Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Though it is built around the elements of a comic thriller
-- explosions, mobsters, federal agents, and a man on the run -- Spectacular
Happiness proves to be a romance and a thoughtful exploration of the nature
of happiness: What sort of private contentment is possible in a culture focused
on achievement, accumulation, and celebrity?
How does the form in which this novel is written -- a
series of diary entries by the protagonist -- enhance the story it tells? Does
it succeed in focusing attention on the book's central themes of intimacy and
disrupted family life? How would the novel and our response to the main
character be different if its narrative were told more conventionally -- in
the third person, for example?
In his "interventions" on beachfront homes,
Chip claims to take care to avoid harming people -- to create absurdist
theater. Is Free the Beaches a terrorist movement? To what range of activities
can the tem terrorism apply? How do you think Chip's actions would be
received in the current climate?
Chip tells us his therapist felt he was too timid and
withdrawn. "When will you swing boldly into life? he asked. I have tried
of late to answer that challenge" (pages 44-45). Chip discusses a number
of philosophical motives behind the Free the Beaches movement, but might there
be psychological explanations for his behavior, as the above quote suggests?
Are there motives that Chip does not himself acknowledge?
One of the professed targets of the Free the Beaches
movement is the "society of the spectacle," which American
capitalism creates. When Chip strikes a deal to appear as a commentator on
television, does he compromise his opposition to spectacle? Or, does he
cleverly turn the weapons of capitalism inward? Is Chip's public success a
victory or a defeat for his ideals?
"For as long as I can remember, I have found
literature a reliable companion, surely the best guide to how we live when we
are by ourselves" (page 23). How does Chip's devotion to literature
inform his character? Does literature illuminate Chip's world or lead him
"I find destruction to be an alternate form of
collecting. A way to invite consideration of objects, their origin and
function. Destruction preserves a culture at a moment, its artifacts, on
videotape and in memory" (page 68). How is the Free the Beaches movement
an act of preservation or documentation? Can destruction represent a valid
form of political or creative expression?
"A man needs a calling and an awareness that it
is a calling. As a specific against the nausea caused by tasks and goals the
society imposes..." (page 77). Does Chip turn to destroying houses to
express inner feeling -- rage over his wife's leaving with his son, or ennui
with an emotionally empty existence -- or does it represent his vocation, the
project toward which his life has been building?
"But then radicalism rests on the assumption
that normative behavior can be deranged. Who, taking any distance from his
life, would choose to be as inattentive to moral consequence as the average
successful American?" (pages 83-84). Is it fair to say that the behavior
of the average successful American is morally inattentive? Is the Free the
Beaches movement justified in its attempt to waken citizens to the moral
consequences of consumerism?
Chip's "summer of reading" shows him to be
a dedicated parent. Is his later acquiescence to Anias -- when he lets her
take their son, Hank -- a fulfillment or an abdication of the role of the
When Hank's elementary school teacher wants him to
start taking Ritalin, Chip stubbornly resists. Does Chip's refusal reflect, or
contradict, the author's uneasy relationship with psychiatric medication as
explored in Listening to Prozac?
"[F]rom early days I had subscribed to Miss
Havisham's formulation, that real love is blind devotion, unquestioning
self-humiliation, utter submission" (page 120). How do Chip's
feelings for Anais influence his behavior after she leaves him? Is the
romantic ideal viable in a culture with practical values and a fifty percent
"Arguments about justice trouble me. In an
unjust society there is no privileged spot from which the right can be seen,
as regards individuals" (page 178). Chip claims that his project is not
intended to render justice against the homeowners. What, then, is his intent?
Is he successful?
Why does Chip consider the famous destruction of the
Woodcock house a failure and his first mistake? Is he right? What does this
judgment say about his personality?
In the second section, "Celebrity," the
novel becomes more openly satirical. Does the portrayal of Chip's ascension to
fame -- the televised limousine ride, the sympathetic demonstrators, the Today
show appearance -- succeed in broadening the novel's scope? What do the comic
scenes suggest about the role and nature of celebrity today?
In the last section of the novel, Chip must revert
from lawless saboteur to responsible father. He contrasts the roles by
claiming that the task of fatherhood is "averting the improbable
catastrophe." But are there ways in which Chip's anarchism prepares him
for fatherhood? Do we imagine him a better father in the end than he was
during the "summer of reading"?
Does the book have a happy ending, or is it
bittersweet? Is Chip's reunion with Anais a victory? Is Chip right when he
says that imperfect or compromised contentment is the best one can hope for at
this moment in history?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Scribner.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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