Excerpt from Spectacular Happiness by Peter D. Kramer, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Spectacular Happiness

by Peter D. Kramer

Spectacular Happiness
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2001, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2002, 320 pages

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Turning in to the house, we headed up the beach stairs and then passed beside fat pilings, sunk deep through the dune, anchoring the deck and great room above. Sukey punched in the code to the outside alarm and admitted us to a ground-level mudroom -- more exactly, a sandroom -- that would later be for me what a space station air lock is for an astronaut in the movies, a place to brush off and don work clothes. She disarmed the second system, from a keypad in the mudroom closet, and we climbed the steps to the main floor.

I felt no fear. I do not want you to imagine that your father is a brave man. You have nothing to live up to on that score. But for a long while after you left, my capacity for fear was muted. What more had I to lose?

Though the exterior looked Victorian, indoors all was modern -- cavernousness meant to denote wealth. The great room was vaulted in limed red oak, the walls held apart by enormous rough oak beams, salvaged timbers from old ships. Hanging from them incongruously were chandeliers made of Chihuly glass -- translucent purple cones melting over one another, like a braid of radioactive jalapeños. The effect of the whole was bombast. Bombast and shoddy workmanship. The framing did not sit tight on the windows, the floor had already settled to the north side. The floorboards were face-nailed, but they had not been properly spaced and the sealant had been applied too thick, so that the boards were panelized and had begun to cup. The baseboard molding had not been scribed to the floor. Sand was finding its way under a door, and two skylights leaked. I thought, It wants to come down. There was Sukey's genius, knowing that I was sensitive to place. The Giampiccolo house spoke to me. It asked to be destroyed.


I remember when you were five bringing you to the home of a classmate who was new to your kindergarten. The house was a sterile, barnlike affair in a development at the far northern tip of Sesuit, a cluster perched atop a hostile bluff no one had thought to build on until the Cape became so popular that every inch turned valuable. I walked you up the path and into the entry. Your friend was there, armed with a Nerf gun and ready to play. But you looked around the house and out the sliders to the bay in the distance, and you began to cry. It was the vastness, I think, in contrast to the snugness of our cottage. Your friend's house did not feel to you like a place where people should live. Take me home, you insisted. I could not calm you. You left and would not return. So I suspect houses have spoken to you as well.

Perhaps they should not. When I was in college, the essays of the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet were required reading for young radicals. Your mother lent me her copy, to bring me along ideologically. Robbe-Grillet's theme was the danger of investing objects with metaphorical meaning. Man must face the unresponsiveness of his surround. The world is not significant. It is simply other.

Robbe-Grillet's own method was to fill a novel with objects and then render those objects unreliable. Obsessively, repetitiously, he would describe a set of window blinds, or an eraser such as a child might carry in a pencil box. These incidentals were at the center of his work, but the depictions of them were inconsistent -- neither the eraser nor the novel's plotline could be grasped. That was Robbe-Grillet's principle, construire en détruisant, creation of meaning through destruction of expectations.

Robbe-Grillet was especially dismissive of old novels -- Zola's or Balzac's -- in which house and owner suffer identical fates. No matter how progressive the novelist's ideology, the old false realism sustains overly reassuring beliefs about man's place in the material world. For the new novelist, a house is only a house, incomprehensible, external, opaque.

I was poisoned young by the old novel. Sukey's mom's house had a library whose walls were lined with leather-bound sets: Dickens and Trollope, Eliot and Hardy, and, yes, Zola and Balzac. It would be understatement to say that those books were more real to me than daily life. They were what made daily life real. Daily life made no sense to me until I saw it through the lens of those books.

Copyright © 2001 by Peter D. Kramer

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