Don't worry, be happy! Worry, don't be happy!

Novelists launch a counter-attack on the self-help movement

Forget the problem of evil. The problem of goodness gets all the attention lately. Nick Hornby took a stab with "How To Be Good," a comic novel just out in paperback that shows the destruction of an average family when Dad devotes his life to charity. Carol Shields's recent "Unless" pursues essentially the same plot, but this time, it's the daughter who disrupts life with her decision to drop out of college and pursue virtue. And now, let's all give a warm Monitor hug to "Happiness(TM)," a zany comedy by Will Ferguson in which the world is derailed by the ultimate self-help book.

One theme is clear in these witty novels: Goodness is boring. And a radical pursuit of goodness is downright dangerous. Of course, they're not the first to come to that conclusion. No less a Puritan than John Milton gave all the good lines in "Paradise Lost" to Satan, while Christ is a sort of obsequious doormat, the kind of person you'd like to live next door to, but never hang out with.

In Hornby's "How To Be Good," the first symptom of Dad's devotion to charity is an alarming drop in sarcasm. Suddenly, he speaks with "the slow, over-confident patience of a recently created angel ... in phrases from 'Thought for the Day.' " His wife assumes he's suffered some kind of brain damage.

The mother in Shields's "Unless" notices a similarly frightening change in her daughter. She sits on a street corner begging – "brimming with goodness," her voice "emptied of connection." The narrator checks out a book from the library called "The Goodness Gap" and makes a half-hearted effort to understand her daughter's pursuit of virtue, but deep down she's terrified by such radicalism. She can't help regarding her own quest for goodness with light doses of irony.

In "Happiness(TM)," Ferguson prefers vats of bitter sarcasm to light doses of irony. He's written what he calls "Apocalypse Nice," a story that "tells of a devastating plague of human happiness, an epidemic of warm fuzzy hugs." He confesses in the introduction that the novel grew out of a casual comment by a publicist: "If anyone ever wrote a self-help book that actually worked, we'd all be in trouble."

This "what if" premise doesn't make for the most profound exploration into the nature of goodness. "Happiness(TM)" is to theology as "Flubber" is to chemistry, but it's still sometimes very funny.

The narrator is a glib misanthrope named Edwin. Since abandoning his original career plans to become a professional bon vivant, he's worked as a nonfiction editor for a large New York publishing firm. Panderic publishes 250 books a year "that range from celebrity diet fads to 40-pound vampire gothics." Much of his time is spent wading through the slush pile of manuscripts, "where dreams come to die." He's looking for something "so humorless and slowly paced, so plodding and laden with arcana, that you just know it has to be Great Literature."

One day, he receives a manuscript that looks horrible even by Panderic standards. The cover letter – adorned with daisy stickers – promises that "What I Learned on the Mountain" will "provide happiness to anyone who reads it. It will help people lose weight and stop smoking. It will cure gambling addiction, alcoholism, and drug dependency. It will help people achieve inner balance. It will show them how to release their left-brain intuitive creative energy, find empowerment, seek solace, make money, enjoy life, and improve their sexual lives. Readers will become more confident, more self-reliant, more considerate, more connected, more at peace. It will also help them improve their posture and spelling, and it will give their lives meaning and purpose."

If you haven't spent time in a mall bookstore recently, you may think this is a bit over the top, but, in fact, it's impossible to exaggerate the banality of the self-help genre.

Just this week I received "It's Never Too Late To Be Happy!" by Muriel James, who claims to have sold more than 4 million copies. Her book doesn't have any daisy stickers, but it does have a well-adjusted bouquet on the cover, and the chapter headings are written in type that looks like enthusiastic handwriting: "Self-Contracting for Happiness!"

I also received "How To Be Happy, Dammit: A Cynic's Guide to Spiritual Happiness," by Karen Salmansohn. It's a shiny, square gift book that looks remarkably like Ferguson's parody. (Yes, even with a big daisy on the front.) The design of these books suggests that the real evil they hope to cure is dull typography. In kooky fonts, Salmansohn dispenses wisdom like "Life Lesson #6: Never go shopping for kiwis in a shoe store."

Surely, Ferguson had such books in mind when he wrote this wacky, often clunky satire. In his dark vision of a chronically nice future, "Everything I Learned on the Mountain" becomes a wild bestseller that does everything it promised.

But worldwide satisfaction wreaks havoc on the economy: Who needs alcohol, fashion, or makeup once we've all learned to "Live! Love! Learn!"? Having published the sacred text that caused this tidal wave of saccharine, poor Edwin finds himself a lone crusader out to save civilization – warts and all (particularly warts).

There's a surprisingly old-fashioned Puritanism in these witty modern novels by Hornby, Shields, and Ferguson. Each betrays a deep anxiety about the pursuit of happiness, suggesting that it's necessarily humorless, simpleminded, or fanatical. They take a kind of Calvinistic offense at any radical devotion to self-improvement, as though it violated their faith in Original Sin.

In light of this standoff between giddy self-help manuals and witty satires of them, it was a relief earlier this month to see Leif Enger's "Peace Like a River" win the American Bookseller Association's award for best novel of the year. In an unlikely story that's part Western, part Gospel, he tells about a Christly janitor who insists that his children answer violence with peace. He makes high demands on love, but he never laces up the goody two shoes. When times are tough, he sweats blood, and the sacred text he consults has no daisies on it. Enger's novel pursues not a middle ground, but a higher ground, demonstrating that radical goodness – despite what so many books suggest – needn't be silly, destructive, or dull.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com. Past reviews of the novels mentioned here can be read at www.csmonitor.com.

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