February 23, 2012

The Museum of Happiness by Jesse Lee Kercheval

Terrace Books, U of Wisconsin Press

278 pages, 2003, $17.95

This rather involved book of romance, lost and found, ends with the invention of television. At first this seems to come out of nowhere, but in fact TV is metaphoric of the book’s organization, slipping from location to location, present to past (not just in the telling of the story, but in the characters’ own minds). I remember reading Marshall McLuhan in college. He categorized television as a “cool medium” because it took more participation by viewers to match the intensity of novels, movies and even the theater. We may be less personally involved with any one character but can see a wider range – like happens with this book, seeing the young boy Roland as well as the adolescent and adult.

This approach within a book proves complicated. Only at times (Ginny’s searching for her missing lover) do we lose ourselves in the story. Too often we are having to figure out what is happening, when and to whom. This process makes us self-consciously aware of the whole reading/writing process. Most readers (including I, myself who has spent some time in France, Germany and the Alsatian Region) are not that interested in detailed settings in Europe unless they have some connection to these, themselves.

And when I look at the central character, Ginny, whose husband has died, and her infatuation with Roland, I wonder, How much does she really know about him? Or is he just a substitute for the man she lost? We know his background, but does she? Is there any memorable scene of the two of them together where we feel they know they are right for each other. And when they do get together for the birth of their child, it should be happy, but as Kercheval, herself, points out in the excellent Afterword, World War II is on the horizon and it promises even greater horrors than what these people have experienced already.

I don’t know. I guess I would conclude this is a sophisticated treatment of complicated material that doesn’t quite do it for me emotionally. It is best appreciated by people who are in touch with their European heritage. It just doesn’t stand on its own. At best it is heavy handed magic which, like most television content, is easy to forget.

Buy this directly from Amazon. Click title below: Museum Of Happiness: A Novel (Library of American Fiction)


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