poor."

Even more important, this may be his chance to live again, to emerge from a decade of quiet depression since his wife departed with their son and insisted he never contact them again. (Their custody battle centered on the use of Ritalin. Kramer's treatment of this troubling episode illustrates that he's no unquestioning supporter of psychiatric drugs.)

The entire novel comes to us as a journal that Chip keeps to explain himself to this long-lost son. It's weirdly provocative, manipulative, and comic. Chip takes such pride in his "installations," carefully planning the placement of small explosions that will render a mansion unstable, encouraging it to tumble under the weight of its own vanity. "My purpose has been gentle wakening," he writes with a clean and witless conscience, "inspiring observers to awareness of what they know already."

No one is ever harmed in these acts of destruction, but he announces each one with a spectacular display of fireworks, a cheery if inarticulate proclamation that another stretch of beach has been freed. "My effort has been a labor of love," he claims.

"For as long as I can remember," Chip notes, "I have found literature a reliable companion, surely the best guide to how to live when we are by ourselves." With friends like this, literature needs no enemies. His narrative is packed with references to 19th-century social novelists and 20th-century social theorists, but somehow all this erudition can't illuminate for him the conflicted currents of his own motives or disturb his placid confidence.

To the public, he makes no statements, preferring to let the random nature of his attacks counter the media's insistence on neat, marketable messages. But into his journal, he pours a relentless flow of earnest Marxist analysis and arcane aesthetic commentary.

It's a testament to Kramer's new abilities as a novelist that he can make this material so compelling and so consistently unsettling. Of course, your sympathy for Chip may be influenced by whether you happen to own a beachside mansion (bombed or unbombed), but woven among his insanely myopic, self-justifying narrative run some undeniably tough points about the social and environmental costs of unbounded capitalism.

In its second half, the story picks up speed, spinning satiric sparks toward the terrorist's vanity, the public's gullibility, and the media's rapaciousness. A carefully orchestrated bit of PR (with wry winks at OJ and Monica) transforms Chip from FBI suspect to NBC commentator.

It's wacky and wicked and brilliant -the sort of novel you want to argue with and about. (Attention, book clubs.) By the end, Kramer has set off explosives throughout the structure of our consumer culture and everything feels dangerously unstable.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

'There is a post-and-beam house that was on our list for weeks, the one at the end of Dr. Fisher's Lane. Two well-placed explosives in the attic would have done the job for the whole. It is a smug, disagreeable house, and the owner had profited from a construction deal that lead to an S&L collapse, so that the money used to buy the beach was ultimately the public's. To target the home would make a neat fable about how capitalism works in practice.'

- From 'Spectacular Happiness'

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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