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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For years I thought I was living in Great Expectations. (Lady Chatterley's Lover might have been more to the point, but I had not yet read that book, and it was some time before I understood the relationship between my dad and Sukey's mom.) I expected to be scorned by the pretty girl in the big house. I expected the houses of the corrupt to fall to the ground.

For me, houses have always been noble or degraded, humble or overbearing. Or think of the ocean. It is freedom and comfort and danger and return and tedium and cleansing and renewal and power and endlessness and indifference and home. What would it be to see the ocean and not find meaning? Hardly human. That is why the Free the Beaches movement has succeeded, because the ocean signifies. The ocean is what is beyond man. We may be on the ocean or in it or beside it, but it is never ours. Someone blows up a beachfront house, and no matter what the pundits say, the public thinks, By golly it is strange to believe a strip of ocean belongs to a person. The idea is precisely absurd. And if this nugget of capitalism is absurd, perhaps we should reconsider the whole.

Which is not to say that in struggling to devise a narrative style for the Movement I dismissed Robbe-Grillet. No modern storyteller can ignore what he has to say about the importance of inconsistency. Neat patterns, even within a program of explosions, are too reassuring, their message too easily debunked or co-opted. We chose certain houses at random, so as to cede control of meaning.

And though I know I do not use it as Robbe-Grillet intends, I admire that phrase, to create through destruction. Its influence is evident in our well-wrought dramas, the ones that contradict Robbe-Grillet. A house sits presumptuously on a fragile dune, overlooking a bay. The house is a character, reflecting aspects of its builder, its owner, and the society that sanctions its use. The dune and bay are characters, too. When the explosives go off, we are satisfied because we know, all of us, that this story evolves from the characters' nature. Destruction brings forth a tale that has wanted to be told.


In Giampiccolo's great room, I had an inkling of that tale. I did not yet know how perfect the setup was. Sukey had not shown me the woodshop. She had not told me of Giampiccolo's circumstances nor how she had influenced them. But as I stood beside her, I experienced a change in my apprehension of my surroundings. The room was gray, but now the gray had nuance. It was dove gray, or rather pigeon gray, brightened by iridescent pinks and purples. I was like one of those people whose sight or hearing has been restored, the type you read about in popular medical essays. I enjoyed a pleasant incomprehension of the familiar. What were these goods arrayed before me?

Perhaps it was only that the light was dim. The broad panes of glass had been shuttered against the autumn wind. Clouds showed through skylights, and fog through transom windows above the French doors. In the sitting area at the bayside end, track lights flooded the occasional sculpture. A timing mechanism had gone awry. From a second sitting area, behind the dining table -- bowling-alley length, to entertain who knows what obscene crowd -- a television added its glow. Another precaution against burglars, or a mistake by whoever was here last. On-screen, a businessman described how he had made a fortune in telemarketing. The interviewer looked bored. She wore a mauve jacket with pointed lapels. Her lips, also mauve, were like pillows. The man planned to bring telemarketing into inner-city tenements, so welfare mothers could enter the job market from their own apartments. Close-up on the mauve lips. It could have been a student video project, The Way We Live Now.

Sukey and I stood near the kitchen amidst a welter of displayed possessions: cookware and crystal, porcelain and paintings, CD racks and speakers. No doubt models that bespoke power, though not in a language I understand. I did recognize a pair of John Dowds. No reason you should know him -- a landscape painter who is in his own way a name brand here. Tawdry cottages against vibrant skies, the old Cape. To hang them in this obscene behemoth of a house -- perhaps a joke on the part of a decorator.

Copyright © 2001 by Peter D. Kramer

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