Hector and the Search for Happiness. Francois Lelord. Penguin Books. 164 pp. $14.
In the October 2010 issue of The Atlantic, B.R. Myers reviews Jonathan Franzen’s latest, Freedom, while simultaneously commenting on the state of language in contemporary American literature. He writes:
[Franzen] hints at no frame of reference from which we are to judge his prose critically. Nor are to imagine that a fool or semiliterate is addressing us. The same narrator who gives us “sucked” and “very into” also deploys compound adjectives, bursts of journalese, and long if synactically crude sentences.
Didn’t Henry David Thoreau famously exclaim, “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” at the end of Walden? While I’m confident he intended the word towards Life, I also find that it applies to literature. Writers these days, unfortunately, seem to disagree. They use large words, complex adjectives, and winded sentences alongside crude metaphor and vulgar phrasing; this is done in order to present themselves as the “type” that props their cheap beer on their copy of Tolstoy so as not to leave a ring on the table.
Thank God for Francois Lelord and his understanding of well-placed language. He does not use big words or complex sentences; he does not swear for the sake of the word (in fact he does not swear at all); and he proves that a writer does not need 500+ pages to tell a story. In fact, in Lelord’s case, a writer only needs 164.
But the brilliance of Hector and the Search for Happiness isn’t that Lelord uses small words, but rather how he constructs those words to create his characters, plots, and settings. Hector is a psychiatrist who “is not very satisfied with himself.” By the bottom of the first page, we know what Hector looks like, what his office looks like, and what his patients think of him. The plot itself is given away in the title: Hector is searching for happiness.
And this journey is kept floating on clouds through what can only be described as whimsy. Over the past few years, contemporary literature has begun to overexert itself into trying to convince the reader that the characters actually exist. They will go into exorbitant detail to give you every possible background angle to explain every last behavioral trait, when in reality the reader doesn’t care all that much. Hector is told to sound like a story. He makes his decisions, he follows the plot, and things happen to him as a result. If the reason behind the decision doesn’t affect the story in the book, it is not revealed. Oddly enough, because Hector is clearly a narrative, he seems more real than any character who is laid out naked for the world to see.
Reading Hector is like eating a vanilla ice cream cone on an August day. It’s sweet, simple, and once it’s over you are content with yourself and with the treat you have just consumed. Francois Lelord is most definitely one to watch for.