Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 34 (3/9) -- Happyface by Stephen Emond

Adolescence is all about the creation of an adult self -- not in any New-Agey, touchy-feely "finding yourself" sense, but in the very real (and generally messy) process of building a personality and a life from the things you like and enjoy and are good at. Teenagers often lurch from one interest to another, or one style to another, or even one whole personality to another, as they try to work out just who they might become, what kind of person they can stand being. Happyface is another one in a long line of novels for those teens, about one young man who decides to change his entire life when he starts at a new school early in his sophomore year. But it's also more interesting than that, since it's told in both words (typeset in a scripty-looking font, as if it were handwriting) and the drawings of that young man, plus a few e-mail printouts and other ephemera.

The boy -- who never reveals his real name -- is writing his story down in a journal his parents gave him for Christmas. In a touch that I can relate to -- ask me about the piles of toys and stuff for my own sons that sit, unopened, from Christmas until at least midsummer every year -- he only pulls out that journal and starts to write and draw in it in the middle of the following summer. What he most wants to write about will come as no surprise to anyone who ever was a teenager -- it's the girl he's completely nuts about, Chloe Hills. Chloe is the narrator's best friend, which is slightly unrealistic given how their interests -- her: ballet, academics; him: drawing, being a quiet wallflower -- and social status and even home life seem to have nothing in common. But take that as a given: Chloe is gorgeous, she likes to hang out with and be friends with the narrator, but she's not his girlfriend, and he's never managed to get the courage to come within twenty miles of asking her out.

Happyface's narrator also sketches the rest of his family -- his parents are borderline alcoholics (as least, that's how he sees them) whose relationship has soured into ongoing low-level fights and a frosty inability to relate to each other anymore, and his older brother Everett is the popular, outgoing jock that Emond's narrator always wishes he could be. The journal only has a few sparse entries through July and August, setting the scene and putting those characters into place. And then something horrible happens in late August, just before the school year starts.

Emond's narrator doesn't explain that something horrible, just refers to it, which is a great touch: it's both realistic and gives Happyface some narrative tension. All the reader knows at first is that the narrator's parents have split up, possibly for good, that something unpleasant happened to Chloe or Everett or both, and that the narrator is now living with his mother in a small apartment in the town of Crest Falls.

And that's the birth of Happyface. The narrator take an oath (on p.46, in the self-important tone that only teenagers can do honestly) --
I swear, with Chloe Bear as my witness... That my problems and failures will not stop me. That I will continue to be my own person. That I will let go of everyone and stand on my own. That life is too short, and I will live every day as the best person I can be. That I will grow and that I will change. That I will smile and hold my head high. That my smile will mean something, and it will not crack. That this is a new start and a new day. That I will not stand in the piss. That I will never stand in the piss again.
It's inspiring, and it works -- he acts happy, he tries to be happy, and he finds that he is happy...more than he was before, at least. In his new school, he starts making friends -- first the fellow outsider Mike, then the strange girls "Frog" and Oddly/Audrey, then the new pretty girl he's developed a crush on, Gretchen, and her friends. They start calling him "Happyface," and the name sticks.

But Emond isn't interested with a message as simple as "if you act happy, you'll be happy," and Happyface's life doesn't immediately turn into a path of roses. He's still an introvert, so acting happy and friendly is a continual effort. And his family, which was dysfunctional to begin with, works even less well when it's just he and his mother in a small apartment. And Happyface -- at least partially modeled on Everett's lackadaisical attitude -- isn't nearly as serious about his schoolwork as his predecessor was. Before long, Happyface is falling into the same habits of mind as his previous unnamed self -- most obviously crushing on Gretchen like he crushed on Chloe, and finding himself utterly unsure of how "Happyface" should move forward. No transformation is complete; no one can escape who he already is and has been.

So being happy and friendly will not be the final answer for Happyface; before the novel is over, he'll see that there are situations that being positive about won't solve, and that there are parts of his personality that hold him back, and have nothing to do with a negative, frowning attitude. There's no simple fix, to high-school popularity as with any other major problem.

Happyface falls somewhere in between a pure novel and a graphic novel; there are very few successions of panels, and those are usually sidebar joke strips. Emond's art is on every page, but it functions as illustration for the prose story most of the time; it's not superfluous, but Happyface would be a very similar book without the art. So it's only moderately successful on that count; it could have been stronger and more of an integrated work of prose and comics (or prose and illustration). But Emond's art has an age-authentic, quick-sketch appeal, and he's particularly good at caricature. (Very appropriate, since he draws Happyface as a giant round smiley-face for a head.) Similarly, his story isn't new -- but, then, what realistic teen story is new after two generations of problem novels? -- but is told strongly and with energy. Emond came from the world of comics -- his major project before this was a series called Emo Boy, which ran a dozen issues -- so it's quite likely that the next time out he'll feel more comfortable incorporating more comics into his novel.

Happyface is a very enjoyable teen novel, with a great narrator and a strong sense of what it's like to be both an outsider kid and a teen that's almost part of the in crowd. And it'll give any reader great ammunition when talking to the people who insist that the solution to every problem is to "just smile!"

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Gladshot - All I Want Is You
via FoxyTunes

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