Reading guide for Spectacular Happiness by Peter D. Kramer

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Spectacular Happiness

by Peter D. Kramer

Spectacular Happiness
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jul 2001, 320 pages
    Jun 2002, 320 pages

  • Rate this book

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

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?

Discussion Points
  1. 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?

  2. 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?

  3. Chip tells us his therapist felt he was too timid and withdrawn.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?

  4. 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?

  5. "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 astray?

  6. "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?

  7. "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?

  8. "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?

  9. 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 devoted father?

  10. 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?

  11. "[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 divorce rate?

  12. "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?

  13. 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?

  14. 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?

  15. 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"?

  16. 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.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Of Arms and Artists
    Of Arms and Artists
    by Paul Staiti
    In the late eighteenth-century, the United States of America was still an emerging country, ...
  • Book Jacket: So Say the Fallen
    So Say the Fallen
    by Stuart Neville
    Noir crime fiction – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett anyone? – is an American invention...
  • Book Jacket: The Mothers
    The Mothers
    by Brit Bennett
    Every now and then the publishing industry gushes about a young author destined to become the next ...
Book Discussions
Book Jacket
The Bone Tree
by Greg Iles

An epic trilogy of blood and race, family and justice.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Cruel Beautiful World
    by Caroline Leavitt

    A fast moving page-turner about the naiveté of youth and the malignity of power.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Comet Seekers
    by Helen Sedgwick

    A magical, intoxicating debut novel, both intimate and epic.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    North of Crazy
    by Neltje

    The remarkable life of a woman who carves her own singular path.

    Read Member Reviews

Win this book!
Win The World of Poldark

Win the book & DVD

Enter to win The World of Poldark and the full first series on DVD.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

One S D N M A S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.


Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!

Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.